By Lorenzo Triburgo
What I have grown to despise about images also saved my life.
In The Secret Paris of the 30’s, Brassaï reflects on his collection of photographs that depicts prostitutes, pimps, queers, and other “vagabonds” who surfaced after sunset. Among these photographs is “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” from 1932, showing a butch-femme couple sitting in a lesbian bar, which was shot from slightly overhead using his signature harsh flash. Brassaï bestows upon us his uninformed insight about the figures he represents, “Obsessed by their unattainable goal to be men, they wore the most somber uniforms; black tuxedos, as though in mourning for their ideal masculinity.”
Brassaï unknowingly created a lineage—his photograph was a lifeline to me as a young artist grappling with my female masculinity. I have known for a long time that I wanted to write in homage to “Lesbian Couple.”
As Jack Halberstam wrote in The Queer Art of Failure, this other reading of Brassaï’s photographs wholly undermines his ignorance.
“The photographs tell more than Brassaï can ever narrate: of inventive transgendering, the careful remodeling of the ‘heterosexual matrix’ by butch-femme couples reveling in the possibilities that Paris at night offered them in the 1930s, and of darkness, the shadow world within which the inauthentic, the unreal, and the damned play out their shadow lives.”
When I first saw that butch-dyke-masculine-female-gender-queer figure, I understood. It turns out we exist. As do the likewise invisible gender-queer-feminine-ladies. Though I deride the thought of Brassaï wandering into a lesbian bar, and then writing about the psyche of the people he hit with flash, and I despise this urge that is propagated and justified by photography, I marvel at photography because it brought me to the mythical creatures—my ancestors. In this way, my passion for photography is forged with my very existence.
Brassaï’s photographs weren’t the only ones that saved my life. I again experienced the unfamiliar sensation of sisterbrotherhood/existence/history/lineage through the 1999 exhibition Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, which brought Claude Cahun’s self-portraits to the United States.
In contrast to Brassaï’s photographs, Cahun provided a historical lineage of self-representation. The morphing presentations of the self freed me from the dominant framework in which I could only see myself reflected through Brassaï’s lens as “Other.”
Simultaneously, seeing anyone who looked like me in a photograph resulted in a pang of loneliness—my newfound solidarity, my mythical ancestors reaching me through time—made me keenly aware of my isolation. As I have learned, it was not necessarily a bad thing (again see The Queer Art of Failure). My interest in the specific alienation of a queer existence can be found as thread running through my artwork.
My current project, Policing Gender, is an installation that addresses the loneliness, danger and fear of queer existence that are perhaps nowhere more perceptible in the U.S. than in the prison system.
While researching the prison system for this project, I was reminded of my initial glimpses of the mythical creatures. On a visit to a historical penitentiary the mug shot of Daisy Parsley hung on display. And yes. Here was another of my ancestors. Only this time, the punishment for female masculinity wasn’t to be insulted by a brash photographer. The punishment for Parsley was extended prison time and forced assimilation. The reality of gender policing washed over me.
Displayed alongside Parley’s image was a letter to the prison warden in which Parsley makes it clear that she/they was being targeted for being gender non-conforming. And, today, gender variant youth are given longer sentences than their counterparts. Like Parsley, they need to demonstrate “good behavior” in order to be released. As in 1946, good behavior today is conflated with so-called gender-appropriate behavior. Incarcerated youth are subject to rehabilitative programming that often determines their release date. Trans and gender nonconforming youth have been punished and detained under the pretense that their inability or refusal to demonstrate “gender appropriate” behavior, such as walking “like a man” for young transgender women, is obstructing their rehabilitation.
An inordinate number of people in the U.S. are having their bodies taken from them, especially transgender women of color. And we, on the outside, are all benefiting from it in some way.
“You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me)
Working with the prison abolitionist organization, Black and Pink, I became pen pals with 32 LGBTQ-identified prisoners in Oregon. A number of them are now my friends. These are people shuffled out of sight and shuttered out of reach. It is this absence upon which I reflect in Policing Gender. Fabric, on set, lit for a portrait. Waiting for a subject.
Jail cells have been pictured, caricatured even. The tiny living quarters are known. Subconsciously, if I photograph inside a prison, the dank, dark, concrete spaces, the bars, the locks, the thick doors and tiny windows, the food trays being slid through an opening smaller than a mail slot—an association will be formed. These icons signify criminality. There are too many visuals that link those spaces to violence and danger. Instead of creating more of these images, I worked with my pen pals to record the stories of their incarceration that accompany the photographs in Policing Gender.
Through these relationships I have come to know the frailty of my freedom, while recognizing my privileged position. Grappling with this knowledge I portray flight. The aerial view is precarious; flying without direction by way of a balloon.
Like Brassaï, the camera operator who captured Parsley’s mug shot had no idea it would inspire a 21st-century queer artist. This subversive appropriation of meaning that may only be possible with a photograph continues to shape my life.