Sitting down with notable photographer and William & Mary art professor Eliot Dudik, Features writer Alicia Deveraux discovers just what it is that sets Dudik apart from the rest. Several projects capturing the American landscape in all its guts and glory, collaborations with large companies like Kodak, and most importantly, the impact he has on his students are only some of the things that make Dudik so special.
Right after taking his first undergraduate photography class at the College of Charleston, Eliot Dudik transformed his bathroom into a darkroom. “The bathroom is usually the best place because it has running water and ventilation,” he explains, straight-faced. “I was renting an apartment with two other people, we only had one bathroom, but I would have to shut down the bathroom for a little when I worked in there.” Dudik has since upgraded from bathrooms to academic buildings and beyond; he founded William & Mary’s first photography department, and his photographs have been published in an impressive range of outlets including the New York Times and Smithsonian Magazine—though he might not bring it up unless you ask. This is Dudik epitomized: clever, optimistic, and prepared to do what is necessary for the sake of his art, all while maintaining a reserved manner of humility—he even admits he forgot to put a drain in William & Mary’s darkroom floor.
Soft-spoken, contemplative, and clad in jeans and a flannel, Dudik tells me about his post-graduate-school fear of only having one viable artistic idea and then burning out; he had worried that his Broken Land series was “the one thing I was going to create and I was never going to create again.” In Broken Land (2011-2016), Dudik captures sprawling panoramas of Civil War battlefields in hopes of exposing and preventing the toxic repetition of American history. You can almost feel the ghosts of traumas past lingering in the images. When he first began the project, Dudik couldn’t afford the specific type of film he needed, so he wrote Kodak a proposal asking for sponsorship. The camera giant saw potential in Dudik’s project and sponsored him, and his relationship with the company has only grown since then; he even launched a program with them, the Film Photo Award, which provides grants for photographers in similar situations to the one that led Dudik to Kodak in the first place. By glancing at his website, it’s clear that Dudik’s post-grad fears were unfounded; he has completed several other projects since Broken Land, though he still insists, “Every day is a risk.”
While perusing through his work online, one gets a sense that Dudik has a fascination with the American landscape, both physical and cultural. When I ask if this is true, Dudik all but shrugs, stating that America is just what he happens to know best. “I use the landscape specifically because it is what I feel most comfortable communicating with. I grew up in the landscape; I grew up on a sheep farm. I use the United States because it is here, it is what I know… and I’m not bored of it yet. As long as I’m still growing and learning from exploring this landscape, I am happy to keep learning from that.” I ask Dudik what it is that he’s learned; does he have a better understanding of America thanks to his photography, or is he just left with more questions than before? “I think I could go both ways,” he ponders. “My dad always said, the more you know, the dumber you are, and there’s some of that in my work for sure. The more I have explored the American landscape and the American culture, the more I don’t know.” However, Dudik wants the impact of his work to extend beyond the scope of America.
“Most of my work is about the American culture and the American landscape, and I hope that it has some effect, not only for myself, but for people who engage with it, to help better understand our culture—and I hope that it’s something that can resonate with communities outside of here.”
Dudik uses this “not knowing” as fuel to better understand America and even help it heal. While working on Broken Land, Dudik saw a major division in our country and hoped he could depict and help mend that division through his photos. “What I was hoping to do was to create some recognition of this divide in the country and reverse it or fix it in some way, but that certainly hasn’t happened…. but I realize that’s a lot to ask of a photograph.” Thinking about this American schism, I ask Dudik if he can identify any major cultural changes throughout his many projects and years of viewing America through a lens. He says no. In the case of Broken Land, he believes that split was always there: “I don’t think the division has grown deeper but has been exposed.” Dudik finds it difficult to map out cultural shifts this way unless you’re working on a project for a lifetime, explaining, “I’m not sure that 5 years is enough to see cultural change.” But he is hopeful. “I hope in years to come, you’ll be able to look back on that work and see change. I am sure there is change happening in that time but it’s hard to see it.”
Dudik has travelled to every state besides Hawaii throughout his career. Much of his road tripping was for one series in particular, titled Paradise Road (2014-present), for which Dudik photographs roads with that moniker around the country. “It takes me to these neighborhoods, these places that I would never have been to otherwise… seeing how people across the country build their lives within the landscape and around one another. What’s most surprising is how similar it is—when I started the project, I expected it to be very different across the country.” When I ask Dudik to name some recurring images in his work which he would classify as uniquely American, he lists three: guns, RVs, and beer.
With this in mind, and having seen some of the desolate landscapes in Paradise Road which look like anything but, I wonder if Dudik’s bleaker subjects ever get him down. “Does it ever break my spirit? It hasn’t yet,” he tells me. “I have to say that it’s only made me want to photograph more, so far.” Similarly, when I ask if he ever feels weight or pressure when his subjects become emotionally invested in being part of his work, he says no. “I do have subjects that I’ve photographed that seem very invested in the work and the fact that they’ve been a part of it, but for the most part it’s been celebratory and exciting for them to be a part of it—even the heaviest work.” This is the sort of idealistic attitude which struck me most about Dudik; he sees the positive power in his artwork. Even through his more emotional experiences, like speaking with ancestors of Civil War veterans throughout his work on Broken Land and being moved by their personal attachments to the landscapes, Dudik sees his work as a chance to learn, grow, and inspire. “I think it’s most empowering when you can see it resonate with someone else, when you can feel like you were able to communicate to someone else—even if they aren’t getting exactly what you get from the photograph—when they walk away from the photograph thinking or feeling something.”
