Can you start off by giving us a quick intro to yourself?
My name is Jessica Dunston. I’m originally from Raleigh, NC. I just recently moved to Brooklyn about 4 months ago. I’ve been out here moving and grooving. I have always been a creative person by nature, kind of touching a little bit of everything including poetry, blogging, drawing, painting. I want to get into music production but I have not sat down long enough to learn it.
That being said, I feel like I’ve been taking pictures as long as I’ve had a camera phone. We’re in the age of picture taking, but I always tell people I learned what ISO, aperture, shutter speed, all that was in the beginning of 2020. I wanted to get into it and learn it. Hone my craft and learn what kind of artist I want to be. I’ve been on that journey ever since. I’m just addicted to it. I love photography. I love taking pictures. I love learning about the history of it. Getting addicted to cameras and wanting to buy every single camera. So yeah, that’s me!
So you just seriously started taking photos in 2020?
Yeah! So I had been on this corporate path, and I still have my corporate job, but for a while I just thought I’ll do this job and then do little creative projects here and there on the side. Then in December, 2019 something just hit me and I realized I didn’t want to do this. I realized it wasn’t my path. I challenged myself to experiment and see where my interest took me.
The funny thing is I originally thought I wanted to get into acting. I had a journal entry where I wrote about not wanting to do my corporate job anymore and thinking about becoming an actor. Then something led to another. I took an acting class. I took a drawing class. But something about film work, and by that, I mean motion picture work. I was really interested in it. I ended up getting a camera in February, 2020 with the purpose of making short films. Then I started playing around with video and editing. Spent thousands of hours on YouTube working on all of that. But I somehow landed on photography. Once I started just taking pictures, as opposed to video work, it just stuck with me. And that’s not to say I won’t ever go into video work because I love cinematography and getting into all of that. But I’m really invested into creating [still] images at this point.
When you jumped into photography did you start with digital photography? How did film come into the picture?
I started with digital. I started with the starter camera that a lot of Canon digital users go for, the Canon Rebel series. So, a really decent camera, but a beginner camera. I was learning on that camera. As I got into the photography community, it really started in Charlotte. Just finding people that were in the community, into photography so I could learn more about it. I was just in awe of everyone and the amazing things they could do.
At the time I stumbled upon @AnaloguePapi on Instagram. That was my first introduction to modern use of film in photography. Before that, what I thought about film was like Gordon Parks who shot film because it was back in the day. I didn’t realize people were actively using film and shooting film on brand projects or high profile portrait pieces. So, getting exposed to that through their Instagram profile piqued my interest because I kept seeing them post about Lomo 400 and Portra 400, and thought “What does any of theis mean??” Once I got my Canon AE-1, and popped my first roll of 35mm I have just been addicted to the process. I can’t get away from it. [See our review on Jessica’s Canon here.]
And what keeps you shooting film?
For me, it’s the complete process. One, the intentional nature of it. I shoot mostly medium format now. Rolls of medium format are between $12-16 these days. And with the 6×8 on my Mamiya I get 9 frames per roll. So each of these frames we are setting up. We are taking our time. We are understanding the settings and composition, because I can’t just click and get 1,000 photos. I have to be very intentional. I really enjoy that. I feel like that’s why my film work is better than my own digital work because I’m so much slower and intentional with the process all the way from choosing the film to understanding what kind of settings I want to use, how am I going to meter.
I don’t develop now, but I want to in the future. Getting the film developed and getting it back is almost like a Christmas present. You know what you took pictures of but the exact frames might not be fresh in your mind. Getting them back is so exciting. So that’s part of the process, the whole getting a present every time I get a roll of film back scanned.
Where did portraits come in?
It’s crazy. I don’t think I even had a period of not doing portraits. I think my first instinct when I got a camera was to go find someone to take photos of. It didn’t even occur to me to, like, go outside and take a photo of a tree. For some reason it just didn’t occur to me. Because of that I started working with portraits and I haven’t left that since. I’ve tried a little bit of street photography. Most of my street photography work is focused on people and capturing scenes with people. I’m not sure why. I think it has something to do with the fact that people are interesting. Even just faces and all the emotions we go through and all the faces we can give. How our bodies can move and change shapes.
