P aul Duda named his dogs for one of his favorite cameras. Currently his chocolate lab Leica II, a frisky successor to Leica I, “makes my life healthier. He’s the sweetest guy. He doesn’t growl and he loves visitors.” (I can attest to that.)
When Duda leaves this weekend to spend a few weeks in Thailand, both Leicas, camera and dog, will be coming along for the exploration. Duda, who’s taught photography for two decades at the Educational Center for the Arts and has maintained his Wooster Street workspace, studioDUDA, for even longer, is investigating teaching opportunities and mulling a permanent move there after nearly 25 years in the Elm City.
It was as a junior at Penn State that he happened upon a class in photography. He had struggled for years with dyslexia, making traditional study extremely challenging, and suddenly found something that subverted it. With only one eye open, looking through a camera’s viewfinder, “I could clarify the world around me.”
During that first class, he took an image titled Awaiting Spring, a “self-portrait of me in front of a window with five-foot icicles, lit by a single candle.” He had borrowed his brother David’s camera, as David—owner the Book Trader Cafe on Chapel Street—was the photographer in the family. Paul won the competition and within months was shooting all the time.
Duda still concentrates on fine arts photography, for which he uses film exclusively. He confesses he thinks the encroachment of digital technologies has changed the profession for the worse, though he does shoot digitally for commercial work when necessary.
In his first years—film-only, of course—he focused on nudes. After mastering that particular art, he abruptly turned his focus toward street photography. He says he often stands on a corner, day after day in the same spot, recording a “magical dance of repeating subject matter,” finding that perfect image “1/60th of a second ahead of life.” There is a low success rate, with one print out of 500 coming out the way he wants.
While chasing after such elusive moments, he says he learns a great deal about the human condition. He remembers walking the streets early in his career in Brooklyn while getting his MFA at the Pratt Institute, when he came upon an idyllic scene of a park in the sunshine, kids playing on swings. Suddenly there was a screech of brakes and a child was hit by a car. The image seared permanently onto his brain, a reminder that peace and happiness can be shattered with barely a moment’s notice.
Some people might react to that sort of thing by becoming more cautious, but Duda has nurtured an adventurous spirit with which he’s trekked the globe to shoot and exhibit. He likes to use his skills to document “works of suffering.” He lived with the Mixtec Indians of Mexico for weeks at a time (until he was forced by illness to go home), sleeping next to them in shacks, absorbing their beauty and pride. His mother has been a photojournalist for The New York Times, and they worked on that particular project together.
In 2007 he produced a coffee table book The Vanishing Hutongs of Beijing. In it he captures the hutongs—small alleys—where a million Chinese lived until shortly after the book published, when “the 2008 Olympic Games came and the government wiped them out.” Duda would walk through a big gate or doorway and discover five families, friendly and sociable, living in a courtyard. He would set up his camera, sit on the ground for ten hours and wait to see what would develop.
Duda’s photos have exhibited internationally (Turkey, England, Hungary and China, among many others), various United States and, of course, New Haven. The latest is a solo show at the Silk Road Art Gallery (83 Audubon Street, open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm) entitled Exposure: The Photography of Paul Duda, which closes September 9.
Calling the city “a mecca for the arts in Connecticut,” Duda has long called New Haven “home,” too—the place he could return after exploring far-off places. And yet a more permanent change seems to be right up Duda’s hutong at this point in his life. In a new place—say, Thailand—“I’m like a kindergartner,” he says, “who doesn’t mind getting lost. In fact, the greatest photos result that way, so it’s wonderful to get lost.”
studioDUDA – 173a Wooster St, New Haven (map)
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Paul Duda.