Visual Arts: Out of sight but still in the mind's eye

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The Independent Culture
WHEN MOST people think of the photographer John Dugdale's images they see lean, naked men with good muscle definition. Standing men, reclining men and men just lounging around enjoying a life of leisure. Gay icons each and every one. But there is another side to Dugdale's work: the still- lifes, portraits and landscapes which are now being shown at London's Hamiltons Gallery.

For someone who has lost 75 per cent of his sight, Dugdale has a very clear vision of the world. He may not be able to actually see what's in front of him but the clarity and strength of his mind's eye more than make up for that. "I have a full, clear visual picture of everything I photograph," he says. "Eyesight and vision are completely different - vision starts inside my head." All of Dugdale's photographs have a timeless quality and are immersed in a multi-toned cobalt blue, highlighted with specks of white reflective light.

The still-lifes of piled-high fruit, candlesticks and crockery recall the old masters, while the ordered interiors conjure up the calm of the Dutch masters' domestic scenes. The muted compositions kid you into thinking of oils rather than print, and achieve an arresting beauty.

Wells Cathedral, the South Downs and Brussels sprouts all get the unique Dugdale treatment. The Venice skyline is also captured: a vulnerable band of buildings floating on the surface of a mass of intense blue water, under a huge, watery sky.

Dugdale, 38, was diagnosed with Aids in 1985, and his loss of sight is a result of that. Death hangs in the air in much of his work, although the references are not visually overt. Paris Porcelain Teapot (1997) is a limited-edition print of which all proceeds will go to the Elton John Aids Foundation.

It was in 1993, after years of working as a professional photographer, that Dugdale suffered a stroke that destroyed most of his sight. What was left was little more than a hazy blur on the lower periphery of his left eye. This was the moment when many people would simply have given up but Dugdale merely switched to a different, more manageable technique and brought in assistants to see on his behalf.

He uses a large antique Kodak camera, the simple developing process cyanotype and powerful magnifying glasses. His assistants focus the camera and, by closely following his detailed instructions and describing for him the fall of light, put together his compositions.

Within walking distance of Hamiltons, there is a second exhibition featuring work by Dugdale. The selection on show at Julian Hartnoll's Gallery, as part of "Men III", concentrate on the male nude. Alongside his photographs hang works by Derek Jarman, Robert Mapplethorpe and Anderson & Low.

Dugdale features in many of his own works, perhaps most memorably in Elton John's bath, where he appears languid, peaceful and focused on the simple pleasure of life.

John Dugdale, Hamiltons, 13 Carlos Place, London W1 (0171-499 9493). `Men III', Julian Hartnoll's Gallery, 14 Mason's Yard, off Duke Street, London SW1 (0171-839 3842). Both exhibitions run to 23 Dec