Curator Makeda Best recently talked with photographer Mariette Pathy Allen, who created a groundbreaking portfolio focused on crossdressers in the 1980s. Now 80, Allen explains the circumstances and artistic processes that shaped the work, which is preserved in the Harvard Art Museums collections. Allen Frame, a friend of the artist and a photographer himself, also joined the conversation.
Mariette Pathy Allen’s books include Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them (1990), The Gender Frontier (2003), TransCuba (2014), and Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand (2017). She has worked on numerous films as well as radio and television programs about gender topics, and has given lectures around the world. Learn more here.
Makeda Best: Could you tell us about your early career? What drew you to photography?
Mariette Pathy Allen: I was a painter first. I became a photographer only after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. By fluke, I met a photographer named Harold Feinstein, and it was through him that I started to do photography. I got a couple of wonderful jobs right at the beginning of my career. One was to photograph artists in the Philadelphia area for WCAU-TV. I also got a job working for the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. There, I was asked to photograph “The Face of New Jersey.” The curator had just seen [the MoMA exhibition] The Family of Man, and he thought New Jersey should have something like that.
Around 1969, I moved back to New York. I continued to paint, but I also started photographing in color—flowers and fantasy. And then, in 1978, my husband and I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and we stayed in the same hotel as a large group of crossdressers who were there for the parade. On the last day, I went down to breakfast, and there they were. This incredible group of people were very friendly, and they invited me to join them for breakfast. Outside the dining room, there was a swimming pool. They started parading around the pool and someone started taking pictures of this lineup, and I thought, maybe it’s okay if I take a picture. So, I lifted the camera to my eye and, looking through the lens, I saw that the person in the middle of this lineup was looking straight at me. I said to myself—it just came to me—I’m not looking at a man or a woman, I’m looking at a human being. I’m looking at a soul. I took the picture. I said to myself, “I have to have this person in my life.”
It turned out this person, Vicky West, lived about 20 blocks from me in New York. That is how it all began. Vicky took me to all the events that she went to. Ultimately, she took me to Fantasia Fair, which is where it all really took hold. I started to learn more about this phenomenon and how to photograph people who had never been photographed in a positive way, by anybody. That was a huge learning curve for me. Suddenly, I realized I’d been given a huge gift. I began to feel like I was the conduit through which information could be disseminated about people who had been degraded, who had been considered evil and dangerous, who had not been allowed to go to their churches, who’d had to hide from their spouses and certainly their children. Some of them even grew up thinking they were insane, because they didn’t know anyone like themselves. The more stories I heard, the more pictures I took, the more I continued to work. I saw no reason to stop. As the community evolved, I continued to participate in its trajectory.
MB: At the time you started making the photographs, were you aware of how transgender people were made to feel in society? How much was that awareness part of how you pursued your work?
MPA: In talking to transgender people, I became aware that they couldn’t find images that they related to. The images they could find were in porn shops or academic books. And those books were always for the doctors and psychiatrists who looked at them objectively, often in the nude, not from the perspective of care or of help, but as a source of scientific and medical knowledge. The crossdressers didn’t identify with this imagery. They often pointed out to me that they weren’t gay, contrary to the general assumption. They weren’t interested in being depicted as creatures of porn or being scrutinized. I learned that anatomy, gender identity, and gender expression were separate issues that could be combined in any form.
When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to take a class in cultural anthropology. The course made me question something about myself. I never understood why men were supposed to have certain characteristics and women to have others, and why these were the implied rules of our society. I didn’t understand that, and I felt rebellious. And then, when I met trans people, I had a great sense of relief, because I realized it was true that gender didn’t always go according to the “rules.” But I had a lot to learn.
MB: What did you envision doing with the pictures you were making?
MPA: I was convinced relatively early on that I wanted to make a book. Obviously, I wanted to make exhibitions as well, but I wanted to make a book that the trans community would identify with. At the same time, I wanted that book to tell people on the outside: you have been misjudging these people. You haven’t understood who they are. These are average people who have an aspect in them that is crucially important to them. In some cases, the crossdressers may have only cross-dressed once or twice a year, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t feel like cross-dressing more often. Maybe when they went shopping, they would be dreaming about buying a piece of lingerie but would be embarrassed to buy it or they might tell the store clerk it was for their wife. There were other people who cross-dressed every day. There was a lot of yearning, guilt, fear, and other emotions.
Allen Frame: When did you start to get invited to places like Fantasia Fair to show your work?
MPA: It never occurred to me to do that, until a trans person from a different conference, named Naomi, who was also a photographer, suggested that I make a slideshow. I thought, what? Me do a slideshow? But as part of my learning curve, I said, okay, Naomi, tell me how I should do this. And she did, and it was a huge success. I had no idea I could make speeches. I had been an extremely shy person. But I found if I could say it’s not about me, I’m the vehicle through which this information is coming forth, then it’s my job to do it. I started speaking at different venues and to different groups, primarily at transgender conferences and gatherings. Over time, I spoke to a lot of medical and psychiatric groups, as well. Not many people in the arts.
