Jay Dusard: Western Photographer

jadwpJay Dusard’s techniques have proven extraordinarily successful, catapulting him into the regional and national spotlight in everything from ad campaigns to book projects…all the while never compromising his singular artistic vision.

“My favorite kind of photography is landscape, and that’s what I’ve been working on mostly since I built my 4×10 `point-and-shoot’ camera,” offers Dusard, even though he is better know for his portraits. “I don’t see any difference between portraits and landscapes; I approach all of my photography similarly and the only difference between a portrait and a landscape is that in the portrait some of your subject matter is movable. Not so in landscapes, wherein you must move in relation to what is out there.”

With a formal training in art and architecture, the aesthetics and content of each Dusard print are of paramount importance. Nearly every image that we looked at in his portfolio elicited some detailed explanation as to the specific goals, and methods of realizing those goals, within the print. They were broad and varied, from emphasizing a stick-figure design embedded in the intricate texture of a tree’s trunk through selective bleaching to reshooting a location over a period of years with various equipment to finally obtain the perfect shot that was always in Dusard’s head. Even if there wasn’t a very specific intent and execution in a particular print, there were always other elements that were emphasized as being of importance to him in making it a successful piece of art.

“I think that architecture is a great place to start in photography because there’s a reality factor there. You’ve got to solve structural problems and make things work,” Dusard says. “Whatever goes on structurally and visually in any photograph is important in a very practical sense. I always like to invest a lot of time in placing the tripod. To me photography is a very slow thing. If I’m in a hurry I’ll pull out the sketchbook and do a drawing in five minutes.”

While studying painting, along with architecture, at the University of Florida in the early ’60s, Dusard picked up a book of Aaron Siskind’s work. “I saw at once what black-and-white could do. Siskind was finding and photographing the abstractions I was trying to paint. `Symmetry is sin’ was a common saying at school, but I’ve grown to really like it in my work.” That element, Dusard explained, frequently makes its way into his favorite images, many of which appear in his recent book, Open Country. “I think of myself as a very formal photographer,” says Dusard.

For materials, Dusard favors Ilford FP4+ film and Fortezo paper. His self-built 4×10 camera has evolved since its initial construction; it now accepts two lenses (a 90mm and a 72mm) and features custom attachments that allow Dusard to attach lens shades. It doesn’t have any of the shifts and tilts usually associated with view cameras because the wide coverage needed for the 4×10 format is all he can get, dead center, from the two Super Angulon XLs.

Dusard is a “total Zone System” practitioner. He meters through his Pentax analog spot meter (using Zone IV for dark shadows and a conservative EI for his films). Then, when actually shooting, he takes notes on every exposure. He then tray processes the first sheet to determine if his development is appropriate. After all that, he can develop the balance of his film from that setup to more exacting specifications, producing a great negative. “Not that I consider the negative the most important element in photography,” says Dusard. “Far from it. I think Ansel Adams said it best, `The negative is the score, but the print is the performance.”‘

And to that end, Dusard has become one of the best-known practitioners of spot bleaching prints to bring up shadows and, sometimes, highlights. “By bleaching a shadow or dark detail, you’re lowering the overall contrast in a print. But by bleaching a bright area, you’re increasing contrast.” His technique is very precise, quick and artistic. Bleaching can be done at any stage, but if the print is dry it must be resoaked. When it’s saturated, he sticks it to a plastic plate, holding it much like a painter’s palette, and squeegees off the excess water. Then he uses a calligraphy brush, working on the damp print with the bleach mixture before quickly running the area under the tap to dissipate the solution and stop the chemical reaction.

The small darkroom where Dusard spends much of his time, and where our entire interview was conducted, functions as a second home. It contains everything from the typical darkroom fare, like his 8×10 enlarger–“my first prison break” as he calls it, to the more unique, like a wall-mounted electronic keyboard “to check the harmonies on the simple jazz arrangements that I do.” (Dusard is an active member of several local musical groups, playing cornet and trombone.)

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