You’ve Gone Incognito: Cross-Dressing and Home Photoshoots,
FORT INSTITUTE OF PHOTOGRAPHY,
30.09 - 31.10.2021
Garbo ‘got in drag’ whenever she took some heavy glamour part, whenever she melted in or out of a man’s arms, whenever she simply let that heavenly-flexed neck […] bear the weight of her thrown-back head. […] How resplendent seems the art of acting! It is all impersonation, whether the sex underneath is true or not.1
Cross-dressing is a phenomenon that has had been entwined with the photographic medium since the beginning. The exhibition You’ve Gone Incognito presents photographs and short film pieces in which artists and their models enact female roles—from housewives to socialites, wealthy matrons to femme fatales. The photo and video sessions presented in the exhibition unfold in the artists’ private quarters, often in intimate situations. They are staged with amateur means (in line with DIY principles), which additionally enhances the authenticity, ease, courage, and humour emanating from documentation of these activities. Roland Barthes stated that ‘the Photograph’s essence is to ratify what it represents’2, and this is precisely what cross-dressing artists expect from photography. It is a medium that enables them to construct the ‘girl-within’3, with the photos serving both to prove the existence of their female identity and to give it material form.
In the 1950s male cross-dressing in many American states either carried a prison sentence or could lead to one’s internment in a psychiatric hospital. It was in these years that the Casa Susanna was founded in the little town of Hunter, New York, becoming a home, an oasis for transvestites and transsexuals, an enclave for the initiated, for those who desired to take part in a lesson in elegance or makeup, as well as to spend time in the company of other ladies. ‘Women have fashion, bubble baths, daily dramas, bridge clubs, and wedding parties’, it was said. ‘What do men get? Work, war, and oil changes’. The photos from Casa Susanna’s collection were mainly taken in strict secrecy by anonymous authors. The collection includes both mock family pictures and photographic portraits styled after fashion photos, adverts, and stills from Hollywood movies.
In the case of artists such as the deceased Marcel Bascoulard, Marian Henel, Michel Journiac, Pierre Molinier, or of the living artist Tomasz Machciński, who till this day is creating his monumental performance, the act of cross-dressing is an artistic necessity, an existential imperative, a feverish attempt to reclaim their own identity. The last of these, the author of 22 thousand embodiments captured on photographic self-portraits, speaks of his cross-dressing-themed works somewhat frivolously: ‘I love women, but these are very difficult photos. I have to be smooth and shaved, I have to do my makeup, put on my little dress, my bra, and of course I have to behave like a woman, move in the right way, display my charms’. Machciński thus has recourse to a well-established notion of womanhood, defined by dress and behaviour. He is convinced that by using a particular repertoire of gestures and props he will succeed within this new ensemble in temporarily changing his identity into a female one.
Transvestites were proving that sexual roles are social constructs long before Judith Butler formulated her theory of gender performativity. Nonetheless, the vision of womanhood on display in the present exhibition of cross-dressing artists is a masculine vision. While refusing to submit themselves to the male mystique, they often embody the stereotype which is a product of this very mystique. They reproduce and frequently distort the dominant female image in the visual culture of today. Never have subversive, on-camera expressions of oneself through fluid identities been as strongly present and active in the history of photography as they are today, in the age of Instagram—the most popular platform for the promulgation of cross-dressing. Bella Ćwir—an icon of the contemporary queer scene—when asked who she actually is, replies: ‘Bella is simply a parody of a star. Someone who thinks she’s one, but really isn’t. She’s an imitation of one of those celebrities whose botched surgery makes them look like a cat. Apart from that I often give Bella’s face a makeover, so that she looks like a zealot’.
Artists, as anonymous creators posing in private interiors before their own lenses—just themselves and the camera, perhaps with a witness or two—can feel safe. They can experiment, be provocative, transgress norms, fulfil fantasies, play house; become a movie star, a model, a singer, a hairdresser, a slut, or a saint. In general, they can be whoever they want—and not be themselves when they don’t feel like it. They enter their very own private mode, like a web user opening an ‘incognito’ window: ‘Now you can browse privately, and other people who use this device won’t see your activity. However, downloads and bookmarks will be saved’.
1. Parker Tyler, ‘The Garbo Image,’ in The Films of Greta Garbo, eds. Michael Conway, Dion McGregor, and Mark Ricci (New York: Cadillac Publishing Co., 1963), 9–31.
2. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 85.
3. A phrase used by Tito Valenti, alias Susanna, in her ‘Susanna Says’ column for Transvestia magazine.