Look at me like you love me

Their most personal project to date, Jess T. Dugan’s new book lenses topics of identity, desire and connection

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Collin at sunset, 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Jess T. Dugan’s new book is their most personal yet. Entitled Look at me like you love me and published by Mack, this new body of work is part of an ongoing, long-term portraiture project that sees the photographer explore themes such as identity, gender and sexuality. An enduring and empowering subject, Jess has carved a career making intimate pictures of topics that they hold closely; they draw from their own experience as a queer, non-binary person and therefore strive to understand and connect with others through their work. Jess has resultantly been exhibited widely across 40 museums in the US, and their previous monographs include To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interviews with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults, and Every Breath We Drew.

In this new publication, Jess has combed 60 shots of friends, loved ones and self-portraits with their own written texts. “It’s representative of what I’m thinking about right now,” they tell me. Having worked on the project throughout 2021 – a difficult year to say the least – Jess has succeeded in making the “strongest and most of-the-moment book” they could. It’s a record of their own life – stories about themselves and the things that they have experienced. Below, Jess discusses this impactful collection, what desire means to them and the importance of being seen. 

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Shira and Sarah, 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

This book is what you refer to as a “deeper exploration” of your work. What does this mean exactly?

I think a lot of it is where I am in my life: I’m 35, I have a child and I’m thinking about things differently than when I was in my 20s. I’m grappling with some larger questions about living a meaningful life, how to live authentically, how to relate to other people and these questions of desire. I think the book centres around the power of seeing someone and also letting yourself be seen, and how that act of being seen can validate your own internal identity.

There’s definitely a theme of desire throughout the book, and that appears in the photographs as well as the texts. I think about desire in a more expansive way – the desire for someone, the desire to be close to someone, the desire to be in relationship with other people, the desire to be part of a community, the desire to see yourself reflected in someone else, and that complicated interaction that happens between photographer and subject. Both the portraits and the texts are highly personal. 

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Oskar and Zach (bed), 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

I’d love to hear more about your subjects – your friends and your loved ones. 

This body of work as a whole are people that I know really well. Some of them I met because I was interested in them; it allows us to begin a relationship both as a photographer and subject, and also as friends. Sometimes the act of photographing someone allows them to become a friend, and that’s something that I value about what I do. For me, photographing is the way that I connect with other people on a meaningful level. It’s hard for me to separate my work from my personal life, and this book is perhaps the most obvious example of that – how it’s folded together. 

There are some people in the book who I have known and photographed many times over a period of years. There’s someone named Collin, who appears quite regularly in the book, and he and I met in 2017. He’s also a photographer, and I was visiting a class that he was in and just immediately felt drawn to him – I asked if he would let me photograph him. We started this relationship where we worked together many times over a period of several years. Each photoshoot, we were able to go to an even deeper level, emotionally and psychologically.

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Collin (red room), 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

There’s another person named Oskar, who I photographed several times over a period of many years. Oskar and someone else named Zach are the two on the cover of the book. I was interested in his particular identity and gender presentation. One thing I have been very interested in for a long time is a more gentle and nuanced and complex version of masculinity, so I’m often seeking people out who exist in that space. I’m also aware that it’s a space that I myself exist in, and I’ve had to very actively define my own gender, my own masculinity; it’s something that I view as a more gentle version of masculinity than the one in the mainstream culture. I’m often seeking that in other people as well; I’m interested in how we can mirror each other.

The book also includes several images of my partner, Vanessa, and there are five self-portraits in the book. Other people are friends who, in some cases, I’ve known for a really long time. In others, they’re newer friends. A lot of the people in the book – not all of them – are part of my community here in St. Louis, where I live. They’re close friends, people that I spend time with. They’re people that I’ve photographed over a period of several years and gotten to know on a deeper level, both as friends and as as subjects.

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Self-portrait (hotel), 2021’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Your work appears like a form of catharsis, does this book feel like an emotional release for you?

I do think so. I have definitely always used my work to understand myself and make sense of my life and the world around me. That has been true since the very beginning. I made a video piece in 2017 about my estranged relationship with my father and, at that time, I think that was the most cathartic piece I had made and it was also really personal. It was also the first time that I had a text overlay with images. So in a way, I feel like that piece is in dialogue with this book.

