Catherine Opie, girl, tutu, house, kitchen

Empire State Realness: Photography and the New Normal: Jack Halberstam

When Suzanne Venker launched one of her many popular tirades against feminism, she chose an unfortunate image to illustrate her ‘big’ idea that happiness depends upon a general admission that men and women “are not equal.”

The image she chose was supposed to conjure traditional gender roles, the proper balance of masculinity and femininity; it was supposed to give evidence of the obviousness and the rightness of complementary and unequal genders; the image was intended to return us, the viewers and readers, to a simpler time and place when men were men, women were women, and families were happy places of symmetry, organic values, harmony and order. The image Venker chose, or that Fox News chose for her, however, was not as simple as it seemed and as the article and the image accompanying it made its way around some viral corridors on the Christian web, a quick investigation revealed that the loving couple in the photograph were far from your traditional wedding couple. The tuxedoed male figure and his bride, it turned out, were actually a butch-femme lesbian couple from Anchorage Alaska who were the first same sex couple to marry at the top of the Empire State Building.

The joke was definitely on Venker and while Fox News quickly removed the image from the website and replaced it with a generic male/female bathroom sign, the damage was done. Venker quickly became a comedic target for Stephen Colbert and other lefty pundits who had a field day with her advice to women to just surrender to men, to give in to their natures and to assume their rightful place behind rather than alongside their male mates. Venker, needless to say, continues her campaign for inequality undaunted and her website lists a slew of articles/rants with catchy titles like “the war on men,” “the flip side of feminism” and “how to choose a husband.” Of course, the fact that she describes herself as “author, speaker, wife, mother” implies that she does not practice what she preaches, and, instead of warming the hearth of the Christian homestead and working day and night to provide a full and comforting domestic experience for her beloved children and superior husband, Venker seems to be on the road, in the office and at her desk telling women to get back into the kitchen much more than she is womanning the stove herself and stepford wifing her way to domestic bliss/hell.

The real story here is about images and the ways in which they might tell stories that are quite at odds with the message laden opinion pieces they accompany. Images have ways of speaking, deceiving, undermining, selling, seducing and teaching. And when it comes to queer images, we learn quickly that the manifest is not the message. So, if we simply turn to the Empire State Building wedding photo that Venker used, we see an image of heteronormativity that only comes undone when a story is provided to accompany it.

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The seamlessness of the image makes two different arguments at the same time about gay marriage – on the one hand it confirms that “we” queers are just like “you” straights, and on the other hand it plays against the conventional same sex images of two brides/two grooms that populate the media and throws into doubt whether we are just like you or whether, rather, you are just like us! The gay marriage photograph also leaves it unclear as to whether gay marriage is the apex of assimilation or the most forceful agent of social change.

Queer photography, to the extent that it has dwelled upon gender variant imagery, has always run the risk of being unreadable. When Del LaGrace Volcano and I were documenting drag king cultures back in the 1990’s, we often had to explain to straight viewers of the photographs that they were looking at putative women “dressed as” men rather than at bio-men. This need to narrate the transitivity of gender makes visuality a highly unstable medium for the representation of queerness. Take another example: in the 1960s, Diane Arbus decided to photograph lesbians she met around Washington Square. A famous picture from this period, from 1965, is titled “Two Friends at Home, NYC, 1965.” I write about this image in The Queer Art of Failure. It features a butch and a femme standing in front of a rumpled bed in a small apartment. The term “friends” is Arbus’s code word for lesbian lovers. We can use this code to identify another image as possibly queer.

In a photograph titled “Friends in Central Park, 1965” we see two masculine subjects, one tall, one shorter, both wearing long pants and white shirts, arms draped around each others shoulders. Are these two guys out for a Sunday stroll or perhaps two more “friends,” butches hanging out and cruising in Central Park? We have no way of knowing definitively but the period within which the photograph was taken along with the use of the word “friends” indicates that there is more to the image than meets the eye.

In order to represent the multiple meanings of kinship, identity and relationality within a queer context, queer photographers therefore have to deploy a range of visual tactics. Molly Landreth takes pictures of queer subjects that both try to relay the relations between bodies and the relations between bodies and time and space. Basically, Landreth tries to capture not simply gay, lesbian and queer people in different regions of the country, rather she tries to make landscapes out of the relationships people forge with their homes, their rooms, their neighborhoods, their surroundings. The photographs create a dynamic synergy between figure and ground and resist isolating the queer figures or stranding them like anomalies in a “natural” landscape. Instead, the queer figures are oriented and reoriented in space and time and in the process, they also remake the meaning of the landscape.