It always feels like there’s a story behind the people you capture. You’re a portrait photographer + story teller.
I’m really glad you said that. Especially in the last year and a half I’ve made a concerted effort to go more towards storytelling. When I first started, I was just taking pictures of faces. Then it became “Okay, this face, what is going on with this face? Why is this face here?” And then when I was in a mentor-ship in the second half of 2021, he pushed us further to say, what are you saying with this photo?
We love beautiful things. But I think when your photography is related to a story, one it’s more memorable and two it’s more impactful. So even as I transition further, I’m trying to take it a step further. One of the projects I’m focusing on in the second half of this year, I want to tell a story and every picture is a still of a story. Almost like a movie still. To be able to set up each individual shot, like this is this part of the story and next is scene two to further push being able to tell a story through photography.
Over the last few months you’ve been posting photos from a series you call Black Love. I’d love to hear more about how that project came to fruition?
It all came together in 2021, I started this mentor-ship. He’s asking us to come up with a series for an exhibition we’re a part of. I’m trying in general, in life to follow my gut and follow what feels real and feels good. I was really pushing myself on what I wanted to talk about. For some reason I just kept going to love. I am one of those people who’s a sucker for love stories, for romance movies and romance novels and rom-coms. A couple months prior I had been taking photos of my parents, and I’ve lately been very invested in understanding their story since they’re in their 70s now. So part of that was documenting their love story, so that also sparked my interest in wanting to know other people’s love stories.
I wanted to make sure that I was going into their spaces. Because I feel like when you go into a person’s space you get to know their history. There’s pictures on the walls, their individual items are all over. Their personality is in it, helping set the scene. Then you have them. Any time I go into a session, I tell them I don’t want to pose you. I want you to be how you naturally are, and we’re just gonna chat and take pictures at the same time. Trying to verbally get their story and trying to capture that visually in their space with their natural energy. Once I started that, I have just been addicted to it. I can’t even fully tell you why. I think for me it’s just a natural curiosity to want to document.
I had an exhibition where I did another set of couple’s pictures for couples in Harlem and in my write up, I was even a little insecure about it. But I’ve made peace with it, it’s just my natural curiosity with what love is, how it presents to each other, and how each couple is unique.
Do you continue to plan to show this in galleries and exhibits?
Yes, it started with the group show called Black Gaze in Charlotte in January 2021. I’ve just been building on the project. I just showed another set of couples portraits in Harlem for an exhibition lead by a group called Faces of Harlem, a non-profit. I’ve shown some there. And I just had someone reach out to me about a gallery show in Charlotte she wanted to pull some of those same pieces for. So yeah, just continuing to develop. I hope as I keep developing this body of work it can evolve into something more focused but until then I’m just doing what I love.
I would love to have a photobook of it!
I think that would be a beautiful and uplifting piece. I think a lot of time, especially for black photographers, art has to be tied to something tragic or making a bold statement versus something that is just very joyful and exciting and beautiful. I think that’s another reason why I love the concept of doing a coffee table book and having it all together.
I love the work you do with musicians, especially Pat Junior. I’d love to hear more about those collaborations. What draws you to wanting to document other creatives?
For one, especially with musicians, as I mentioned before I have such a love for music and musicians whether it’s singers, instrumentalists, or production. I’m one of those people where the only times I don’t have music playing is when I’m asleep or watching TV. All other moments include music. I’m so inspired by it. I’m so moved by it.
That project that I said I wanted to do, with capturing different scenes, that came to me because I was listening to a song and it painted such a picture. When I listen to music I see things like colors and scenes. That’s one of the reasons why I really enjoy working with Pat.
When I started working with him for his album he released in 2021, he really gave me the freedom. He just asked me to listen and tell him how I felt. Even before he told me what the album was about and where he was in the evolution of him as an artist, I could tell it was fresher, lighter, more joyful, and brighter. That’s why all the images we’ve made for this album are super colorful, bright, and golden. Being able to take what I hear and translate that into what people see, is super exciting for me. I love to be close to the music as well without having to get into it.
Since you have discovered photography, how do you feel that it’s changed your life?
