Okay here goes, I’m going to start my first article with a confession. “I have never met a drag queen”. There, I said it. Funnily enough the lights of North Hertfordshire, where I grew up, were not quite bright enough to attract the inherently glamorous stylings of such performers.
Finding an intriguing subject has been the starting point for many photographers throughout photographic history. Diane Arbus springs to mind for her work portraying those in society accused of being marginal, or as they have since been labelled ‘The Freaks’. Arbus argued that her imagery “showed the gap between intention and effect”; the difference between what people wanted others to see and what they really did see. We’re all quite used to this idea. How many times have we chosen the most flattering image for ourselves to adorn social media profiles? How we look and how we think we look are two different things. I dread to think how others actually perceive me, it seems best just to sail through life obliviously.
Creating simple yet effective images Rosie Gilbey investigates the identity of drag artists in her latest series ‘Cellar Door’. Working collaboratively with Lady Lloyd, Vanilla Lush and Michael Twaits amongst others, the series throws up more questions than it answers. Always a plus in my books.
Content is key to interesting images in photography. Photographs can be described as cheap and easy, it’s a freedom that is often discussed in a negative way. We’ve probably all met someone who takes a few aesthetically beautiful photographs and is suddenly handing out business cards for their side-line photography career. Shooting these images in a more labour (and now financially) intensive medium film format, and using the darkroom to process her images, Rosie continues to prove that the concept behind and execution of a project has weight over the newest and easiest technologies. Typically spending several days printing and re-printing the same images, until she is happy, digital reproductions do not do the work justice as the tactile objects they are.
In most instances people accept that seeing is believing. Seeing something with our own eyes is a form of empirical knowledge that we find hard to reject, even if what we are seeing conflicts with our other senses. Displaying her works alongside each other Gilbey creates pairings that interplay. First we are shown the performer in full drag and then we are shown a stripped back portrait of the men behind make-up. In some cases we can see the likeness between the characters and immediately begin to understand what this project is aiming to do. Lady Lloyd’s image in drag however is one which I think inverts this. At first it is easy to glance past what visually looks like a normal portrait of a woman but then as we move through the series we return to the images to reaffirm that which conflicts our vision with our knowledge.
Using a stark lighting technique, resonating Weegee’s style, these portraits allow themselves to look like ‘mugshots’. In her choice of fairly impartial backgrounds and amateurish (and this I mean as a compliment) simple lighting, the idea of identity is brought forward in relation to documentation. How many times have you played down the likeness of your passport photograph or driver’s license ? “It looks nothing like me”? As if to argue that you have matured into a much better looking individual since.
Admittedly sometimes it is hard for those to believe that your photograph is you. Recently a friend recounted to me about the time she had to go through her entire purse at a bar, even having to depend on using her old driver’s card, as her official forms of ID apparently looked nothing like her. The staff were being particularly vigilant. I feel their pain, but it throws up an interesting point. What if how we identify ourselves does not compute with how others identify us? By dressing in drag are these performers trying to emulate or become womanly or is it something rooted in display or parody?
With her willing participants these images show the power of a persona. A character that allows the person to create a display or, if to borrow from the animal kingdom, ‘peacock’ if you will. Sometimes this is inherent in the person regardless but with others the persona is a freedom.
How far would you go if you thought it was a risk-free endeavour?