By Melanie Archer
Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene, by Gerard H. Gaskin, with essays by Deborah Willis and Frank Roberts (Duke University Press, ISBN 9780822355823, 120 pp)
Tez, Evisu Ball, Manhattan, New York, 2010
Today, the act of taking photographs is immediate. Digital devices have combined with forums for displaying and sharing our images for the private and public consumption of friends and strangers. Should an interesting spectacle present itself, so often the impulse is to record it — yes, in part so that we can grow nostalgic when we return to these digital mementos, but also for bragging rights: isn’t this place interesting? I was there when . . . In these cases, the moment itself runs the risk of coming second to its own documentation — perfunctory as the latter may be.
In light of this immediacy, now more than ever, a photographic project that takes its time and spans years shows extraordinary care and restraint. This biding of time, and the act of quietly observing and connecting first without the lens as buffer between photographer and subject, is one of the standout aspects of Trinidad-born Gerard H. Gaskin’s first book, Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene — a project some twenty years in the making.
At 120 pages, Legendary is a relatively slim volume that takes us, via ninety-two colour and black and white images, to the ball. Specifically, to the North American phenomenon of house balls, described by the book’s publisher as “underground events where gay and transgender men and women, mostly African-American and Latino, come together to see and be seen. At balls, high-spirited late-night pageants, members of particular ‘houses’ — the House of Blahnik, the House of Xtravaganza — ‘walk,’ competing for trophies in categories based on costume, attitude, dance moves, and ‘realness.’”
Legendary grabs hold of us from its cover image (Tez, Evisu Ball, Manhattan, New York, 2010). Aqua eyes in a blue-painted face hold our gaze amid the warm golden crinkles of a costume, and wisps of bouffant blonde hairdo. It is a perfectly composed introduction to a lesser-known world. In Gaskin’s own words: “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.”
Gaskin first became interested in these balls when, in the early 1990s, he met someone who did makeup and made costumes for transsexuals in New York, and knew a lot of people involved in the ballroom scene. Curious about the lifestyle and the safe space the balls created for spectacle and the exploration of otherness (and, arguably, the balls’ Carnival-like aspects — he is Trinidadian, after all), Gaskin started attending. For a year, he took no pictures inside the balls — he merely observed, moving respectfully through the spectacles and behind the scenes. This approach was crucial, as it allowed members of the community to become comfortable with Gaskin — a heterosexual stranger with a camera when he first walked through their doors. Today, he is regarded as the official photographer of the house ballroom scene, having photographed at balls in New York, New Jersey, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. Alongside this project, since 2004 he has been quietly working on two other series — one that explores Caribbean identity around cricket, and a collection of portraits of Trinidadian artists.
After years of trying to get publishers interested in his house ballroom images, in 2012 Gaskin won the prestigious Centre for Documentary Studies (CDS)/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography, which led to the publication of Legendary by Duke University Press. Gaskin’s book was selected from roughly two hundred entries by preeminent photo historian Deborah Willis, who “found Gaskin’s photographs ‘innovative and spirited,’ the images filled with both hope and struggle as ‘they explore ideas of longing, beauty, and desire.’” Willis contributed a joyous introduction to Legendary; the book also contains a brief statement by Gaskin, as well as an insightful essay, “The Queer Undercommons”, by writer, scholar, and activist Frank Roberts.
Legendary was edited by Alexa Dilworth, publishing director and senior editor at the CDS, and designed by Yolanda Cuomo, who is well known and regarded for her intuitive design work with illustrious photographers like Richard Avedon and the estate of Diane Arbus, as well as her work with the Magnum Photos agency and Aperture. Dilworth and Cuomo collaborated with Gaskin to masterfully select and sequence the images. Cuomo favoured clean design and larger photographs — an approach that allows each image to breathe, but also draws the viewer more easily into the shot, and creates in some cases a sense of monumentality. She also opted to eschew page numbers and descriptions. That kind of decision can sometimes backfire, but here it works to help create a unified picture of the scene. Only when we get to the thumbnail images at the end and read the fine print do we realise that we’ve been moving, undistracted, through the images, skipping years and sometimes decades, and jumping from city to city.
