Photography as Memoir

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 12/08/09More articles
Doug DuBois signs book, shows new work

Introducing the photographer Doug DuBois at Light Work last Thursday night, gallery director Hannah Frieser said, “We especially appreciate the special relationship we’ve built with Doug since he came to Syracuse. We knew him before, but since he came here to teach he’s strengthened photo on campus and he’s tightened the relationship between Light Work and Visual and Performing Arts and Transmedia. But it’s easy to take Doug for granted because he’s always around and we see him. If you talk to people elsewhere, in other cities, you will hear that they know his work and how well regarded he is – that he’s quite important nationally.”

Frieser went on to tick off some of the major venues where DuBois’ work has shown in the U.S. – the Getty in Los Angeles, MoMA and Higher Pictures in New York, the Langston in San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston – without going on to those abroad. The occasion was a talk by DuBois about his new book and other projects he’s working on now, followed by a book signing. His All the Days and Nights was published earlier this year by Aperture and released here and in England. The title comes from a short story by New Yorker editor William Maxwell about a man who goes searching “not exactly” for his memories but for “evidence of his existence in the world.”

All the Days and Nights is a collection of 62 large-format color photographs that DuBois has chosen from those he made of his family over 25 years. They chronicle his father’s severe accident and lengthy recovery – he had fallen off a commuter train – along with his mother’s evident depression and the decline of their marriage, aging just by virtue of time passing, a teen-aged sister and later her children, assorted moments from daily life and holidays.

DuBois said he started the project as a book in 2003 during a residency at the MacDowell artists’ colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The novelist Donald Antrim was there at the same time, writing a memoir about his mother, and out of their conversations he has furnished an introduction to the book that explains it as memoir – for its authorial nature, its maker’s intent to publish, its conception as one story, its very risk of “disturbing the structures that hold relationships in place” by what the private things it reveals.

“I wanted someone who would place the book in the practice of memoir,” DuBois said. “Because it takes those liberties – I cheat a little, there are gaps, there is editing. After all, there are just 62 images that span 25 years. The book has no captions, no dates, and you begin to – I think, I hope – invent a narrative about these people. The natural edit for ending the book was my parents’ divorce.”

DuBois said the first person he showed the book’s first edit to was Light Work’s Jeff Hoone. He set himself a deadline for finishing it by “calling MoMA and saying, ‘I have a book’ and they gave me a date and that was the deadline. Then I turned to John [Mannion, who heads digital imaging at Light Work] to make the book I too to show them.”

DuBois read from the book’s Afterword while showing a selection of images from the new book. He also showed images of newer projects. One was a series of images of young people at loose ends, often drinking, that DuBois worked on during a residency at the art center in Cork, Ireland. Another is the documentation of literally the first moment of arrival of a Somali family of refugees at Hancock Airport.

“In the United States, the moment of the immigrant’s arrival is a mythic moment,” said DuBois. “Most people don’t have an image of that moment. The U.S. had agreed to take an entire tribe that was especially at risk – the Bantu – and Syracuse has taken three hundred or so.”

DuBois had support in this project from Daoud Achmed, who works for Catholic Charities refugee resettlement project on Park Street and came to last week’s event with several other Somalis. The project expanded when he took DuBois to Central Village housing project on the South Side, where many of the group has settled, and also to the Boys & Girls Club on Van Buren Street. These images range from the Somali community’s soccer team to the Muslim calling to prayer performed five times daily in the neighborhood.

Some of DuBois’ images are painstakingly constructed and others taken very much spontaneously. He said that he photographed more quickly with the Ireland pictures than ever before. In discussing one image from the book – a pack of toy dinosaurs belonging to his nephew advance across a bedroom floor before an open window with sheer curtains – he recounted the hours of staging an image can take.

“Then I was so frustrated I only took one shot,” he said. “You never do that! But I don’t consider the spontaneous ones any more or less beautiful than the ones I entirely construct.”

Doug DuBois’ photobook “All the Days and Nights” is available at Light Work Gallery, SU Book Store and online. Light Work is also offering a limited edition print of an image from the book. Read this and other arts and entertainment coverage from Eagle Newspapers at – click A&E. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

TAGS: Photography as Memoir,Light Work Syracuse,SU Light Work,photographer Doug DuBois,Hannah Frieser,All the Days and Nights,Aperture
EDITION: The Eagle

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