Queer in Practice
by Laura Guy
Issue 79 Summer 2014
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Is there such a thing as ‘Queer Photography’ and if so how could we go about writing its history?
‘Queer’ was reclaimed by members of the AIDS activist community during the late 1980s as a sign under which to organise politically. Within these recent histories of gay and lesbian struggle, queer also became a means for some to trouble the hard and fast categories implied by naming either of those orientations. Functioning as a kind of umbrella under which it is possible to assemble a plethora of identifications, queer simultaneously disturbs the logic that binds a subject to a fixed identity. Given this, how does one reconcile something so unstable as queer with something as amorphous as photography?
Like many communities, groups that ally through queerness often affirm relationships through photographs that circulate both off and online. Yet, if there is nothing essential about queer, there also cannot be anything essentially queer about photography. In order to think of the two together, it seems only possible to look at how they coincide at particular moments.
The 1980s provides us with a number of such moments, when the relations between photography and queerness were thrown into particular relief. The initial years of the AIDS epidemic, the on-going Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform in Ireland and the legislative changes made under Section 28, that prohibited ‘pretended family’ relationships from being ‘promoted’ in places like schools, provide a political backdrop for the photography practices that engaged with gay and lesbian issues in that era. To look at how these practices might be retrospectively constituted as queer ones, one could take into account the contributions made by various people including, among others, Tessa Boffin, Jean Fraser, Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Alex Hirst, Sunil Gupta, Rosy Martin with Jo Spence, Jill Posener and Simon Watney. One could also look at how their photographic and publishing projects operated within a broader network of practitioners and so-called independent photography organisations that supported, sometimes, these practices. Along with initiatives like Camerawork and the Format Photography Agency, other venues where photography was disseminated, such as the US magazine On Our Backs and its UK counterpart Quim, could also be considered. In these contexts and more, photography intersected not only with gay and lesbian politics but also with feminism and with issues of gender, disability, race and class. These concerns, which coalesced around identity and visibility, both informed, and were informed by, the emergent debates surrounding photography and the politics of representation.
Though formal histories of these formative practices are patchy to say the least, their legacies can be felt in various ways. In a recent commission undertaken by Anthony Luvera for Photoworks, photography facilitated the articulation of a shared queer identity. Responding to their location in Brighton, widely reported to be the ‘Gay Capital’ of Britain, Photoworks commissioned Luvera to work with a group in the city to explore through photography what the term queer might mean to them. The process developed into the project Not Going Shopping (named as such after a chant that challenges commercial participation in Pride marches) that was disseminated in the form of photographic posters pasted across the city. The project also included the publication of an anthology, Queer in Brighton, that articulated through vernacular photographs and oral history testimonies a community organised, albeit disparately, around queerness. Building upon methodologies that he has developed in his previous work, Luvera engaged critically with the recent history of identity-based practices. In doing so the project sought to address questions of visibility pertaining to both past and contemporary queer experiences.
Another intersection, this time between photography and queer theory, can be found in a number of initiatives established by staff at London College of Communication. A recent exhibition by research fellow Sara Davidmann at the Photography and the Archive Research Centre demonstrated one way in which queer work is currently being supported within an academic setting. Davidmann’s on-going Ken. To Be Destroyed reworked material from her family archive in order to retrospectively inscribe the trans experience of the person she had known as her uncle ‘Ken’ into the album precisely through revealing its unspoken absences. The exhibition also worked to demonstrate the reciprocal nature of theory and practice with various canonical texts from queer studies placed within the show. It is significant that at present the field of queer studies carries a certain weight within academia though equally important to note that these debates are not necessarily ones engaged with on photography courses. A special issue of the journal Photography and Culture focusing on queerness and photography, co-edited by Davidmann with Bruno Ceschel, founder of Self Publish, Be Happy, and Toronto based scholar Elspeth Brown, is forthcoming in Autumn 2014. No doubt this will mark an important intervention in the field.
The notion of institutional validation is a difficult one for practices that often locate their political potentiality at the margins. Exactly why and how practices move from the peripheries toward the centre varies according to each example. Yet institutionalisation of once radical forms usually requires a process of negotiation that is not always entered into willingly and most likely is enacted on the terms of the dominant power. When Dick Hebdige wrote in the late 1980s about the irreconcilable distance that separated independent photography magazine TEN.8 from fashion magazine The Face, he articulated one apparent shift from a politically engaged independent photography to more ironic, more ambiguous and slicker forms. The visual iconography of queer culture nurtured by photographers like Nan Goldin has in the last two decades become apparent in commercial advertising. Adoption into these hegemonic practices, indeed seemingly becoming hegemonic themselves, requires an emptying out of political possibility and recoding of meaning. Queer problematically becomes style.
