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In ‘Look at me like you love me,’ St. Louis’ Jess T. Dugan captures queer love, and more

Photographer Jess T. Dugan stands in a museum gallery with photographs behind them.
Bryan Birks
Photographer Jess T. Dugan stands in the St. Louis Art Museum during the 2021-22 exhibit of their work.

The first time Jess T. Dugan’s work was exhibited at the St. Louis Art Museum, the photographer made it a point to visit every week and to watch gallery visitors react to the portraits. It was September 2021. Many of the 20 images on the gallery walls featured queer couples as subjects, the pairings casually mid-embrace and staring back at the viewer.

“I spent a lot of time there and kind of haunted the gallery,” Dugan said on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I did watch people interact with it. And I was really touched by how deeply the work resonated with people.”

Some of the gallery visitors recognized Dugan, which wasn’t difficult: The exhibit featured three self-portraits. Those interactions brought comments, Dugan recalled, “about how meaningful it was for people to see queer couples, queer individuals and nonbinary individuals on the walls of an institution as significant as the St. Louis Art Museum.”

As it turned out, the institution was thinking the same thing. On May 17, Dugan took to Instagram to announce that the museum had acquired six of the exhibit’s photographs. The images also appear in Dugan’s latest photobook,“Look at me like you love me.”

Steve Goldberg and JD Brooks stand in front of a portrait of themselves.
Jess T. Dugan
Steve Goldberg (right) and JD Brooks pose alongside the portrait made by photographer Jess T. Dugan. The portrait is one of six images recently acquired by the St. Louis Art Museum.

The book represents a progression of Dugan’s yearslong artistic focus on the notions of identity, gender, companionship and perception. Published this year by MACK, it’s gained rave reviews and recommendations from the likes of Vanity Fair and the Washington Post’s photo editor Kenneth Dickerman, who highlighted its “gorgeously sensitive portraits of queer love.”

“This book, in particular, is informed by queerness,” Dugan said Tuesday. “So it's informed by my own gaze, my own experiences in the world, and many of the subjects are queer, and many of them are visibly queer, which is important to me. But not everyone in the book is queer, and it's not only about queerness.”

Those images that do show queer couples, like that of Steve Goldberg and JD Brooks, are among those that will live in the museum’s permanent collection. Dugan met the couple while at a country dancing event.

A couple embraces while laying down in a field of grass and flowers.
Jess T. Dugan
Dugan says the photographs in their new book are "informed by queerness."

“It taps into something that I'm really interested in my work, and particularly with images of couples,” Dugan said. “This idea of asserting, ‘This is who I am, and this is who I love,’ and a sense of pride around that. I feel like that photograph really captures that moment.”

During Tuesday’s conversation, Dugan also discussed their previous photobook, 2018’s “‘To Survive on This Shore,”’which featured moving images and interviews with trans and gender-nonconforming older adults. Produced alongside Vanessa Fabbre, a Washington University associate professor at the Brown School of Social Work, the book is approaching its third printing.

“It created representations of a community who had not had those kinds of representations made or put out into the world,” Dugan said. “I think there was a huge hunger for that work.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."