“Visibility” is the buzzword du jour but like any other form of exposure it needs to be backed by viable changes in art institutions and industries, otherwise it runs the risk of being nothing more than a superficial act of tokenism. For trans artists, making work that depicts themselves and the worlds in which they live is an essential part of their activism.
In the online exhibition “Radical Tenderness: Trans for Trans Portraiture“, Alice Austen House executive director Victoria Munro and guest curator Dr. Eliza Steinbeck bring together the work of artists Johanna Jackie Baier (Germany), Zackary Drucker (US), Texas Isaiah (US), and Del LaGrace Volcano (US/Sweden) who use photography as an essential part of their practices of survival and care. Rather than follow the commercial trope of visibility, which caters to mainstream narratives that positions diversity as “one of each,” therefore reinforcing “otherness,” the artists featured here create a world that is inherently “for us, by us.”
“Photography for me is a survival strategy,” Del LaGrace Volcano says in the exhibition catalogue. “I am intersex but also trans and non-binary, so my approach is from the inside, not ethnographic or anthropologic. I make work with people I connect with or am hoping to know better. Afterwards, in silence, tenderly working with my memories of the photographic moments we created together, I wonder if they have any idea how much they all mean to me? Connection is the key ingredient and the process is as important, if not more so, than the product.”
Bringing together portraits of muses, friends, icons, and self, “Radical Tenderness” examines the ways in which the personal and political are inherently intertwined in photography. Working within their communities, the artists included here are insiders who understand the nuances and complexities of the inner and outer lives of their subjects. By rendering them “visible” the artists control the narrative, reclaiming not only the way in which people are presented by the very language of representation itself.
“Once I started photographing, everyone else was outside, it had no one else’s point of view,” Johanna Jackie Baier says in the exhibition catalogue. “It was only between the girls and me. The place was a cave-like heaven. We could extend our sessions endlessly. It taught me to not think of anybody on the outside. To not follow any rules. I found what I’m looking for when I go out making photographs: I’m throwing myself into something, waiting to be touched. All these photos are when I met my ‘tribe’ and are about being moved and touched.”
In “Radical Tenderness”, the photograph acts as a channel to explore the relationships that exist between artist, subject, and viewer. Bearing witness is a form of testimony and evidence, a means of stating one’s being matters in and of itself. That act extends beyond the creation of the image and is fully complete when the observer opens his mind to worlds they might not otherwise know and engages with the work of art on its own terms.
“Photography creates an opportunity to bond,” Zackary Drucker says in the exhibition catalogue. “There is tremendous value in intergenerational dialoging: elders pass on survival strategies, and the young help them navigate a changing world. In forming queer families, we seek out family figures, fairy godmothers, children, and siblings. Being a mensch is about paying it forward in the hope that one day someone will sit with us in turn.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
“Radical Tenderness: Trans for Trans Portraiture”, online at Alice Austen House.