Jennifer, Eric Bazaar Ball, Brooklyn, 1999
Vanessa, Milan Ball, New York, 1997
The photographs in Legendary can be roughly broken down into a few different styles. The first, and to my eye the most beautiful and intimate, are the portrait-style documentary images in which the subjects are isolated for our consideration, such as the cover image; or Andre, Prada Ball, Manhattan, NY, 1999, all sharp angles, slight bemusement and bejeweled eye patch; or Vanoy, Latex Ball, Manhattan, NY, 2007, who appears quietly against a gradient background, but appears to be wondering about us as much as we are about him. In these images, and in others in the book, the subjects seem completely at ease and the gaze is comfortable, even familial. This is a collaboration. The individuals here are working with Gaskin to take charge of the way they are represented — although Gaskin presses the shutter, they are the co-authors. Interestingly, the book’s title was collaborative as well. As he recalled in an interview, Gaskin asked several members of the ball scene to help him come up with a name, which they based on “legend” — a title given to senior members of the scene to honour their invaluable contributions.
In Legendary, Gaskin has also captured individuals in the midst of prepping or preening or posing at the end of the runway, either meeting our gaze or not — we are whisked from outside the ball to inside, backstage, on the stage, and back again. We get close-ups, too, of accoutrements and oddities present at the scene. A table of Statue of Liberty heads? Sure, why not? In the middle of the book is a collection of grainy black and white images, taken in mid-performance. Limbs, poses, strutting — and other unique positions. Unusual angles and compositions suggest action and pace, while telltale blurs indicate motion that cannot be contained or slowed. The majority of the images of the performances throughout the book are black and white, hinting at nostalgia but also removing extraneous distractions to direct the viewer to focus on the action, while the colour images speak to vibrancy and celebration, and allow us to marvel at the brilliance of these spectacles, and the Carnival-like atmosphere.
Gaskin first started making dummies for this collection of images back in 1997. He has spoken about wanting to have a loud enough voice, and being able to reach more people through archived work. In another interview he noted: “I used to study with this gentleman named Roy DeCarava [the noted African-American photographer], and Roy DeCarava only talked about books. He always thought that that was the way photographers really find themselves, have a complete voice, have a complete statement about the work that they’re doing.” So what, then, is the complete statement that Legendary makes? Is it about speaking up? Is it about vision? Is it about masquerade and Carnival and playing oneself? Is it about acceptance? About beauty? About finding one’s place or, perhaps more accurately, creating a place that allows for individual expression and freedom? Is it about commonality through difference? Is it about perseverance? Is it about celebrating life? I would argue yes to all.
Legendary has brought me back to thinking intently about an essay in which photography critic Urs Stahel takes the reader through the relative distance of nineteenth-century portrait photography and up to the present. “Nowadays, photography comes so close that, were it a person, we would pull away,” he writes. Gaskin’s work both supports and disproves that statement. On one hand, Legendary is a beautiful showcase of Gaskin’s talent for capturing moments and, in this case, a movement — his vibrant and stunning images bring us into the ballroom scene, and face-to-face with those who inhabit it. On the other hand, that sense of pulling away isn’t there. Not with me, when viewing the work; it doesn’t feel exploitative, nor opportunistic — there is no sense of discomfort. Instead, the work is marked by intimacy. The faces that are looking at us (and those that aren’t) show no sense of wanting to pull away. Perhaps it is Gaskin’s empathy and his skill at connecting to an individual and then to the viewer that make us want to lean in even closer.
The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2015
Melanie Archer is co-editor of Robert & Christopher Publishers and has worked independently as a managing editor, writer, consultant, and designer on a number of illustrated books. She has written on art, design, and culture for books and periodicals including Phaidon’s Archive of Graphic Design, ARC magazine, Caribbean Beat, Small Axe online, and PRINT.