Visual Culture

Doug DuBois’s Portraits Capture the Intimacy of Aging and the American Family

In 1985, when was in his mid-20s—just out of college and pursuing a dream to become a photographer—his father fell from a commuter train. “After the accident, all of this happened,” DuBois explains, cocking his head towards a group of images that show his father lying on a hospital bed, his leg shored up with braces. “I started these, at least initially, as a way to just keep it together. The camera offers a kind of emotional protection; I used it as a way to distance myself, rationalize things, and, quite literally, frame the experience. Then it took on its own momentum.”
Since then, DuBois has photographed his family as part of an ongoing, 30-year project, the spoils of which are currently on view in his first mid-career retrospective at Aperture. Aptly titled “In Good Time,” the show assembles three of DuBois’s long-term series—“All the Days and Nights,” “Avella,” and “My Last Day at Seventeen”—which track the shape-shifting nature of family, relationships, and aging with mesmerizing candor. “I was nervous, putting the three series together, that each would suffer,” DuBois explains, surveying the show of some 51 photographs. “But now, I see these threads running through everything—about family, memory, loss, and a certain sense of fortitude.”
DuBois, known by a boyish chin dimple and two earrings that dangle from his left ear, is standing at the entrance of the show, in front of one of his earliest photographs from 1984, titled My Sister Lise, Christmas Eve. In it, his sister Lise is 21 years old and getting dressed for Christmas Eve dinner. She stands in front of a vanity, scrutinizing her outfit while surrounded by a tornado of castoff clothes, makeup, perfume bottles, and a dollhouse. It’s an intimate portrait of family, but also a distillation of adolescence: a woman coming of age, caught in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood. One of the image’s 10 editions was purchased by MoMA when DuBois was just 25, and a few years later was included the museum’s watershed photography show “Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort.” Even then, the exhibition’s press release presaged the impact of DuBois’s photographs, summing them up as “moments that only an insider might notice are rendered with an intimacy that only an insider could possess.”
As time went on, DuBois applied his knack for capturing intimate moments to communities outside of his blood line. In “Avella,” he returned to the rural Pennsylvania town where his father grew up, turning his camera to the people who still live there amongst crumbling buildings and boarded up homes—a result of the area’s declining mining industry. It’s a melancholy study of sense of place, not to mention well-timed escape—DuBois grew up in very different circumstances, a smartly-appointed home in suburban New Jersey. And for DuBois’s most recent series, “My Last Day at Seventeen,” he returned to a small, working-class town in Ireland several times over the course of five years, focusing on a group of hard-living teenagers. Images like Lenny on the Steps, Cobh, Ireland (2009) and Jordan Up the Pole, Russell Heights, Cobh, Ireland (2010) show adolescent bravado at its most potent. Lenny, at 13, already drank and smoked like a sailor, as DuBois explains, while Jordan was known across town for his pole-scaling antics.
Along the walls of the show, a narrative of family and aging unspools—Lenny and Lise age, DuBois’s father heals, and DuBois’s mother descends into the depths of depression. They endure divorce, even suicide attempts, but they also embrace, celebrate, and see the world. Across from the image of 21-year-old Lise, two striking portraits feel like the thesis, or perhaps the coda, to the show. Both taken in the early 2000s, Lise in the Morning, Ithaca, New York, 2004 shows DuBois’s sister, here in her 40s, just after a shower. Her hair is wrapped tightly in a white towel, revealing a face in the midst of transformation—her youthful eyes are edged with the beginnings of wrinkles. Next to her, in My Mother, Oldwick, New Jersey, 2001, DuBois’s mother stares intently at the camera, her face solemn but radiant. “She was about to sit down for me, but she felt self-conscious and insecure, so she got up and put a whole bunch of face cream on her face,” DuBois remembers. “It gave her face a sheen, and it just sort of accented all the emotions which were now quite literally on the surface of her skin—everything she was struggling with.”
Not long before, DuBois’s parents had broken up after a decades-long marriage. “That was a hard moment, here she’s still getting used to getting up alone in this big house that she’s shared with my father for so many years. That’s not an easy task,” he explains. “But she had courage, and that comes through here.” Indeed, taken individually, DuBois’s images capture the intimate ups and downs of individual lives. Seen together, though, they double as a searing glossary of human emotions—melancholy, insecurity, pride, and resilience.

In Good Time, photographs by Doug DuBois,” curated by Cory Jacobs, is on view at Aperture, New York, Mar. 24–May 19, 2016. The exhibition is organized by Aperture Foundation in partnership with The Hermès Foundation.
Alexxa Gotthardt