Photographs from Doug DuBois’s All the Days and Nights, focusing on his family, first appeared in the 1991 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, in the company of work by William Eggleston, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and some 70 other artists. It was an important, widely discussed show, but it’s arguably still true that, as Alec Soth remarked in 2007,” DuBois has to be at the top of the list of under-appreciated American photographers.” So this mid-career survey, on view at Aperture through May 19, is a welcome immersion in the photographer’s work.
DuBois describes what he does as “creative nonfiction” rather than documentary, and there are hints of Jim Goldberg and Larry Sultan in the work. DuBois asked his family members to respond to his early pictures of them by writing directly on the prints, “a la Jim Goldberg.” But Sultan’s influence may be more strongly felt, in DuBois’s confident use of color and in his semi-staged, intentionally open-ended narratives. In All the Days and Nights, we see the members of his family age, cope with his father’s near-fatal accident after he fell from a commuter train, grow up, and grow apart. With graceful pacing, DuBois moves in close, to show the pain in his mother’s thousand-yard stare, and out again, so that a flotilla of toy dinosaurs suggest his nephew’s imagination.
Rather than photographing from inside the intimate circle of his subjects, DuBois became an outsider in My Last Day at Seventeen. As an adult, an American, and a visitor to the insular, working-class community of Cobh, Ireland, he was an interloper in every way. An artist-in-residence at the Sirius Art Center, he was eventually accepted by a group of teenagers, but the project coalesced for DuBois when he photographed a particular boy, Lenny. He captures the nuance of Lenny’s adolescent face, swathed in a white hood, with smoke from his cigarette floating across it like a wisp of cloud. Close-up portraits alternate with choreographed scenes like a dozen children climbing and playing in Russell Heights. DuBois captures the listlessness of teenagers as well as their fearlessness – they climb streetlights and throw their tattooed bodies into the water. But his pictures also foreshadow the responsibilities of adulthood closing in, memorializing a time of relative, and fleeting, innocence.