After centuries of being virtually invisible in the public eye, transgender and genderqueer people are finally being represented in mainstream media. Caitlyn Jenner’s and Orange is the New Black‘s Laverne Cox’s recent magazine cover shoots mark a pivotal shift towards visibility and greater acceptance of the trans community. Because this kind of change has taken so long, though, representation of transgender and gender-fluid bodies of centuries past is almost entirely missing from the art historical canon. In Z, a timely new exhibit at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn-based artist Robyn Renee Hasty uses old school wet-plate collodion tintype and ambrotype photography techniques to imagine what nude portraiture of transgender and genderqueer people might have looked like in the 19th century. It’s as if she’s is filling a hole in the history of portraiture, retroactively celebrating bodies that were forced to remain hidden.
Hasty, who grew up in South Florida and herself identifies as genderqueer, chose to work in the labor-intensive medium of collodion prints because “it makes time really ambiguous,” as she says in a phone interview. “The subjects could be modern, they could be historical.” In striking black-and-white, her subjects, some of whom are friends and acquaintances, others whom she found via an ad on QueerExchange.com, fall along the spectrum from transgender and genderqueer to cisgender. By using a conventional, classical portraiture method to document these sitters on chaise lounges, she suggests we update our conventions for the 21st century. Also an activist, Hasty hopes Z–named for the gender-neutral pronoun–will help chip away at the widespread “incredible resistance to the idea that gender is fluid.”
“I’ve watched a lot of people look at these portraits and relate to them in bizarre and overly simplified ways,” Hasty says. “They’re like, ‘Wait, is that a woman pretending to be a man? Is that a man with a vagina? Or a woman that’s just really masculine?’ That disorientation they feel has value in that it can challenge them to unpack what those definitions are. I hope these photos help to broaden viewers’ definitions.” While such reactions betray an ignorance in viewers, they’re somewhat understandable given the longtime lack of visibility of transgender bodies in mainstream media.
That being said, Hasty doesn’t want her photographs to be seen as educational. “I’m not trying to be like, ‘Hey, this is a queer body,’” she says. And she’s careful to avoid exoticizing her subjects, which is one way queer bodies have been represented in the past. As an example, Hasty cites French photographer Nadar, who in 1860 took what’s considered the first series of photos of an intersex person, which were ultimately unpublished and used only for medical and scientific purposes. “That person was viewed as a specimen at that time,” Hasty says. “I think my portraits are much more human, more layered. These are about more than gender; they’re about people.”
Z is on view at Pioneer Works through July 12th.
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