When photographer John Dugdale addresses the students at his John Dugdale School of 19th-Century Photography and Aesthetics, located in a non-electrified, multi-windowed homelike structure outside Stone Ridge, the first thing that he asks of them is that they close their eyes and think of a daffodil. “Then I ask if they can see it, and within an instant, the image they see is all they have to do to create,” he explains, noting how his school’s mission is to release photography from modern technologies and reach for something greater, and almost transcendental in effect.
“I teach the natural principles, the template of Nature…light from the sun, water from the stream and minerals from the ground. The quietude that people respond to in my pictures is, in part, because of the way the pictures are made: no flash; no harsh electric light; not even the sound of the shutter – just a lens cap removed and then gently replaced. This encounter provides, for me, a metaphor for looking.”
Dugdale has become known as the blind photographer. He started losing sight years ago, and adapting his already-archaic work accordingly, working with custom-made cameras and older photo methodologies. His aesthetic became more attuned to a sense of inner exploration, much like the work of early photographers now known as Pictorialists. “My photographic vision is clearer than ever,” Dugdale has said of his work’s growth in recent years. “I now have clarity.”
Already something of an iconoclast in the way that he has adapted his life to 19th-century constraints, his new school – whose title he himself lampoons as “pondersome” – doubles as his studio and started last summer. He gets at deep changes in his students by heating by woodstove and grand fireplace, lighting via old-glass windows and candlelight and accompanying classwork with live music by a cellist and an opera singer. Moreover, he urges all taking his classes – taught by himself and an assistant focused on printing methods – to read what he rereads each year for inspiration (and photo titles): the great, locally relevant works of such 19th-century American writers and thinkers as Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson.
Dugdale works with, and teaches the use of, large rolling 19th-century view cameras with brass barrel lenses that he has adapted to his sight challenges over the years. “The old camera images are upside-down, so it taxes the brain and you have to concentrate, which makes you become engaged,” he has explained of his aesthetic. “When you have to slow down to a 50th of a second, you have to look more closely at things.” His printing methods range from tintypes originated in 1837 to glass-plate works that flourished in the 1850s.
His next classes – which last two-and-a-half days, with no more than six to a class – take place in May, with a concentration on florals. It’s very special stuff, drawing a crowd from around the world at this point – less than a year in now – as well as a true local treasure. For more information go online to www.thejohndugdaleschool.com. It’s a form of the digital, but the only way to reach him.