Gerard Gaskin, Legendary: Interview with the photographer

“I started become interested in this project, ‘Legendary’, back when I hung out in 42nd Street and Time Square in New York City. In the 42nd street area there was a place right across the street from the bus station on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue call Show World and it was the largest peep show place in the city.

Trinidadian-born photographer Gerard Gaskin’s images in Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene (Duke University Press, 2013) are a conversation with the Black and Latino transsexual subcultures, where those who are often marginalised and ejected from their homes and communities examine and perform gender and sex in the safe spaces provided by the Ballroom Scene in Harlem, New York. Frank Roberts, from his essay “The Queer Undercommons”, writes, “For members of New York City’s underground house ball community, being photographed by Gerard H. Gaskin is a rite of passage: All of the legendary children appear in front of his lens at some point or another.”

On the cover of Gaskin’s book, there’s one of the most arresting images I’ve ever seen. The subject: a figure in costumery meant to evoke the Renaissance – a Shakespearean vision of Italy, perhaps, a fantasy remembering a fantasy. But to me, this is Krishna – playful, powerful god – swathed in golden ruffles and woven discs. His skin, cobalt-blue desire, is not, however, that of youthful perfection. There’s mottled patches showing that the patina has oxidized, though its beauty is undeniable. He is the past, a location that is calling attention to the no-longer-there of itself, but he is, at the same time, the now and the future, an ever-present becoming. He sits for the camera, still as metal, still as a figure that knows each moment is limited, ever in the process of decay, and lets us take a good look.

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But this is no ordinary attempt to “return the gaze”, a trope that many photographers play with. To begin with, the large discs of blue irises that cloak our attempt to penetrate this world; and whether the hint of pink and red around the rims of these eyes came to be because the paint is creating a reaction, or because the subject has just wept, we don’t know. Either way, we know that despite this exuberant costuming, the gold and the patina on the skin, there is suffering. Gaskin’s relationship with the performers – and understanding of how performance – works is the thing that cuts through the spectacle, and gets to the heart of what is happening here, in these moving floorspaces of where exhibitionism and vying for attention meets the refusal of the penetrative gaze. You eat me up with your eyes, I dance for your attention, you don’t see nothin’ at all.

Melancholy and cognisant of how this thing – this thing about looking and being looked at, about inviting the gaze, and yet being wary of how misperception always enters this sort of fraught conversation about self-fashioning – this Krishna, blue with knowing, returns our look.

Gaskin won the CDS/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. He is the sixth person to win this prize. He spoke to me about how he began his career, and what got him entry into the world of Drag Balls.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself – where you are from/grew up, and how your interest in photography began.

Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago lived here for the first 8th years of my life and then me and my family moved to the United States. We moved to Queens, NY a housing complex call Lefrak City. When I am talking about me and my family I am talking about my father and big brother Derick and big sister Marie Therese my mother moved to the United States about four years before to work and then for her to get her documents and then sponsoring us as a family and then me and my father Herbert and my brother Derick and my sister Marie Therese came.

In the late 80’s when I graduated from High School that summer I when to France to watch the Tour de France bike race with two of my good friends who we raced bicycles together and one of my friends Daniel he had a really good SLR camera and he took some amazing pictures of our time in France so when I came back I asked my mother to by me a camera for my birthday and she got me a Canon AE-1. I then started taking classes at a Community College call Queensborough Community College and I meet Jules Allen he was one of my Photography professors there; and I also worked as his assistant to him. After the third photo class the photo bug then bit me then I transferred to Hunter College.

One of the main reasons I went to Hunter was because Roy DeCarava was there, and I wanted to study with him. He taught independent study, and only on Wednesdays. Because he had a lot of authority and power, he could just teach one day a week. I made sure that I took the class right before or right after lunch, so I could have more time with him, we would go to lunch together with two other students and we would talk about photography. (He always ate at this one Italian restaurant on 71st Street and 3rd Avenue.) And we’d talk about his struggles as an African American Photographer, or difficulties he was having with a show. I started this project as a class project. That’s what you had to do, work on a project and show him pictures every week. He would critique them and all that.

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Q. How did you move towards this particular project, “Legendary”?

I started become interested in this project “Legendary” because I would hang out in 42nd Street and Time Square in New York City. In the 42nd street area there was a place right across the street from the bus station on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue call Show World and it was the largest peep show place in the city.

