"Was it really that bad?" That's what Roger DuBois asked after seeing his son Doug's photograph of their family's 1987 New Year's Eve celebration. In it, the DuBois clan sits silently and glumly around a corked champagne bottle. Roger looks at his feet. His wife Ruth and his daughter Lise stare blankly at opposite walls. And his younger son Luke looks emotionlessly at the camera. Given that the photograph was taken soon after Ruth's attempted suicide, and a few years before the couple's divorce, was the photograph predicting the events that were to come?
Well yes and no, and that's what makes things interesting: Doug DuBois had taken more than 19 shots from the same vantage over the course of that New Year's Eve, many in which his family were talking and drinking, some in which they looked happy. He only chose to keep one. Which is to say that DuBois's photograph presents one version of the past. He's weaving a story.
What are the themes of this story? What are its characters' fates? And what does its narrative tell us about its creator? These are the questions posed by DuBois's photos, which are currently on display at the Aperture gallery in New York as part of a powerful mid-career retrospective titled In Good Time.
The exhibition collects work from the three long-term projects that DuBois completed over 32 years. The first is All the Days and Nights, DuBois's intimate chronicle of his family life that was begun in 1984, just as he was heading out for grad school and completed 24 years later.
Structured around major events—his father's near-fatal accident on a commuter train, his mother's subsequent depression and suicide attempts, their marriage's dissolution—All the Days is DuBois's attempt to give a shape and meaning to the countless days that his family spent together. As he does for the New Year's Eve photo, he carefully frames his every shot to ascribe it a particular narrative, to place it in a context of his choosing.
After Roger's accident, for example, there are a number of photograph's that chart his increasing alienation from Ruth. In After Dinner, the two of them sit at a table after Christmas. Their physical proximity is deeply ironic, however, because Roger and Ruth are emotionally and mentally far away from one another. He sits on a wheelchair and looks despairingly at a wall, while she stares morosely at the food. In My Mother in the Backyard, DuBois uses perspective to highlight his parents' estrangement: In the foreground his mother is caught in a moment of worried contemplation, while in the back, out of focus, his father walks by the pool in swimming trunks. Soon, we start to see them alone: in My Mother in the Bedroom, we see Ruth smoking by the telephone, her head in her hand, her despair palpable. My Father, Christmas Eve depicts Roger looking anything but celebratory before a Christmas tree. There are occasional spots of brightness, of course, but, by and large, DuBois's calls our attention to their increasing alienation.
Given that Roger and Ruth eventually divorced, one can easily defend the accuracy of DuBois's retelling of their relationship. But things get complicated, though no less compelling, when his artistic narratives threaten to overtake a subject's life. This threat is neatly represented by a pair of photographs of his sister, Lise.
The first, taken in 1984, shows a 21-year old Lise looking at herself in a vanity. It's a touching photograph, one that captures the self-consciousness and yearning of a certain type of scatterbrained college graduate. In the second, taken in 1999, Lise is once again looking at her shoulder. Only this time she is outdoors and carries her baby son in her hand. In the background, behind her yard's wooden fence, four townhouses punctuate the landscape, towering reminders of her impending domesticity. The symmetry between these photographs is startling, and at first I was reduced to despair at the thought of how quickly Lise's youth has past by—how easily a baby made its way into her hands! But then, at the exhibition's opening event, DuBois spoke about asking Lise to pose for him, baby in hand, so he could replicate the photograph he had taken 15 years ago. In other words, he hadn't captured a symmetry—he had created one.
I don't mean to suggest that this admission made DuBois's photographs any less powerful (it didn't). Rather, I want to highlight the astonishing pitilessness that lies at the heart of his vision.
As a teenager DuBois discovered that the camera offered him a "ticket outside" himself. It allowed him to closely study the people around him and also to transcend his attachment to those people. When DuBois follows his family members into their most private spaces, and when he captures them in moments of utter vulnerability, we are never entirely sure if he's driven by compassion or a desire to document a story.
It's this exhilarating uncertainty that gives All the Days its particular, chilling power. We know that DuBois eliminated 18 photographs of happiness and ambivalence, and retained the one that shows a broken family. We know that he's artificially reduced 15 years of sister's life to one frightful symmetry. And yet, when Roger DuBois asks if things were "really that bad," we are compelled to gravely nod our heads. Such is the power of his artistic vision, and so deep are the emotions it touches within us.
The two other projects represented in the present exhibition are Avella, DuBois's study of a life in the titular coal mining where his grandmother grew up, and My Last Days at Seventeen, a photographic record of the five years he spent with teenagers at Russell Heights, an insular housing project in Ireland.
While the general mood of All the Days was at best melancholic, there is a pervading despair that runs through the lives depicted in Avella. DuBois is overwhelmed by the lack of opportunities, the consumer culture, and the general insularity he finds in the Pennsylvania town. And what's worse, at least according to him, is that Avella's denizens aren't awe of their own despair. In a representative and bitingly ironic photograph, a family visits a coal mine—this is what passes for recreation in Avella—wearing tourist caps that scream "Joy."
My Last Days, though also shot in an economically disadvantage neighborhood, is far more hopeful. DuBois attends to the vulnerability and fear of disenfranchised Irish teenagers coming of age at a time of an economic crash. Yet, alongside these fears, he also finds manic hope, romantic longing, and a punk-rock fuck-you attitude that allows the teens to subvert their circumstances. When we see skinny boys climbing lampposts and jumping off piers, we know they aren't going down without a fight.
The exhibitions title, In Good Time, refers to many things: DuBois's famous propensity to embark on decade-long projects, aging—one of his favorite themes—and the manner in which, as curator Cory Jacobs puts it, "something becomes revealed" if you spend long enough with his photographs. I prefer to think of it as a comment of DuBois's construction of stories. In 1984, a girl and her mirror represent the vanity of youth; 15 years later, the same moment has taken on the quality of a paradise.
Doug DuBois is a serious and excellent photographer. Anyone who has had a family—or a youth—will be moved by In Good Time.
See more photos below.
Ratik Asokan is a writer based in New York. You can follow his work here.
In Good Time is open through May 19 at Aperture Gallery in NYC. More information can be found here.