I now have the opportunity to go and create a project of my choosing which is incredibly exciting-but what’s more it’s daunting. I want the whole photographic experience to be an enjoyable, collaborative and relaxed one for all of those involved. However, I don’t want them to be completely off the cuff. As I want to photograph my models in the studio, I definitely need to have prepared ideas, looks and styles to explore during the shooting process. As a result, inevitably I began researching other photographers whose works explore gender, sexuality and identity. Turns out, whilst such “third” gender identities are not entirely mainstream all sort of creative individuals have long since challenged the gender binary through their work. Great for me, but how can I be different? I will now share with you the main photographers and artists that have really inspired and sparked ideas for my own work starting with JJ Levine.
JJ Levine is a Montreal based artist whose photography explores issues surrounding gender, sexuality, self-identity, and queer space. Having received a BFA in Photography and Interdisciplinary Studies in Sexuality from Concordia University, Levine’s work has been exhibited through a wide array of formats from commercial galleries to academic conferences across Canada, the U.S and Europe. Levine also guest lectures for university courses and has been featured in international academic journals and art magazines.
Levine’s photographic works are political and thought-provoking with a strong formal aesthetic. Each image is refined with a great attention to detail. It’s understandable why his work has gaged so much worldly attention. Even Levine’s own appearance embodies and challenges the gender binary as well as ideas of “normal” masculinity and femininity. I myself, when viewing the image of Levine above, assumed he was a masculine female, in reality he is a man. Levine himself said he identifies as transgender and queer, and his sexuality and gender are important only because they inform so much of his work (clearly). He stated in an interview for Slate: “My images talk about and celebrate marginality from a place of familiarity and self-exploration as opposed to voyeurism.” In other words, for Levine, his work, which exclusively features the people he knows, friends, family and lovers is not an exploration of the unfamiliar; this is his tribe, his community, not an unknown world which is evident in his work.
Levine as a collective stylishly reinforces our ideas of “normal” gender identities. He shows how gender can easily be reduced to artificial parts, acts and gestures and that the socially accepted formula that sex equals gender equals sexuality is utterly fictitious. Levine’s images highlight how what is deemed homosexual, masculine and feminine are often linked to certain objects, acts and styles, thus reinforcing the performative nature of gender and perhaps even sexuality as well as the stereotypical ideas which play alongside. His intimate portraits invite us the audience to think and ask ourselves questions such as “Why is that person clearly gay?” It makes us re-think and challenge the representations of the gender binary and shows how ridiculous what we consider to be “normal” really is. In other images Levine challenges how sexuality and the gender binary play out in contemporary society, mocking our ideas of “normal” gender identities once more as well as stereotypical gender roles.
Levine has been photographing the trans and queer communities since 2006, resulting in an on-going body of work entitled, “Queer Portraits”. My favourite images produced by Levine are from this earlier series which consists of colour portraits of gay people in their own domestic spaces. Levine creates a studio within each home environment and carefully constructs what’s kept and excluded from the frame. The images feel raw and real, simple yet thoughtful.
Each portrait and person depicted is unique. Each seemingly capturing some essential aspect of the subject’s identity or life. The subjects are dressed in their own clothing, their personal belongings and objects strewn around them as they are photographed at home in their own intimate space. However, the images and what’s placed within them are purposeful, chosen by the artist, creating a fabricated sense of home or queer space. Nonetheless, the portraits are powerful and appear honest, which is perhaps the most vital thing. All of the models appear comfortable and at ease, despite each person holding a strong awareness of the camera, each looking directly at the lens with a confrontational gaze. What’s impressive is that the images don’t feel invasive. It’s clear that the models feel safe and in this sense are empowered. This is them and this is how it is. The subjects are often sitting on a chair, coach or step, reinforcing a sense of casualness and ease. Levine uses medium format film to create his images which, explains the richness, detail and saturated colour within his photographs. Using medium format film also slows down the whole image making process, thus indicating further how well thought out and constructed these images truly are. The images invite us to question gender and the accoutrements that can express it.
I particularly like this image (above) as the model being depicted appears masculine but his slight smile and hand on hip, instantly evokes a sense of being camp and homosexual. It reinforces how certain gestures and postures are attached to certain genders and sexes. Also, the subject is photographed is his bathroom, which for me anyway, is a more female place. It evokes ideas of pampering, grooming and getting ready. Seeing a male in this space thus connects him to all those feminine connotations.