Then I met this guy, Douglas Says, a clothing designer and makeup artist who worked with Jules Allen, a photographer whom I was assisting at the time. Douglas knew all of the major figures in the ballroom scene. He made costumes and did makeup for transsexuals who performed at the balls and worked at Show World on 42nd Street. He introduced me to people, and I started hanging out at Show World, and then later at a place called Sally’s II (Sally’s I was then called Sally’s Hideaway, that’s where Paris Is Burning was shot, and it burned down).

And I started attending balls, which back then only happened about ten times a year. The process began with me just hanging out at the balls. The first year I didn’t take any photographs, though I had my camera with me. I got a lot of advice telling me not to take photographs immediately, to wait until the community became comfortable with me. There had been some fallout from Paris Is Burning, because some members of the community did not appreciate how the film came out. Some people felt exploited—their interviews either ended up on the cutting-room floor, or they felt like they didn’t get any return for their involvement in the film. (Livingston’s film, like my series, started out as a project for school, by the way in 1993.) As a result, I was very careful about spending a lot of time with members of the community first; I didn’t make my first image until 1994.

Q. How would you differentiate your work from what Livingston, and his film, Paris is Burning set out to do? You mention that you had emotional, social connections, and became a emotional social presence in the community before you took photographs.

The difference between my book and the documentary film Paris is Burning is that I photographed the scene over a twenty-year period, in various cities across the US. Paris is Burning was filmed over 4 years, and focused solely in New York City. My images speak to and show a history that can’t be present in something that occurs over a shorter period of time. For instance, I have images of the people that have passed away. I also discuss where the balls might be headed – for that, I needed to have a sense of the past, present and possible future of the Ballroom Scene. So, for example, my black white images of balls in the 90’s show the Harlem and New York City scene, while my color images were taken in Philadelphia, PA, Washington, DC, Atlanta, GA and Richmond, VA. This shows that the future of the ballroom scene is no longer dominated by NYC or Harlem.

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Q. But before you got there, what drew you into the world of drag balls? Was there a particular person you knew, or an awareness of a world that seemed unexamined that you wanted to explore?

I was just really curious. I wondered, “Why does someone decide to become a transsexual? Why do people believe or feel so strongly, that they need to transform themselves? And I am interested in the safe spaces that balls create, how performers at balls play with the idea of whom they are and how they want to live. Remember, I grew up in a very Catholic home. My mother was a three-day-a-week Catholic. Queerness is taboo in the church, even as I saw it all around me. So questions about innate versus acquired sexuality, about transformation and performance, these are the things that I was interested in.

Q. What does Balls provide, as locations, as communities, especially for Black and Latino LGBT people and especially for young people? 

I believe that the Ballroom Scene is a space that the Black and Latino LGBT inner-city community meaning Harlem, NY created because they want a safe space to examine what it means to be gender and sexed. Balls are a forum for queer “kings” and “queens” to express themselves; Balls are where participants compete in categories such as “butch queen sex siren,” “transman body,” and “femme-queen big girl realness.”

Often ousted by their biological families, these “children” have makeshift “parents,” who are ten years old than them. They mentor and teach their children to walk with a switch and act worthy of true pageantry. So, though the Balls are ostensibly about fashion and prestige, they are really about building family and manifesting selfhood. So when people look at my photographs my hope is that they would be interested because they would love to look at beautiful images that talk to or document this beautiful space called balls.

The balls are a celebration of black and Latino urban gay life. They were born in Harlem out of a need for black and Latino gays to have a safe space to express themselves. Balls are constructed like beauty and talent pageants. The participants work to redefine and critique gender and sexual identity through an extravagant fashion masquerade. Women and men become fluid, interchangeable points of departure and reference, disrupting the notion of a fixed and rigid gender and sexual self. My images try to show a more personal and intimate beauty, pride, dignity, courage, and grace that have been painfully challenged by mainstream society. All of this happens at night in small halls in cities all over the country. These photographs . . . show us different views of these spaces as they are reflected in the eyes of house and ball members who perform what they wish these cities could be.

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Here, young adults are part of houses with glamorous names like Blahnik and Xtravaganza. They have to scrabble together dimes and dollars to build their next outfit; with street drugs, they morph their own bodies to an internal vision of soft curves and high voices; and by necessity, they play doctor, shrink, beautician and health advisor to one another.

Q. What your current work about? What thoughts do you have for future projects?

I don’t know what next. What’s current is my work around Trinidad artists; I’m making portraits of Trinidadian artists, and at the same time, I’m learning what it means to be a Trinidadian artist.

Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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