Oh my gosh, I think it has made me so much more creative. Like I said before, I’ve been into other art forms and media and have dabbled in them and got some level of fulfillment out of them. But I think being able to do this has fulfilled me in a way I haven’t been before. Being able to dive into what do I want to say, what am I trying to show, and understanding how to do that. That’s been the biggest thing, being so much more fulfilled and giving me something to be very passionate about. I love this stuff. What was I doing before? I try to think about my life before because now it’s filled with editing photo sets and doing photo walks and taking pictures, and all this stuff. And I’m just like, what was I filling my time with before??
What photo of yours is most impactful or meaningful to you?
I have this photo on my page, it’s one of the couples shots. They’re on the stairs, and it’s more like a wider angle shot I got through this archway when they were on the stairs. And I think the way I was able to get that shot and the intimacy that is palpable through the photo. It’s one of my favorite photos because of that. Along with wanting to tell stories, I want my photos to make people feel something. To experience something when you look at it. It’s one of those photos that I think is definitely an experience looking at.
In the way we consume photography nowadays where we’re often just seeing curated feeds and not seeing behind the scenes as much, I think it’s easy to forget we’re all a work in progress. To that end, is there anything in photography you feel like you struggle with or are working to improve upon?
Two things that I have insecurities around and want to get better with. One, is my composition. I feel like it could be more dynamic or set up in a more interesting way. You always feel like you could push your compositions further and I very much think that. When I first started I was taking more classic portraits, very posed, which are beautiful and I love them but as I move forward I want to be able to push that further.
And two, how I write up about my projects or how I write about myself as an artist is also something I’m insecure about. I see other photographers who’ve been in the game a little longer and their project statements are more eloquent or their artist statements take you on a journey. For the Faces of Harlem exhibition I’m in, with that artist statement I gave it was pretty straight to the point and then I saw other people release their statements and they really painted a picture with words. So those are the two areas I’m going to keep working on.
On the flip side, throughout your photography journey, what is something you’re especially proud of?
I think since the beginning of my journey I’ve been particularly focused on color, not just of the whole photo, but particularly of the skin of the people that I photograph, like how their skin comes across in these photographs. I’ve experimented and tweaked things in post. So I think my color work on my photos. I’ve really enjoyed where that has come from since the very beginning. Especially when it comes to film and understanding at a base level what film stock should be used for this subject and will be best to capture what they look like.
Do you have favorite stocks you’ve found through experimenting that get you the look you want?
I’m always a Portra girl, Portra 400 or 800. For clients with deep brown or darker brown skin, I like to use Ektar because the reds that come through on Ektar can do a good job of picking up the undertones in people which comes across beautifully. When Ektar is bad, it’s bad but when it’s good it’s great. Usually I will stick with those. I was having this conversation earlier with somebody and how I get a little frustrated with Fuji when it comes to using Pro 400H and how it renders brown skin, I absolutely hate it. So I don’t use that. Other than that, Lomo is pretty decent. That one comes behind Portra for me. But even with Portra itself I usually do a little tweaking, not a whole lot, but a little bit to get it where I want it to be.
Who are your favorite female photographers either past or present?
I will start with Carrie Mae Weems. Her table series inspired my couple series. The intimacy in all those photos, the self portraits she did were gorgeous. So of course her. I’m a huge fan of Renell Medrano. She’s one of my favorites. She does beautiful work. I’m also a huge fan of Alex G. Harper. She’s out in Los Angeles, she does a lot of work with musicians, brands, and artists. Also, CoThePhotographer. She does really beautiful work. And then Kanya Ewano, she is also based out of Los Angeles. She does amazing work as well. So those are my five!
And lastly, what’s next on the horizon for you?
Yeah! I have a complete list of things going on. The Faces of Harlem exhibition is going on in Harlem Morning Side Park until November 30. So that’s going on! I told you about the project I want to shoot with the scenes. I was also just approached for a solo show in January, so I think I want to use that project for that exhibition so hopefully that all goes to plan. Also I’m going to be featured in an exhibition in Charlotte in January showing some of the work I’ve done with my couple series. And then just trying to do what fulfills me outside of that and making work that makes me and other people happy!
If you are in New York City, I highly encourage you to check out the Faces of Harlem exhibit and Jessica’s work. More information about the exhibition can be found here. It will be on display in Moringside Park until November 30, 2022.
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