This is another image, which strikes me (above). A clearly male subject channelling an Amy Winehouse, heroin chic look and feminine pose. The male wears a black lace dress, with a flash of a pink bra, ripped tights with matching polished black nails, heavy eye liner, grey scale tattoos and long bouffant styled hair. His face is masculine but everything else is feminine, reinforcing how gender and femininity can be easily reduced to parts: make-up gestures and style and played out by anyone. The model is half lying on a blue and gold embroidery chair, which reinforces a sense of boudoir and femininity. This image highlights Levine’s attention to detail and how the smallest of subtleties can have a profound impact and deeper meaning. Whilst these images are constructed and refined, the models and spaces still seem spontaneous, a truly enviable talent.
I’ve recently discovered through carrying out my own photo shoots, that creating images that seem raw and spontaneous such as in Levine’s “Queer Portraits” is not as straightforward as they appear. Having a clear idea, motive and intention in mind pays tribute to any final image, which is evident in Levine’s work and is something I must be aware of when producing my own. I must be prepared and know exactly what sort of images I want to achieve by the end as well as respecting the wishes and limits of my subjects. Levine, described his image making process for “Queer Portraits” in an interview for Distorted Darts with Megan Conery in 2012, revealing how laborious and somewhat collaborative his process is in creating such strong images:
“My process happens long before I begin shooting. It starts with observing the living spaces that I hang out in over time, and making mental notes of beautiful moments that I want to recreate.
Each shoot takes about four hours. I normally bring all my studio equipment to the person’s house and begin the set-up. Usually we hang out for a bit first, or eat a meal, then I start moving all their furniture around and I recently started using a digital camera to take test shots. Once I feel good about the way that I’ve arranged everything within the frame, I ask the person to show me their wardrobe.
I try to find something they feel comfortable and confident in, while taking into account the way in which the colours and patterns of their garments interact with the space and the mise en scene that I have staged. I only shoot one roll of film, which is ten exposures, and I normally have at least one that I feel good about”.
To me it’s quite clear that to produce strong portraits, collaborating (to some degree) with the subject is a must to ensure the final images are true reflections of the person being depicted. Levine’s process is extremely similar to artist Sarah Davidmann, whose images of transsexuals are also the result of collaboration, lengthened periods of time with the subject and the use of medium format film. It highlights how important it is to ensure your subjects feel comfortable and trust you as photographer as well as the importance of which tools and environment you choose to photograph them with/in.
Being photographed is an incredible vulnerable experience and so my subject’s comfort level should be of paramount to me, as it is to Levine and Davidmann. Levine’s process has made me realise I must be aware of the feelings of the subject and realise these are not solely my images they are shared between subject, photographer and audience. I love the visual aesthetics of Levine’s images and so would like to experiment with using medium format film when creating my images to see what difference it will make to the image making process as well as my final photographs.
In the following series Levine continues to explore the representation of gender and sexuality but focuses more so on gender roles as well as the performative nature of gender and identity.
In “Switch” we see double portraits of couples posing in prom style attire. However, these are no regular prom portraits of four different individuals. Instead, these are portraits of just two individuals, each taking on different genders after each shot. In one image we see a girl and boy posing as a couple, in the next image, the same couple “switch” genders and pose as a couple once more. By switching attire, postures and the simple use of make-up and wigs highlights how gender can be reduced to mere parts, which can be embodied by anyone. By showing the fluidity of gender, Levine also highlights the rigid conventions and stereotypes of the gender binary. Girls and femininity is reduced to long hair, dresses, make-up and smiles whilst boys and masculinity is reduced to short hair, facial hair, suits and seriousness. The images are enjoyable yet still hold a strong political agenda in regards to the representations and ideas of gender and sexuality. This is the “norm” a boy and girl smiling for a prom photo but each can easily express the opposite gender at the same time. Thought-provoking no less.
In “Alone Time (Gender Fictions)” Levine creates portraits of couples again only this time they feature the same person posing as both genders within each photo. The images highlight how easily a different gender can be embodied by just one person, more so than just putting on a wig or using a bit of make-up. A certain posture or look can speak volumes but what’s more it can consolidate a convincing impression of being masculine or feminine. Spread legs or crossed, straight backed or hunched it really is that straightforward, something also evident in his previous series “Switch”.
