Twilight zone

Photography show reveals a romantic eye for classic compositions

News reports remind us that the world is still ravaged by AIDS, a disease that has no cure. We’ve lost friends, we’ve mourned with devastated families and we continue to read about the resulting third-world economic crisis. But there is at least one individual who has found all this pain and sadness an overture to beauty. John Dugdale, whose work is on view at Jackson Fine Art through Jan. 12, has managed to become a contemporary fine art photographer of note after suffering two AIDS-related strokes and retinitis, which rendered him almost entirely blind in 1993.

The exhibition, In the Twilight of Memory, is a series of cyanotypes in which Dugdale praises simpler times, classicism and caring. Characterized by their blue tint, the cyanotypes are a nostalgic variant of the blueprint process that was developed in the 19th century. Nudes, landscapes, still lifes in the show feature friends and family members, personally significant objects and self-portraits staged on his 18th-century farm in the Catskills. The artist, who uses a large format camera and works with assistants, reveals himself to be a serious romantic in love with ritual, symbology and a rural aesthetic.

“Six Oranges and a Crucifix” and “Three White Peaches” are painterly classics. “The Bloom and Order of the Earth” revels in nature’s texture, layers and folds. The viewer senses how the artist must have examined the veined petals of the huge white flower because of the way he communicates the bloom’s tactility. “Auto Rittrato alla Academia” is a lovely stylized image that resembles a vintage landscape painting. Dugdale poses like a Greek statue in the perfectly balanced composition, his figure framed by the branches of overarching trees.

Many images evoke death and rebirth. Religious references abound, almost to excess. Kitsch poetry, “Peace Be Unto You” pictures white doves, a carafe of water and an old leather-bound book. “I Remain the Same as I Began” depicts Dugdale stretched out on a pillow holding a lily, almost as if he were in a coffin. His eyes are open; he appears to be looking at the viewer in frank awareness of his mortality. In “A Turbulent Dream,” he tells another story. The seated nude artist leans his head on a wooden table, covered in white petals that have fallen from a vase of flowers.

Dugdale works mostly with nude figures, believing that the body unclothed more directly expresses the essential vulnerability of humankind. “I Cannot See to See” shows him in the embrace of another male, their bodies intertwined. The narrative describes one friend comforting another rather than a sexual encounter. In fact, a spiritual intimacy permeates every nude photograph in the exhibition, including the photographs of his sister (one image of her is titled “The Female is Perfect”).

For “Life’s Evening Hour,” he sits in front of the tombstone of cyanotype pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot, contemplating the viewer and the significance of the past. Prints from the Talbot estate appear in Dugdale’s new book by that title. The collection of images that record his visit to England are emblematic of Dugdale’s diaristic approach to photography.

It’s impossible to escape the sincerity, sadness and hope that are caught in these pictures. With his reverence for the spirit and the flesh, the artist has become a practicing visionary, one who sees and chronicles beauty from the inside out.

In the Twilight of Memory runs through Jan. 12 at Jackson Fine Art, 3115 E. Shadowlawn Ave. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 404-233-3739.