“When we were 14, if you had told us that we would spend our free time flying all over the country to track down old drag queens and create portraits of them, it would make sense,” floral designer Devin Antheus says.
In June 2022 Antheus and artist Harry James Hanson published the book Legends of Drag: Queens of a Certain Age, celebrating drag elders who paved the way as artists and activists for the generations that followed them, archiving and acknowledging their contributions to queer history specifically and American history in general.
It features 79 performers from 16 cities across the U.S. in both photographs and interviews. Performers appear in glamorous ensembles in front of elegant backdrops surrounded by luscious floral arrangements. The phrase “give them their flowers” takes on new meaning.
In a time when drag is fighting once more for stages across the U.S. and the world, the work is not an escape but a reminder of resilience. Hanson is not deterred. “All of this anti-drag legislation, of course, it will cause harm and violence and impact people’s lives, but queer people will save the world. We already have, actually. And so I’m not scared. Not one bit,” they said.
Hanson and Antheus originally met in their native Wisconsin and began nurturing their own creativity early on. Their friendship was strengthened, Hanson says, by attending screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “When we would get dressed up and drag and terrorize the neighborhood as teenagers, I was definitely taking pictures, but they were just for MySpace, they weren’t like art photographs,” Hanson laughs.
The duality of the drag spirit
Hanson, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, noticed they hadn’t taken on any large scale art projects since graduating college, having freelanced since then in commercial art while also performing in drag. “I had always endeavored or fantasized about a way for my visual art and my drag work to intersect, and I just wasn’t really sure what that was going to look like. I also knew that I was interested in photographing older people,” they said. Indeed, I know Hanson myself as a drag history colleague.
Seeing a show at beloved, historic dive Aunt Charlie’s in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Hanson immediately thought of Antheus, who at the time was living in the Bay Area and had been working in floral design for a few years. The project began to take shape, the flowers being used to “elevate the visuals and catapult it into a realm of fantasy,” Hanson says. “One of the distinctive aspects that I seek to foster in the work is that it’s both conceptual and formal at the same time, formal and surreal. So that duality also seems like a natural marriage with drag, which is also so much about duality,” they said.
The duality also extends to the images themselves, which were all shot outside in the daytime, neither of which are drag’s typical arenas. “Drag photography is done in a studio, or is nightlife photography,” Antheus says. “When we made the choice to shoot during the day, outside in full sun, part of this was an innovation in form…[this] really is not how drag queens are portrayed. And we [thought] that it would actually lend itself well to creating this like, hyper-pop surreal kind of environment.”
Their exercise generated a work that complements and honors in a bright, bold palette the bright, bold lives of the people contained therein. And while the book is a mainstream publication with a bright and bubbly exterior, there’s still radicality inside, and by design.
“We’ve tried to pack as much subversive and radical content as possible into a really innocent and innocuous -seeming book in hopes that it will have much wider reach than it could if it was presented as a radical thing,” Antheus says. He loves the book as an object, feeling it hearkens back to when words on a page were sacred, meant to be kept and accessed for generations. “In spite of itself, it will find its way into the hands of people who will find this information and know how to use it.”
Since its publication, Legends of Drag: Queens of a Certain Age has seen a whirlwind of successes: the cover of the New York Times’s Style Section, an exhibition at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, profiles in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and countless others.
They’ve taken a Legends of Drag show on tour across the country, employing the artists on their pages. And on March 11, 2023 it welcomed one more with its one-night-only exhibition at the CLAMP gallery in New York, part gallery show – featuring larger-than-life prints of drag legends Rumi Missabu (five feet wide) and Phatima Rude (five feet tall) alongside smaller 12×15 prints of prominent New York queens Ruby Rims, Barbra Herr, Egyptt LaBeija, Perfidia & HRH Princess Diandra; and part drag show, where the latter queens will also perform. Incidentally, all portraits from the book are available for purchase from the artists upon request.
Outsiders and iconographers
The art world was never not part of their vision, but it wasn’t at the forefront. “Within fine art, drag is sort of like an outsider art. And, you know, the floral arts are an agricultural trade, literally. So I think any sort of recontextualizations of those art forms in a fine art space that supports the artists making the work, I’m excited to see that,” Hanson says. Antheus agrees. “Like Harry, I definitely feel myself to be an outsider to the art world. But I think that puts us in an interesting position to do something that people haven’t seen before,” he says.
Drag and photography have had a complex relationship over the last century, where performers have all at once needed to use the medium to highlight themselves, advertise for performances, exist consensually as objects for outsiders, and endure the gaze of exploitive eyes.
Hanson and Antheus hoped to use photography as a tool for the empowerment of their subjects, to create, as Antheus says, a time capsule of an ephemeral moment in drag, a time when these elders are so rare. “We’re not just documenting. We have an agenda, we’re seeking to elevate, we’re seeking to venerate,” Antheus says. “We’re not iconoclasts, we’re iconographers. We’re actually trying to create new idols, new icons, through our work.”
Legends of Drag: Queens of a Certain Age is available from Abrams for $35.