Absorb yourself in creativity: Q&A with Anderson Ranch Intimate Portrait instructor Jess T. Dugan

Editor’s note: A version of this Q&A also appears in this year’s edition of the Summer in Aspen/Snowmass magazine.

Jess T. Dugan, who teaches The Intimate Portrait class on July 24-28, is an artist whose work explores issues of identity through photography, video, and writing. Their work has been widely exhibited and is in the permanent collections of more than 45 museums throughout the United States. Dugan has been coming to Anderson Ranch since 2014, first as a visiting artist and now as an instructor for the fifth summer.

Ahead of their upcoming workshop, Dugan answered some questions for the Summer in Aspen/Snowmass magazine.

AT: Tell us about your workshop.

Dugan: (It’s) a week-long dive into photographic portraiture. We focus primarily on the emotional, interpersonal, and psychological elements of portrait making rather than the purely technical aspects, although we do cover things like composition, lighting and environment.

Really, my workshop is all about encouraging each participant to really look at why they want to make portraits, what the interpersonal relationship of portrait making does for them as a person and an artist, and to give them skills to deepen their understanding of themselves and their own practice, particularly in their ability to work with the human subject, which many people find challenging and intimidating, especially when they’re just beginning.

AT: What makes your photography workshop different from others?

Dugan: I would say, to some extent, it’s my own practice. I’ve been working with portraiture for almost 20 years, and I’m incredibly passionate about it, and I love teaching that to other photographers and students.

I would also say that I create a classroom environment that is really based around safety and comfort and mutual respect. I push my students really hard, but also, I really create a space where everyone can take risks emotionally, because that’s a lot of what I’m encouraging them to do in my class. The environment of the class is really important to me. It’s important that every student feels respected and nurtured and challenged.

AT: The portraiture you are known for portrays a level of vulnerability. How do you encourage that vulnerability in your students?

Dugan: Students come to the workshop from different places and at different skill levels, and I really work to meet each person where they’re at. Some might be newer some might be very advanced, so what is successful for one student might look different than success for another student.

I mostly encourage students to press their own voice as an artist and to not be afraid to follow their own interests and their own desires and make the work that’s really meaningful to them.

AT: How does your process of taking photos evoke emotion?

Dugan: My process is very slow and very collaborative. A big part of how I create the portraits that I do is by spending a lot of time with my subjects and getting to know them on a deeper level, either before I’m photographing or as I’m photographing. I work alone, and that’s really important. I don’t have assistants. I don’t have a lot of lighting equipment. My process is very simple, but it really hinges upon the full interest and participation of the person that I’m photographing.

AT: What do you like about teaching at Anderson Ranch Arts Center?

Dugan: I love teaching at the ranch because it’s such an immersive environment. I’m always amazed how much we accomplish in one week and how much growth happens in the students and in their work. It’s an amazing community. It’s really creatively stimulating. I love all of the lectures and programs that happened during the week.

It’s just an incredibly beautiful place. But the thing that I really love the most is the creative intensity and how amazing it is to be around that many artists and that many people pursuing their own work. To really immerse yourself in that environment completely for a week, I think it’s a really unique experience for me as the instructor, and I think it’s a very unique experience for the students as well.