Mistaken Identities: Images of Gender and Transformation at The Walther Collection
Mistaken Identities: Images of Gender and Transformation, offers a fascinating snapshot of the history of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) identities. The exhibition is part of a multi-year series focused on the history of vernacular photography culled from the archive of The Walther Collection, an international art foundation dedicated to photography. The series defines vernacular as, “utilitarian imagery made primarily for commercial or personal purposes, rather than aesthetic ones,” and considers the “social and historical significance of non-fine art photography in a wide range of applications.”
Samuel Fosso, La femme américaine libérée des années 70, 1997 Courtesy the artist, JM Patras / Paris, and The Walther Collection
The exhibition as a whole makes it imminently apparent that the collective force of a vast gender spectrum, beyond a traditional male/female paradigm, has been quietly at work for centuries. Small scale images, snapshots presented in grids and series in many cases, make up much of the work on view. Black and white photographs, aged yellowing works, and washed out color images are all equally compelling, amplifying the sense of time and history noted in wall text, with works dating from the 1800s to the 1990s.
Charles Eisenmann, Portrait of Annie Jones, Bearded Lady, ca. 1890, Albumen print cabinet card. Courtesy The Walther Collection.
For some viewers, Charles Eisenmann’s, Portrait of Annie Jones, Bearded Lady, ca. 1890, an Albumen print cabinet card, will bring to mind infamous tales of circus life and sideshows. Eisenmann, a carnival portrait photographer, captured Annie Jones (1865-1902), a widely recognized bearded lady of the 20th century who toured with P.T. Barnum’s show. An intersex individual who had a beard since the age of five, Jones’ portrait in this context is a stark reminder of the demonization and marginalization of human beings who do not fit into normative structures of their time.
Unidentified photographer, “Men with Beards,” ca. 1970s Courtesy The Walther Collection
In a separate collection of images shot by an unidentified photographer circa 1970, a grid of nine portraits shot from the shoulders up features men with beards who gaze at the camera as beacons of style. The set of images reminds viewers of the association of facial hair with masculinity and offers an awkward contrast to the regal pose and feminine dress of Annie Jones’ portrait. Another grid of 28 gelatin-silver prints offers yet another take on the male gender. Photographer Bob Mizer’s (1922-1992), Athletic Model Guild Models, ca. 1955-80, features work from his Athletic Model Guild photography studio that specialized in all-male physique photography. Mostly nude “beefcake” photos of young men, the work was featured in Mizer’s magazine, Physique Pictorial, a covert softcore magazine for gay men in a conservative Southern California.
Unidentified Photographer, Untitled, from “Gender Benders,” ca. 1950s Courtesy The Walther Collection
Several collections of photographs are dedicated to examining constructions of female identity. One series, Women in Pageants, 1935-58, features bikini clad women, smiling either within or alongside bins of fruit and vegetables - potatoes, cantaloupe, pomegranates and more. Another grid, Actresses on Television Screens, ca. 1960, showcases photographs of television screens featuring images of movie starlets. Gender Benders, ca. 1950, captures three elegantly posed crossdressers. One standout that offers a light touch to the exhibition, The “Dear Martin” series, shows a group of self-portraits of a man posing in women’s underwear and bikini bottoms on a rooftop. Shot by an unidentified photographer, the only detail known about the photos is that they were shot in February 1968, presumably in Southern California, where they were found. However, one can surmise he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself.