Seven Contemporary Photographers Represent Trans Communities on Their Own Terms

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Lissa Rivera, “Boudoir,” from the series Beautiful Boy, Chapter 1 (2015) (courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York)

On October 21, news broke that the current presidential administration hopes to implement a legal definition of sex and gender that writes transgender identity out of existence. The memo defines gender as an immutable, biological condition — ironically and horribly doing so under the auspices of the Title IX federal civil rights law. This move would constitute the most brutal and direct of the ongoing attempts by the current government to eradicate the rights and protections of transgender people (1.4 million Americans, as estimated by The New York Times).

Even before the current administration’s all-out attack on the protections of trans Americans, the issue of representation remains largely unsolved — who is given the agency to represent themselves? Against the current backdrop, the stakes for depicting trans subjects on their own terms feel higher than ever.

Photography offers a means of ensuring that, despite current attempts, these bodies and lives can never be fully erased from existence — these representations will be immortalized long after this horrifying campaign is extinguished.

In fact, photography has been an important site for exploring transgender and gender nonconforming identity since the invention of the medium in the 19th century. Portrait photography, specifically, has been a primary medium for documenting the transgender experience. Important early images in this genealogy include those by Frances Thompson, a transgender person and former slave who lived for years as a woman, and Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, whose ancient Greek-influenced homoerotic tableaus serve as an early queer image archive.

Today, contemporary queer and transgender photographers are deploying portrait photography to address our contemporary moment and to preserve vulnerable histories. The seven queer and transgender photographers featured here employ documentary methods, combined with creative and often conceptual approaches. They engage with issues related to transgender and gender nonconforming identities, with a strong intergenerational subjectivity that references the queer elders who paved the way for representing these livelihoods with care and authenticity.

Jess Dugan, “SueZie, 51, and Cheryl, 55, Valrico, FL” (2015), from the series To Survive on this Shore (courtesy of the artist and Catherine Edelman Gallery)
Jess T. Dugan

Jess T. Dugan has been photographing her immediate communities of LBGTQ friends and peers since high school. As she explained in an interview with us, “I’ve found photography to be the most direct and effective way to talk about the topics of interest to me, especially issues surrounding identity.”

She often thinks of her work, not in terms of exhibitions, but their resulting monographs, because books are “more accessible than exhibitions — they circulate in the world,” and because books exist as “complete entities.” Her first monograph, Every Breath We Drew, published alongside her solo exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, comprises a set of intuitive, intimate portraits taken of subjects at their most private and occasionally vulnerable moments, often in domestic spaces.

Dugan’s subjects are posed in formal, often classical postures, though her portraits evoke strong, individual personalities with a focus on expressive faces and specific, evocative choices in clothing and locations — often lush Edenic landscapes or deeply personal interiors.

Dugan’s latest exhibition and accompanying monograph, To Survive on this Shore, departed from her previous work in that it explicitly focuses on elders in the transgender and gender nonconforming communities (in collaboration with her partner Vanessa Fabbre, a writer and social worker who interviewed the subjects for the book).

“In comparison to my work in Every Breath We Drew, which is very subjective, my goal in To Survive on this Shore was to highlight the stories of the individuals: their stories, their identities, and their experiences … It was a unique experience to photograph transgender and gender nonconforming older adults, many of whom paved the way for the world I live in. It was also very important to me to record their histories, which are at risk of being lost.”

Lissa Rivera, “Male Impersonator,” from the series Beautiful Boy, Chapter 1 (2015) (courtesy of the artist and ClampArt, New York)
Lissa Rivera

Lissa Rivera’s photographs are grounded deeply in the history of photography and the way it captures the nuances of identity and desire. “From the very beginning, I was interested in how identity is developed and photography’s role in this process … I think that humans, especially female-identifying, link appearance to survival. There is a point at which you either assimilate, choose to live outside norms, or create your own media,” she explained to us in an interview.

Rivera’s series, Absence Portraits, focused on the artifice of aspirational identity, draws from photographic “cabinet cards” of the 1870s to 1890s. They are deeply uncanny: old sepia prints of interior sets intended for portraits, but void of people. For Rivera, the jarring nature of these images underscores the way that photography constructs identity beyond its portrayal of bodies. She says, during this time period, “photography had become more available to the middle class, and subjects were able to choose from a limited set of backdrops to reflect their identity. What caught my attention were the material trappings reflected in the hand-painted scenery, which reflected aspirational wealth, a reverence for nature, regality … yet is all absurdly artificial.”

Her latest series, Beautiful Boy, was made in collaboration with the model who would become her lover. The stunning images explode with a different kind of tension between absence and presence — particularly that of the subject, who explored his previously concealed genderqueer identity in posing for these portraits. These images are strikingly theatrical, with extreme color saturation, dramatic poses, and a particular Hollywood glamour that emphasizes constructed identity as an artistic act. As Rivera put it, the series is “an exploration in both the destruction and construction of identity.”

Texas Isaiah, “Jayy Dodd” (2018) (courtesy of the artist)
Texas Isaiah

Texas Isaiah, who is based between San Francisco, Oakland, LA, and NYC is known for portraits developed from a deep collaboration with his sitters in locations of their choosing, sometimes beginning with the construction of a set (whether in a domestic space or outside), and resulting in meticulous compositions, with an extensive use of props. The produced images are dramatic, deeply personal representations of his collaborators, often with hyper-saturated backgrounds. While many of the photographers on this list actively work with their sitters to participate in the creation of the image, Texas Isaiah’s coproductions mark an important standard for processes of artistic representation.

His most recent exhibition, my name is my name iii at We Buy Gold, pushed this logic in new directions, creating full altars as sets and embedding rituals into his photographic practice. Other work of Texas Isaiah’s is deeply immersed in the vernacular of street photography, shot largely in black and white.

All of Texas Isaiah’s work documents identity through the artist’s deep interest in topophilia, which he often describes as “a strong sense of place that is connected to people’s lived poetics.” This approach is deeply critical of traditional portrait photography’s power dynamics, replacing potential violence and violation with intimacy and vulnerability.

Amos Mac, “Elliot Fletcher” (2018) (courtesy of the artist)
Amos Mac

Amos Mac is a writer, photographer, and the founder and editor-in-chief of the trans men’s quarterly magazine Original Plumbing.

As a photographer, Mac’s snapshot-style aesthetic isn’t precious or overly choreographed. The easy rapport he cultivates with his subjects, which carries through in these images, celebrates his subjects for simply being human — pushing back on the idea that trans women and men are somehow inherently exotic. Often bathed in California sunlight (Mac is based in LA), his subjects are shot with both self-possession and vulnerability in slightly off-center, informal poses that create a sense of fluid movement and gesture.

The release of Aperture’s winter 2017 issue Future Gender (guest edited by Zackary Drucker, who is also included in this piece) gave Mac further mention in the fine art world. But his work has been admired well outside of that context for some time. Mac shot the Fall 2015 campaign for the Swedish fashion label & Other Stories — the first of its kind to include an all-trans cast and crew. That assignment represents what many in the trans community have stressed as key: depictions of trans identity and experience are best achieved by members within the community.

As an activist, Mac has also worked with Instagram on a project to celebrate Trans Day of Visibility, and has shot a series of photographs for Broadly that explored the Queen USA Pageant, which bills itself as “America’s #1 Trans Beauty Pageant.”

Zackary Drucker, “Distance is where the heart is, Home is where you hang your heart #13, (2010), Digital C-Print, (courtesy of the artist and Luis De Jesus Gallery)
Zackary Drucker

While Zackary Drucker is currently more recognizable in the film world (she’s a Transparent producer and the director of several feature films), her first medium was photography.

“When I was as young as three or four years old I would dress up in my mom’s old dance costumes and prom dresses and have my parents take Polaroid pictures,” she told us in an interview. “This collection of photos was a way for me to escape the constraints of my physical reality as a person assigned male at birth … Photography, in my earliest developmental years, provided a space for me to author myself and to actualize my identity.”

