I was introduced to photographer Alec Dawson when he e-mailed me to say, simply, that I might want to take a look at his work. His query was so unassuming that I expected to see the photos of an amateur. Instead, I found myself scooping my jaw off the floor when I clicked on his web site to find a series of art nudes that were at turns mesmerizing, disturbing, and hauntingly gorgeous. A civil engineer who originally picked up photography as a hobby, Dawson talked to me about his struggles with depression and marginalization, and how his psyche fuels his craft, and his singular vision.
You studied to be an engineer and have no formal training in photography. What got you interested in photography? How, exactly, did you learn? By reading? Looking at other photographers’ work? Or mainly trial and error?
My interests in entering photography were spawned out of boredom. I had recently moved to Seattle and the climate and conditions were not as palatable for my hobbies (shooting guns and scuba diving). Walking in the mall one day, I walked into a camera shop and became acquainted with the existence of digital single lens reflex technology. On impulse, and without understanding where I would take this, I bought a Nikon D80 DSLR.
There are three aspects to learning photography: the technical, the non-technical, and the understanding of one’s personal motivations for making the photographs. Aside from a couple of B&W darkroom classes, and one class on lighting, learning the technical aspects (lighting, exposure, post processing, even some elements of composition) of photography has been largely an autodidactical process of trial and error.
The non-technical aspect of a photographer’s work is the most difficult part. Developing a body of work that is memorable, emotive, and unique is daunting. The non-technical aspect of one’s photography is driven by one’s psyche as well as all the external influences that have been burned into the artist’s subconscious. Photographers that have influenced me include: Gregory Crewdson, Francesca Woodman, Araki, Sally Mann, Jan Saudek, Joel-Peter Witkin, Duane Michals, Wayne Qing-Song, and Studio Manasse.
Because one’s work is driven by one’s psyche, it’s exceedingly important to understand one’s motivations for taking the photographs that one does as well as the manner that they are taken. A great deal of my work involves art nude photography and understanding why it is that I gravitate towards the nude has been a fairly complex process of self-discovery. It’s not as simple as, “he’s a man, and he just loves the nude.” There have been a number of reasons I continually discover as to why I do this. Every time I’ve become conscious to a new reason it has improved the poignancy of my work. My photography becomes stronger when I am taking photographs of particular subjects and in the particular manner that I photograph them.
You’re a blend of many cultures: Mexican-American and raised in different parts of the world. How has your cultural heritage informed your work?
Even though I have not lived in Mexico for most of my life, I believe that my desire to do tableaux/mise-en-scene work is influenced by Mexican muralists. The strong contrasts, simple messages, the desire to reveal a point of view, and a stage-like quality that can be found in these murals are all aspects of the work I am the most proud of.
Acknowledging that the camera in the hands of a skilled operator is often a “passport,” living overseas in a number of countries has given me a skill set on how to immerse myself in a foreign culture, or subculture. I’ve had the opportunity to be in photography eccentric “National Geographic” experiences ranging from a prostitute getting high on meth with her friends in a penthouse apartment to attending a kinky farm party in rural Australia. Meeting these unique people has been an essential ingredient to some of the photography that I have done.
You’re open about your struggles with depression and a sense of abandonment. What impact have those issues had on your photography? Has the process of making art that speaks to marginalization made you feel less marginalized?
My issues of depression have had a profound impact on my best work (Nobody Claps Anymore, Nocturna). Once I realized that a photographer’s work is a projection of their psyche, I deliberately started creating work that reflects my most pervasive emotions. By doing this, I believe that I have avoided diluting the work with conflicting emotions and motives.
Unfortunately, the production of this work has not made me feel less marginalized. Rejection is the proverbial rock in my shoe that has left the soles of my feet tender with blisters. I continue to submit my work to art institutions, periodicals, and publishers. I don’t get a response most of the time. And I wonder if people are secretly laughing at me. All this is compounded by dysthymic depression that, like a bad cold, just doesn’t seem to go away.
Your scenes are striking, unusual, and complex. How do you go about setting them up?
Each series that I embark on involves a different process and mindset.
Nobody Claps Anymore involves creating one environmental portrait of a person, typically in their home, using cinematic lighting techniques that take hours to set up. I’m borrowing their reality and reflecting my feelings of loneliness and depression. I look for the stains of regret and isolation that are present in everyone’s homes. I hone in on it and accept it as the stage that I build the photograph on.
The Nocturna series involves a significantly less technical process. I find the ambient light at night to be quite cinematic and I had thought that a body of work could be created leveraging this. I simply go for a walk at night with my model friend and we do the photos using available light with the camera on tripod to achieve longer exposures for deeper depth-of-field. I’ve found that on any given evening, I could produce ten to fifteen photographs in one excursion in the local neighborhoods. The goal was to reflect my general feelings of abandonment and invisibility.
I started Diploplia without realizing that I had embarked on a series. It started with an error when I forgot to wind the film on my analog medium format camera which resulted in a multiple exposure. From there I experimented with the use of forced perspective in conjunction with multiple exposures. I was determined to create a series of nudes that pushed the boundaries on nude photography. It’s debatable as to whether I’ve achieved this as I later found out that similar techniques had been used as early as the 1920s by Studio Manasse.
Your photos are erotic, fetishistic, and haunting. Some have a desperate quality. How do you create a space for your subjects to “go there?”
I’m a big believer in not trying to force square pegs into round holes. Prior to meeting anyone to do photographs, I make sure they are familiar with the quality and tenor of my work via my online portfolio. Those who are motivated to participate in this work give me the benefit of the doubt. A photographer with a strong portfolio wields a certain amount of informal authority. Simple, candid, and direct conversations prior to pulling out a camera is key to making sure that everything is on the level and uncomfortable situations are avoided. Boundaries are established and the show goes on.
Contrary to what some believe (or experience), there is no erotic subtext or communication between the people I work with. We are simply working together to create a strong photograph. The people that I work with simply do not see me in a sexual or flirtatious way. I won’t deny that after doing hundreds of nude photo shoots, the lack of that sort of interest on the part of my subjects has left me wondering if I’m desirable at all. I respect their boundaries in the context of the work we’re doing and we debrief over a warm drink afterwards.
What have you learned about women through photographing them?
I don’t think I’m much closer to understanding women after having done hundreds of nude photo shoots. It’s not because I don’t endeavor to understand them. I’m attracted to difficult puzzles that are key to achieving happiness. However, the production of the nude photographs that I take of women are less of a revelation of who they are and more of a revelation of who I am. Getting hundreds of women to pose for my camera has not improved my (lacking) skills of enticing women. I have, however, reflected to myself my own issues regarding rejection, the desire to be desired, loneliness, and self-victimization.
Do you have any upcoming projects you want people to know about?
I’m a bit dissatisfied with some of my current work. I feel the need to be prolific but I find that in the pursuit of this I compromise my own standards of pushing the limits of photography. I’m suffering from a lot of vermodalen. I have been scratching my head as to how I can create groundbreaking works that don’t involve following a number of established formulas. It’s difficult. I’m both motivated to produce something great and demotivated by the fear that there may be a glass ceiling that has made it challenging to expand the boundaries of art photography.
Alec Dawson is a Mexican-American photographic artist who has been doing art photography since 2007. Alec was born in Mexico City in 1975 and has lived in the United States, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Turkey, and Australia. Alec studied and received a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley and has worked as a consulting engineer in that field since then. He has no formal training in the arts and is almost entirely an auto-didact on the subject of photography. Alec enjoys exhibiting his photographic art on the internet as well as local exhibitions. He also lectures to photographic societies on the the art nude.