“I think it’s most empowering when you can see it resonate with someone else, when you can feel like you were able to communicate to someone else—even if they aren’t getting exactly what you get from the photograph—when they walk away from the photograph thinking or feeling something.”
Dudik obviously cares deeply about making a change in people. It makes sense that he’s so adored as a professor here at William & Mary. Funnily enough, he didn’t originally intend to teach, even when all his peers did. When I ask about the plethora of organizations he’s worked with—ranging from large industry corporations like Kodak, to publications like Buzzfeed, and even to the Library of Congress—he says the bulk of those opportunities emerged once he started teaching. “I didn’t initially plan to be a teacher, so the publications came at the same time,” he reflects. “I came through an art program in a different way than some of my peers did, focusing almost exclusively on my artwork, and it wasn’t until after I finished school that I even considered teaching, and I was really lucky to be given an opportunity where I could try it. I really liked it and did pretty well with it.” Dudik is grateful for the stability that comes with the job; according to him, the day-to-day lifestyle of a freelance photographer is a “pretty grueling life—fun when it begins, but hard to keep up with.”
But it’s not just the stability that keeps Dudik here—he makes his love for the College abundantly clear. “I hope to never leave William & Mary,” he professes. “Here, I get to teach photography the way I think it should be taught.” For him, founding the photography program as part of the art department was the “experience of a lifetime,” the chance to build something from scratch and ensure that everything he personally lacked or desired in school is available to students today.
As part of a national organization called the Society for Photographic Education, founded in 2009, Dudik gets to speak with educators from all over the country and discuss various teaching styles, some of which he has qualms with. The study of photography entered higher education around the 1960s, and Dudik sees many photography programs as somewhat stuck in time. “I think some programs are still taught with the mentality that was used in the 1960s in terms of photo curriculum,” he says. Meanwhile, other programs have taken the opposite approach and committed themselves to digital photography while dropping analog almost completely. “I don’t think either one of those approaches is conducive to the world that we live in,” he explains. “We don’t live in a fully digital world especially in terms of art, but we don’t live in a fully analog world.”
With regard to the growing popularity and presence of digital photography as an artistic medium, it’s hard to avoid mentioning social media. I ask Dudik if he views Instagram, in particular, as a legitimate art form. “Yes, I think it certainly can be,” he replies. “I don’t think everything that is on Instagram is art, but it can be an art form. People use it for different reasons.” He uses Instagram and Facebook a fair amount himself, and attributes much of his success to those platforms: “I learn about other artists that way, I network that way, I use it as a marketing tool. I kind of use it as a daily journal.” He also explains how social media creates a sort of “invisible” fanbase who looks at and interacts with his work online without him necessarily knowing about it, at least until someone approaches him at a show and tells him they like his Instagram feed. Overall, Dudik sees online networking as an invaluable tool. “It’s interesting to see how social media has really connected the curators, the creators, the writers.”
While navigating photo education in the digital age and building his dream curriculum are major factors in Dudik’s passion for professorship, teaching is nothing without the students. “The other thing that keeps me here is the students,” says Dudik. “I’m not sure what it is—they’re brilliant students for sure, and driven students, and often they come from a wide variety of experiences, and all of that filters into their artwork.” He believes he has never worked with students more hardworking than the ones here. When his pupils push themselves, he explains, he doesn’t have to “beg or prod.” To Dudik, this is as rewarding as it gets. “Just give them the space and the materials and the tools, and they create magic.” Because he sees his students as capable and creative artists, Dudik consistently tries to step away from the wheel and let them follow their own artistic impulses. “I find that William and Mary students want to know exactly what they need to do to get an A… I intentionally leave my projects really wide open and I encourage them to create whatever is meaningful to them. I give them a ton of freedom to explore whatever it is they want to explore, which comes off terrifying to them, but ultimately they tend to really grab on to it. It creates really exciting work.” For Dudik, it is not about shaping his students’ creative visions; it is about giving them the resources to form their own. “I try to understand what their motivations [are] in their artwork and help them communicate that as clearly as possible.”
“I try to understand what their motivations [are] in their artwork and help them communicate that as clearly as possible.”
Dudik considers his relationship with his students integral to his own artistic and personal development. “I am working on my artwork everyday, and I consider the teaching that I do here to be part of that as well. I get as much inspiration and energy from the students as I hope they get from me—even though my voice is very monotone,” he jokes. Although he sees them as intertwined, I wonder how Dudik balances teaching with his personal projects. “I have more ideas than I can handle,” he confesses. “That’s my issue: focusing on one thing and not jumping project to project. I’m actively working nonstop on a bunch of different things, just trying to keep that going. I’m just totally immersed in so many different things right now, I can’t even imagine what comes after that—just working.”
I ask Dudik where he sees himself in his artistic development, and a trace of a smile crosses his lips as he responds, “I think I’m still in my infancy, I hope.” These words perfectly encapsulate Dudik’s modest and optimistic attitude toward his work both as a professional photographer and a professor – he gives it his all and hopes for the best, eager to enjoy and learn from the process along the way. Dudik’s answer to my final question confirms his compassionate spirit. I conclude our interview by asking what he wants people to take away from his work, and Dudik says, “Hopefully I can use this [American] landscape and this culture to talk about cultures outside [the U.S.], this humanity in general. If my explorations in that can help others do the same, I’d be quite happy.”
Photography by Eliot Dudik. Model Iris Wu.
Originally published in ROCKET Volume IX, Issue 2.