Drucker is also deeply invested in making trans histories accessible through her practice, “so trans folks today and in the future can be more secure in the world knowing that they’re a part of something big — knowing that people have lived and died for our freedom and have led us to this moment.”  She included images of Flawless Sabrina, Vaginal Davis, and other transgender elders in her CalArts thesis show, and in her collaborative film with partner Rhys Ernst, She Gone Rogue.

Drucker’s work, in both photography and film, is dreamy, beautiful, and cinematic, highlighting the vision and the care behind creating the lives of trans people.  She often collaborates with other artists, working with Amos Mac to produce the series Distance is where the heart is, home is where you hang your heart, and again with Rhys Ernst on the series Relationship (first exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and then released as a book).

This collaborative praxis is important to Drucker both personally and as an artist deeply invested in documenting trans history. She articulated this to us in an interview, saying, “Part of why we put Relationship out there is we realized there were no representations of trans people in relationships, loving each other … There’s a long history of trans people loving each other, but how would you know that without images and history about it?”

Alex Orellana, “Self as Man” (left), “Self as Woman” (right) (2016) (courtesy of the artist)
Alex Orellana

For many people who transition, the desire to pass (to be perceived as cisgender) is influenced by concerns for personal safety and burdened by social norms that mandate strict, binary gender identity. For others, like Alex Orellana, embracing liminality and refusing rigid gender determination poses potent personal and creative challenges.

Reflecting that curiosity, Orellana produced the 2017 series Middle Child, which was influenced by identity portrait software and Orellana’s work in the vision laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s psychology department.

Orellana’s practice and aesthetic evoke photographs taken for institutional purposes, like state identification and police records, shot with a flat affect and head-on, identity barren approach reminiscent of mug shots and passport photos.

As they explained to UW Madison’s student newspaper: “I photographed my entire family — my mom, dad, brother, sister, and myself, all in the same standard ‘identity portrait,’ [used for] drivers license[s and] mugshot framing.” These systems calculate the difference between facial “points” on each subject — biological markers that cue others to recognize whether a subject is supposedly male or female. Orellana’s work beautifully troubles such assumptions.

Middle Child succinctly poses questions about gender identity and the preconceived notions we have about others based on physical appearance. The images capture the nature of an existence in which multiple identifies can be expressed and explored in a single body.

Other work of theirs further abstracts this flatness by creating black silhouettes of its subjects, which allows Orellana to explore and challenge the most basic and iconic signifiers of gender identity. In their self-portraits, the artist — who identifies as androgynous — is read as male or female based on external cues like clothing, hairstyle, makeup choices, and body language, in a clinical but penetrating approach to deconstruct gender identity. 

Joan Lobis Brown, New Alternatives (2014) (courtesy of the artist)
Joan Lobis Brown

Joan Lobis Brown is a New York-based portrait photographer whose social justice-oriented practice engages with subjects who endure intense social stigmatization and rejection for their sexual and gender identity.  

In 2014, Brown worked with a group of LGBTQ youth on a project called New Alternatives. The title of the series is drawn from a youth advocacy program through which Brown volunteered and came to know her subjects, most of whom were homeless or identified as at-risk. Working in a church sanctuary, Brown asked her subjects to present themselves as they wanted to be seen.

Against a striking blank white backdrop that evokes commercial fashion shoots, these characters pose alone, or with friends and lovers who represent their chosen families  (groups of people who deliberately choose to play critical and symbolic roles in one another’s lives, even though they are not biologically or legally related). The portraits that emerge are playful, defiant, and seductive.

New Alternatives is noteworthy for both who it portrays and how. When trans youth are acknowledged by mass media, it often happens as they are fighting for their basic rights — like bathroom access, or having their correct name called during graduation — which troublingly invites further scorn. Brown fosters a collaborative environment, literally against a blank canvas, in which her sitters set the terms of how they are portrayed to the world and, in turn, how they embrace and celebrate their identities.

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