These once scattered photographs, rescued and collected by the French film-maker Sébastien Lifshitz, are gathered in a volume that traces the shifting modes of representations of transvestites’ identities. The two hundred photographs – be they auto, solo, or group portraits – are haunted by individuals who perform their singularities in ever-changing, distinctive manners, while a common and acute sense of joyful gravity permeates the book.
Divided chronologically into three eras, 1880-1920, 1920-1950, and 1950- 1980, Mauvais Genre stimulates speculation about the precise trajectories, the multiple lives of these images, perhaps secretly shared and cherished by small communities, gathered in luxurious leather albums, then deliberately thrown away by blood relatives, as unwelcome, cumbersome testimonies? Their archaeology seems to conjoin intimacy’s preservation and public life’s circulation.
Here is an exploration that extends the usual iconic boundaries of its subject matter. As such it delves not solely into the singularities of the transvestites in themselves, but discernibly widens this area to the nuances, modulations and degrees of these multiple, composite identities. While sometimes encountering a nowadays typical representation of a disguised, transformed identity shot in a Studio Harcourt-like photograph, or canonical – but oblique – references to art history (from Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper to Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe), the reader is equally invited to face the following images: a transvestite in an antique pose with classical jewellery, high-heel shoes and ornaments, hiding his sex with a fold of fabric while revealing a hairy leg and a shaved one ; a photograph of two seemingly young women, dressed in trouser suits, cloth-caps and ties, cigars in mouth, confidently playing cards; a sequence of a late middle-aged man in his living room, deploying a wide array of a bourgeois-type female clothing, gestures and formulaic smiling poses.
One learns in the tissue-thin pages at the end of Mauvais Genre that this specific series is dated 1985, and was produced in Florida. A foreword by Lifshitz and two essays introduce the publication. Christine Bard’s wide ranging contribution touches on the way historically transvestism was forbidden and seen as pathological; the emergence of LGBT movements and forms of subversive feminism that have arisen from the breaking down of binary gender identities. Isabelle Bonnet’s complementary essay focuses more on the political repression of male transsexuality, principally as it occurred in the USA, and the way the gay liberation movement emerged during the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s.
Book, catalogue, volume, publication? Mauvais Genre defies any easy attempt to categorise it. Published to coincide with the exhibition of Lifshitz’ collection at the Rencontres d’Arles 2016, the presence of the two opening essays and a chronological-geographic contextualisation at its close – aspects which tend to evaporate in current photobook trends – would adduce to its classification as a catalogue. However, it is informative and rich without having the pretense of being exhaustive, evacuating sharply the form of a ‘catalogue raisonné’. One can be absorbed by and dwell on these images in one’s own way, turning the pages back and forth at one’s own pace, information being offered but not regimented or imposed. Shall it be then called a book? Actually, the pages have the feel of a celebratory family-album, almost classical, albeit substantially expanded: it has been constituted retrospectively, assembled from photographs of persons who may or may not have known each other.
Mauvais Genre highlights the co-existence of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the inventiveness and elation of people experimenting with their identities and expanding their modalities of being.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Joséphine Michel
Mauvais genre: Les travestis à travers un siècle de photographie amateur
(Collection Sébastien Lifshitz , textes de Christine Bard et Isabelle Bonnet) was published by Les éditions Textuel 2016