Feminist author Judith Butler suggested in her innovative book, “Gender Trouble” (1999) that gender is free-floating and Levine’s images reinforce just that. These images show how gender and identity are malleable and not exclusive to biological factors. “By doubling a single body within one frame,” Levine told BuzzFeed, “I celebrate the human capacity for gender fluidity and call into question the idea of authenticity of gender.” Gender is reinforced as a social and cultural construction, changeable, free and multiple. These images also accentuate how we as a society and western culture still hold stereotypical ideals and concepts for men and women, highlighting how fictictious hegemonic “norms” are. Levine shows how gender truly is fluid and different genders can be embodied by one person alone.
In the series, Levine re-creates typical domestic environments that play with gender stereotypes: watching television on a couch, getting ready in a shared bathroom, cooking a meal in the kitchen to relaxing on the porch. Levine set up a studio within the environments, similarly to in his other series, “Queer Portraits” and styled the models, his friends, as both male and female characters. Levine employed clothing, make-up and wigs whilst also adding and subtracting curves. He used a medium format camera and each shot took up to a day to complete. Negatives were than processed, scanned and layered so both male and female characters are seen within one frame, a lengthy process without the magic of Photoshop. In fact, Levine doesn’t digitally alter anything in post-production, only the layering of the images. Everything is created through make-up, costume and gestures, which pays tribute to the artist’s visual talent and defies the gender binary imperative. He stated in an email to The Huffington Post:
“I never alter body shapes or gender traits digitally. These images are convincing by no means other than costume, makeup, pose, and gesture. This technical detail further demonstrates that bodies and gender presentations can be malleable or subject to change without the help of airbrushing or other digital techniques to create such an optical illusion.”
Levine was inspired to create these doubled images by the iconic drag queen Divine. He stated during an interview for BuzzFeed, “I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but in retrospect, I was definitely inspired by a scene from the beginning of John Waters’ Female Trouble in which the protagonist, Dawn Davenport, has sex with Earl Peterson, a creepy guy who picks her up hitchhiking. They do it on a dirty, old mattress on the side of the highway, and the camera cuts back and forth from her face to his. Each wide angle shot captures the front of one and the back of the other — never both faces on screen at the same time, as both characters are played by the very same Divine.” Thus, Levine decided to have the same person embody both genders to show the fluidity and performative nature of gender itself.
There have been many artists and photographers that have tackled this type of work. Challenging representations of the rigid gender binary and sexuality has long been a part of popular culture. However, it seems that right now mainstream visual media has finally begun to change and discuss the representations of gender and sexuality more frequently and aggressively. I feel that by continuing to question and challenge the gender binary within all artistic formats, one day all of mainstream visual culture will be confident to move away from the rigid gender binary, which is already beginning to happen. I feel the works such as Levine’s have paved way for other artists to explore the notions of gender and sexuality and I too want to challenge and question such things. It’s becoming more and more discussed but I feel there’s still a long way to go.
Levine, JJ (n.d) JJ Levine Biography [online] available from<http://jjlevine.ca/bio>[4 March 2014]
The Guardian The Observer Jones, C (2 March 2014) JJ Levine’s gender-bending portraits [online] available from<http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2014/mar/02/jj-levine-gender-bending-portraits#/?picture=430989950&index=7>[4 March 2014]
Slate (10 March 2014) Portraits of One Person as Two Genders [online] available from<http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2014/02/10/jj_levine_alone_time_focuses_on_the_gender_binary_in_domestic_settings_photos.html > [4 March 2014]
Huffington Post (22 October 2013) ‘Alone Time,’ Photo Series By JJ Levine, Challenges Traditional Notions Of Gender [online] available from<http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/22/alone-time-jj-levine_n_4133260.html>[4 March 2014]
The Gaily (n.d) Montreal’s JJ Levine Exhibits ‘Queer Portraits:2010-2012 at RATS9 Gallery [online] available from< http://thegaily.ca/gayville/montreal/montreals-jj-levine-exhibits-queer-portraits-2010-2012-at-rats9-gallery/>[4 March 2014]
Distorted Darts (n.d) [online] available from<http://distortedarts.com/interview-jj-levine/>%5B20 March 2014]
BuzFeed (14 October 2013) Beautiful Photo Series Explores How One Person Can Take On Two Genders [online] available from<http://www.buzzfeed.com/lilyhiottmillis/beautiful-photo-series-explores-how-one-person-can-take-on-t>%5B20 March 2014]