Landreth asks her subjects to not only decide how to dress in her portraits of them but she also asks them to select meaningful locations in which to be photographed. In this image, “Cruz, aka Jalesa, Columbus, OH, 2007” for example, Cruz, aka Jalesa, chose to be photographed after a drag performance she did in her Baptist church camp in Columbus, Ohio. The ordinary garden backdrop that Cruz chose both emphasizes the performative nature of her appearance and tones it down all at once. Wearing a (fake?) fur and bulky shoes while sporting a fashionable headband, Cruz plays with her own exoticism and sets herself at odds with the landscape of the surburban lawn. Cruz’s white fur coat gives her a look of wildness while commenting cannily on the need for the black body to express itself through a white lens of beauty and propriety.

Many of Landreth’s figures are slumped or reclining or they lean heavily on each other. Some of the photographs create an oppositional tug between a dynamic setting and a fatigued figure or a still landscape and an energetic body. In “Jill Before Gay Pride,” both the figure and the ground are static and unanimated; Jill slumps in her chair like a wind-up toy that has run down. And in “Ducky With Friends and New Born Son,” the bodies of Ducky and her friends are strewn around the lawn like fallen leaves. In “Meg and Renee,” we see two figures curled around each other in the front seat of a car. In all of these images, the artist creates “queer still lives” and calls attention to the action of the camera itself – its ability to still the lives in question, to drain action out of the activist, interaction out of the friends and mobility out of the automobile.

In other pictures, the backdrop becomes an emotional ally to the vulnerable queer figure in the frame. And so in a moving portrait of a topless transwoman “Clare Mercy,” a dramatic sky in the background with clouds that still seem to be flitting across the sky, becomes a bold metaphor for the woman’s own transition. Her position, seated on the back of her car also suggests that her journey takes her in many directions at the same time.

Other queer artists like Cathie Opie use the home setting as a way to find odd angles on domesticity. In Opie’s well known image, “Oliver in a Tutu” (2004), for example, Opie, a child, presumably male, stands on a chair in front of a washing machine wearing a princess costume. In the background, we see different layers of “work” – the work space signaled by the washer/dryer set up folds onto a deck and then a patio with both work and play spaces. A ping pong table represents play while a person sweeping reminds us of the work that goes into creating play spaces. The image as a whole speaks of construction, the relations between whimsy and labor, fantasy and reality and the sovereign place of the queer child as a mediating presence for these complex sets of relations. Oliver looks straight at the camera as if challenging the viewer to find any part of his appearance to be at odds with so-called “reality” and the solidity of the structures around him confirms the queer reality that he creates, conjures and calls into being.

Family politics are rapidly changing as marriage, domesticity, sex and intimacy find new forms of expression. A lesbian baby boom followed by a gay male marriage rush will undoubtedly change the ways in which marriage is perceived in the US and Europe. However, even as marriage and the family shift and change, the social subjects who formerly represented the “outside” of marriage and family will themselves change as they come in from the cold. And so, whether it is a butch femme couple atop the Empire State Building, a child in a lesbian household expressing his unique gender or a white gay male couple exercising their new found rights to be just the same as all of their other privileged friends, images of the new queer family are, as the Venker debacle showed, way too similar to the old straight family. There is no new normal in the end, just a lot of new normal people who may well now, themselves, begin to police the boundaries of respectability, legitimacy and decency. In an era when black families continue to be decimated by poverty, prisons and police, the new family politics are not new enough.

The images here however, by Landreth, Volcano, Arbus and Opie tell different stories about social norms and their visual expression. They show how the rearticulation of normal poses, settings and frames actually shifts and changes the meaning of embodiment over time. So, while marriage politics themselves drift happily towards the center pulling the knots of dissonance and protest out and straightening the gay and lesbian bonds of kinship in the process, queer embodiment continues to express contradiction, failure, exhaustion and refusal. Queer photography finds ways to make queerness visible not as the triumphant march of assimilation but as an odd angle on the real that makes hetero-realness itself into just another special effect, a photo-shopped correction of the oddness and variability that makes up all forms of embodiment.

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Published in Photoworks Annual Issue 20, 2013
Commissioned by Photoworks

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