A comparable shift was charted by Adrian Rifkin during a recent event at the Photographers’ Gallery. The evening, organised to celebrate the fourth birthday of Self Publish, Be Happy, was billed as a ‘Photobook Orgy’. It was introduced by Bruno Ceschel whose recollection of a nascent queer desire encountered through photography and print set the tone for what followed. A series of readings from the new edition of The Photobook Review, edited by Ceschel, moved fluidly between bodies, images, objects and screens. Rifkin’s contribution reminded us that the site of a wellused photolab, once located opposite the gallery, was now home to SweatBox, a sauna for gay men that looks from the outside like a generic gym. The orgy it seemed was going on elsewhere. We were left rehearsing Adam Broomberg’s gruesome anecdote of his teenself wanking over a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, an important conciousness-raising tome of the 1970s women’s movement. It was enough to turn this feminist right off. The trouble with orgies is that everything is up for grabs.
Rifkin’s remark struck a cord as it linked the diminishing number of photolabs, precipitated by digitisation, to Soho’s queer history, newly sanitised and repackaged as SweatBox Ltd. Presumably much of the seedier stuff has gone online as well. Our location in the new gallery building threw the rapid gentrification of the area into even starker relief. As queer work is attracting the attention of the photography and artworld, the spaces for marginal practices become fewer and fewer. Public spending cuts associated with economic austerity, the gentrification of cities, crippling rents, the increasing marginalisation of non-urban experience, the ongoing effects of AIDS and the emphasis on assimilation implied, for example, by the campaign for same-sex marriage all contribute to the lessening of contexts for both queer lives and, by extension, queer art.
When I began this article I pasted a few images at the top of the document as an invocation of the contemporary queer photography in the UK and Ireland about which I was trying to write. Initially feeling like I was writing from the outside, in the sense that I do not see myself as a member of any photography community organised around queerness, I imagined that at some point during the research process the notion of a queer photography practice would solidify. In its absence these few photographs that offered a starting point became a kind of queer imaginary that now seems exactly right for the subject. In these images, by people like Jonny Briggs, Emma Haugh, Christa Holka, Alix Marie and Sarah Pucill queerness and photography appear to cohere briefly in ways that resist formation into a canonical practice. Among them were photographs by Ochi Reyes and Åsa Johannesson, two practitioners whose work seems to reinvest through photography in the political potentiality that queerness has historically offered. Reyes’ photographs foreground photography as an ephemeral process that speaks to the ways in which identification is oriented through sometimes momentary exchanges between bodies, objects and images. She often utilises forms of camouflage that permit the body to appear only fleetingly. Cumulatively Reyes’ images seem to describe subjectivity as an ongoing process. Negotiated through the materiality of the photographic medium, this process registers as a series of temporally discrete encounters and tactile surfaces.
Åsa Johannesson also engages with portraiture as a genre that has performed an instrumental role in discussions around identity and representation. These pictures that focus on the performance of non-heteronormative gender are often located in woodland settings. Utilising codes of the documentary genre, they play subtly with notions of the natural. Like Reyes, she is interested in how queerness is generated within a process of recognition that is here mediated through photography. Yet for Johannesson, working with photography registers a calculated risk as the medium carries with it its own history in taxonomising and disciplining deviant bodies. It is a history that is always already in tension with the political potentiality of queerness. Instead of seeking to deconstruct or expose the impositions that culture places on our bodies, Johannesson’s visual language relies on ambiguity as it speaks to and through expressions of an ideal. Resemblance is all that is promised by the photograph as within the image identities take on endlessly mutable forms. The work of these photographers is thus richly suggestive of the possibilities that a term like queer still offers photography and vice versa. Queer unfixes. Perhaps then, photography is queer at moments when it too resists fixity in order that it might begin to sustain other kinds of lives.
With thanks to Brenda Burrell, Emma Campbell, Elly Clarke, Bruno Ceschel, Phyllis Christopher, Rachel Cunningham, Emma Haugh, Simon Watney and other friends for discussing aspects of this article with me.