ART News

QUEERNESS IN PHOTOGRAPHY

A THREE-PART JOURNEY THROUGH

QUEER LIBERATION

13th September 2022 | Guest Writer: Marianna Capelli
We are back! For our first article of the season, our writer Marianna Capelli introduces the upcoming exhibition Queerness in Photography, showing at C/O Berlin starting September 17th 2022 until January 18th 2023.
Since its invention, photography, and specifically portrait photography, has been more than just a way to capture someone’s image. Taking somebody’s picture can have highly political implications: it categorises people based on their social extraction, their appearance, behaviour, and in this case, their observation of sexual and gender norms. Photography became a tool of discrimination by rejecting queer existence and further constructing gender roles. As with any tool, the function of photography depends on the intention of the person looking through the lens. In this way, Queerness in Photography tells the story of those who reclaimed photography as a medium of self-determination, empowerment and liberation.

Anonymous, Untitled. United States, ca. 1930. Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of C/O Berlin.

Queerness in Photography is a group of three parallel exhibitions (i.e. Under Cover. A Secret History of Cross-dressing. Sébastien Lifshitz Collection, Casa Susanna. Cindy Sherman Collection, and Orlando curated by Tilda Swinton) showing at C/O Berlin from September 17th 2022, to January 18th 2023. The opening will be this Friday, September 16th at 8.00 pm, at C/O Berlin in the Amerika Haus at Hardenbergstraße 22-24 (10623). C/O Berlin is a non-profit foundation and exhibition space dealing with photography and visual media in the heart of the German city.
Queerness in Photography concerns subjects of identity, gender and sexuality and their representation in photography. The material ranges from historical photographic evidence, personal histories of queer communities, and reflections on contemporary gender expression. The exhibition does not aim to give a single interpretation of queerness or photography; on the contrary, it encourages a multi-faceted outlook on both subjects and media.
Under Cover. A Secret History of Cross-Dressing shows French director and filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz’s collection and is produced by Les Rencontres d’Arles. The precious collection spans 120 years of queer history through the amateur photographs Lifshitz gathered over several decades. The pictures tell an intimate journey into self-exploration, where the subjects attempt to free themselves of gender expectations. Luckily, they discovered their identities in front of the camera, and we can now bear witness to their personal, queer ways of presenting themselves through style and clothing. Since most subjects are unidentified, we don’t necessarily know the histories or motives for such portraits and can’t do anything more than speculate. In a way, anonymity gives a universal quality to the pictures: it could be any of us or any of our queer predecessors. Through this collection, divided into various sections, Lifshitz also fills “a blank in cultural memory” by tracing a global history of the cross-dressing phenomenon in everyday settings, in the theatre and cabarets, the forerunners of today’s drag culture.[1] The collector asserts, “I am trying to construct a legitimate memory, to make visible what was kept secret or hidden […] These photographs offer documentary evidence of personal resistance and resolution. They remind us that identity is not unitary, or fixed, but something that evolves and is multifarious”. [2]

Anonymous, Mrs. Kerr, Schlatter, Sallars and Bentzinger, United States, ca. 1910. Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of C/O Berlin.

Casa Susanna. Cindy Sherman Collection is a display of original photographs of Casa Susanna, a sanctuary and safe space for trans women and cross-dressing individuals during the 1950s and the 1960s in Hunter, New York. Sherman recalls, “I found the Casa Susanna photos in an actual scrap book that was for sale at an antiques flea market in New York City about 17 years ago. The scrap book itself wasn’t worth saving but the photos blew my mind,” [3] The photographs document the lives of this small community showing their members' private and collective exploration of gender-non-conformity and disobedience to heteronormative conventions. The people who rejected the gender binary were not accepted or allowed by the general public. This led to their exclusion from societal settings, isolation, and eventually silence and erasure. This extraordinary discovery recovers the forgotten histories of our LGBTQIA+ siblings of the past. Sherman’s collection, like Lifshitz’s, are crucial pieces of collective work by other academics, collectors, photographers or history enthusiasts that aim to uncover more queer histories as a legacy for the next generations.

Casa Susanna. Cindy Sherman Collection. C/O Berlin, Casa Susanna. Courtesy of Cindy Sherman Collection and C/O Berlin.

Orlando is the last exhibition in the Queerness in Photography series, curated by Tilda Swinton, and commissioned by the magazine Aperture, New York, for C/O Berlin. The title openly hints at Sally Potter’s 1992 film of the same name and, in turn, the 1928 novel by Virginia Woolf, telling the adventures of a poet extraordinarily living for centuries on end while switching genders along the way. After partaking in this film, Swinton gained a reputation as a queer icon and an example of androgyny in cinema. Thus, the main themes of Orlando are gender fluidity and the limitlessness that comes with it. Through a diverse selection of artworks centring on topics of gender expression, identity, origin and sexuality, Swinton challenges heteronormative narratives, highlighting underrepresented perspectives. Orlando features works by the artists Zackary Drucker, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Jamal Nxedlana, Elle Pérez, Walter Pfeiffer, Sally Potter, Viviane Sassen, Collier Schorr, Mickalene Thomas, and Carmen Winant.

Mickalene Thomas, Untitled #4 (Orlando Series), Orlando, 2019. Curated by Tilda Swinton. Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York, and C/O Berlin.

Don’t miss Queerness in Photography at C/O Berlin from September 17th 2022, to January 18th 2023! Click here for more information and tickets.
References:
[1] Press release. Press materials: Queerness in Photography. C/O Berlin. Last checked 11/09/2022.
[2] Sébastien Lifshitz, “No dress code,” Loose Associations, vol.4 issue I, The Photographers’ Gallery, Spring 2018.
[3] Press release. Press materials: Queerness in Photography. C/O Berlin. Last checked 11/09/2022.

About the Writer
Marianna Capelli was born in the middle of nowhere, Northern Italy. She moved to London in 2015 to study Asian Art History and Mandarin Chinese at SOAS University of London and fell in love with the contemporary art world.

Temporarily back to the provincial life, she spends her days burying her nose in a book (or multiple books, mostly). The rest of the time, Marianna likes being opinionated about things and writing about art, culture and everything queer.

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