The photographs are mostly from the past three or four years, and the texts were all written in 2021, between March and September. I think it feels very much of this moment. I do think the pandemic changed me as both a person and an artist, and made me think more urgently – or I should say even more urgently – about the importance of connection to other people and the need to live authentically and in a way that’s present and alive. I assume this happened for a lot of people, but those things were amplified for me. I think the texts are also coming out of this place where the urgency of relationships and the urgency of living authentically feels at the forefront of my mind, and that certainly influenced this book.

Look at me like you love me (2022) by Jess T. Dugan published by MACK

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Zach and Oskar, 2019’ from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Red tulips, 2020’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Jess T. Dugan, ‘Alix at sunset, 2017’, from Look at me like you love me (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.


Fifty years on, photographer Lloyd Ziff reflects on his heady art school days with Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith in a new, limited-edition book

“Never let go of that fiery sadness called desire.”

– Patti Smith 

The year is 1969 and two of America’s most important artists kneel naked in prayer, blindfolded. Next, they gaze at the camera with a brazen intensity, then huddle together with uninhibited intimacy. They are very young, very beautiful and happen to be Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, long before they became titans in photography and music. Published for the first time half a century after they were taken, DESIRE is a limited-edition book from photographer Lloyd Ziff, capturing not only Patti and Robert’s first photo shoot together, but a New York undergoing seismic cultural change in the late 60s. The direct black and white images distil the purity of youth as well as artists and city on the precipice of transformation with minimal fuss – while at the same time offering a deeply personal narrative with original contact sheets and notes. “Far from being odd, they are fantastic in the accidental,” states Ziff, “each has a sense of certainty and forth-rightness.” We spoke to the veteran photographer about hanging out with the duo in Max’s Kansas City, how to achieve photographic spontaneity and why desire manifests itself in all their work.

What first drew you to Robert at art college, what were your first impressions of Patti?

Robert & I met when both were art students at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1967. We were friends, but not particularly close, but I think there was an unacknowledged, perhaps even to ourselves, feeling that we were both possibly gay. When Robert started living with Patti in 1967 or 68, I was struck by her intensity and originality. They made an unusually strong couple.

How did ‘desire’ manifest itself in Robert & Patti’s work, and through your work with these photographs?

They both loved the concept of being artists. I doubt they ever considered being anything else. They were always creating…drawings, paintings, sculptures, collages, & in Patti’s case, writing. I believe you can, I could, feel that in my 1968 portraits. Of course they couldn’t know exactly where the road they were on might lead, but they knew they were on the right road.

The photographs capture a very particular moment in time, what was particular about Brooklyn and Manhattan in 1968 + 1969?

Everything in the late 60s was changing…music, art, movies, our perceptions because of mind expanding drugs. New York City was very open. You could mingle with the new Warhol superstars at Max’s Kansas City for the price of a drink. Of course, Robert & Patti (& I) often didn’t have the price of a drink, but our aspirations were high.

What do you look for in a portrait, how do you achieve such intimacy and spontaneity in your photos?

I prefer to make beautiful photographs. I prefer to establish trust with my subjects. I don’t use lights, & never used a light meter. I photograph what’s there. People trust me to make them look good because I strive to make them feel good.

Why did you previously never feel comfortable doing anything with the pictures?

Robert & Patti were my friends from a particularly innocent time in all of our lives..Patti titled her book,”Just Kids.” I remained friends with Robert, until he died. Eventually I was in a position to commission photography from him as the Art / Design Director of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, House & Garden, & Condé Nast Traveler. We enjoyed working together. Although he and Patti became art world icons, I still felt my photographs of them were personal to us. Then in 2009, Patti phoned me and asked to use two of the 1968 Brooklyn portraits in her book. Of course I said “yes”, I was thrilled they would finally be seen. She wrote that they are the first portraits made of them together. I was surprised to find she also wrote about our nude 1969 photo session at my Charles Street basement apartment. Now I feel the pictures, 50 + years old, can be shown for what they are, portraits of two of Americas most important artists when they were very young, very beautiful, and very ambitious.

Do you have a favourite image, or one that you keep coming back to?

Actually, I don’t. In 1968 I was just beginning to consider myself a photographer. The 1968 Hall Street portraits are attempts to record complicated feelings I had about Robert and Patti. They have gained that particular patina that all photographs seem to acquire with time. What I love about them is how they illustrate that mystery for me. The 1969 nude session is really about friendship, and I thank Patti and Robert for their trust.

‘DESIRE’ by Lloyd Ziff is a limited edition publication of 600 books, available exclusively at njgstudio.com