In the beginning, I didn’t meet any visual artists. Most of the people I talked to worked in traditionally masculine jobs: police officers, technicians, engineers, firefighters, CEOs. I had to explain what I was doing artistically when I created slideshows. The first time I really connected with an arts audience (Allen invited me to speak at the School of Visual Arts, in New York), it was a huge relief, because people got the bigger picture and they looked at my pictures as art. I did speak to photography students at different schools, but not frequently. Most often I was speaking to people working with gender-variant people. I am part of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. It’s a huge organization. Initially, there were hardly any transgender people in it. It consisted of professionals telling transgender people who they were and how they should feel about things. It was very prejudicial.
MB: It’s interesting that you turned to photography from painting. What was your process, and what were your influences? It seems like it was a big leap to move into this kind of photography. I’m curious about how you came up with an approach?
MPA: It was a gradual transition, because for a while I didn’t know how to define myself. As a painter, I was interested in shapes, lines, and space. That never stopped, but I would be alone in a studio all day. As a photographer, however, I could interact with people, and I could still look with the eyes of a painter. Photography was a passport into the world, and it allowed me to have new experiences.
AF: Yes, like the long-term project in documentary. What were your associations with that?
MPA: Many of the photographers I was aware of at that time did long-term projects. I feel that if something interests you, you aren’t likely to lose interest in it, though you might change the way you’re doing it.
Before I worked with gender-expansive people, I worked with a lot with modern dance companies. Dancers are easy to work with—they know how they look and what to do with their bodies. But with the transgender people I worked with, they had no idea how to be photographed. They would stand still and symmetrically, as if they were having their passport picture taken. I saw that I needed to coach them out of their symmetrical body position and that I had to introduce movement. I would tell them “We are going to be painting with light and making a sculpture, and you are the sculptor.” I would try to get them to make shapes, to move. I would say, “The woman who lives inside of you, what is she like? How would she move?” And, of course, I would experiment with light. I had taken a lighting class with Philippe Halsman. There were some difficult issues. If I made the portrait in the afternoon and they had shaved in the morning, the beard stubble would be visible. There was also the issue of the wigs. They had no idea how to put them on and so their eyes would be in shadow as if under a thatched roof. Many had difficulty applying their makeup. Sometimes I had to help pick out their clothing. Working with people in those ways was new to me.
MB: You have made a variety of images, including some formal portraits and some environmental portraits.
MPA: Exactly. I learned to do that depending on the situation I was in. At conferences, for example, I could do both. I would often set up a studio. I would also take people on a walk, and we would look around for a spot to make a portrait. At Fantasia Fair, held in Provincetown [Massachusetts], there were a lot of different settings in which to work. We could go out to the beach or find a park or even a doorway and work for hours. I liked putting sitters in unpredictable places. I would also document activities at the conferences, which was a different way of working.
AF: Other than the pose and the styling, what did you consider ideal for the portrait sitting?
MPA: I like gentle light, to give shape to a person. I tried to find, or create, a space around the person so they could move and extend themselves in any direction. I wanted to create an environment where they are comfortable or even stimulated. Beyond that, I was always looking for the soul of the person. I wanted pictures that made people feel good about themselves. I also wanted them to feel free enough to express some emotion. I wanted it to feel like we had gotten to another level beyond just pretty pictures. I would often talk to people or tell them stories or ask them a few questions here and there. I always tried to help them connect to the person who lived inside of them: Who was she? What was she like? What did she want? There were sitters who cried at their first session. They had never been given the kind of permission I was able to give them. They had never experienced approval or acceptance for their other side. It had a very therapeutic effect.
AF: By the 1990s, when you had more experience, I’m sure that some of that intimacy was important to you. But looking through that work, some of the best portraits I think are actually taken in settings that you wouldn’t think of as intimate: in the middle of a march or in a coffee shop or an activity in a room. It’s interesting that you would be able to create that connection in fast-changing environments.
MPA: I think I was able to do it because I knew the person or felt an immediate connection that seemed to be shared. When I made portraits in those environments, it was as if we were on our own island.
MB: You’ve written articles in which you detail the historical shifts for the trans community. Are there ways in which your artistic approach changed over time, too?
MP: Yes, I would say so. In the 1980s, I was primarily working on these portraits of crossdressers, and the kind of political activism at the time was through television and radio program appearances, where transgender people tried to educate the public. That took a lot of courage and was a very important beginning. In the 1990s, activism added street demonstrations, vigils, and marches. There were—and still are—countless murders of trans women. The protests were against surgeons and psychiatrists and other “authorities,” and there was even a trip to Vermont to demonstrate at a school that had put a boy on probation for wearing a dress to school. The street demonstrations evolved into less overt political activism, such as Lobby Days and, eventually, running for office.
I was finding myself doing more photographs of events. My work became more about the movement and the community. I never stopped making portraits, though they tended to be less formal. I loved to photograph people in their homes and with their families, and I also appreciated working at the many conferences held all over the country. By the 2000s, however, the conferences changed. They became places where surgeons would come to recruit patients. They would do presentations on female to male transition and then another on male to female transition. The conferences became more predictable—even boring—and the emotional connections through people finding each other and making friends became less important.
MB: What was the response to Transformations?
MPA: The response from the community has always been positive. Some of the interviews that I did for media weren’t so nice. When I got a NYSCA grant, The New York Post used the headline “Men in Drag: Your Tax Dollars at Work.” Instead of being angry with me for being outed, the community showed me amazing kindness and support.
Transformations was often placed in a bookstore behind a cashier on a high shelf, which kept people from buying it. Customers wouldn’t ask for it, because they didn’t want the cashier to suspect they were a crossdresser. A cashier told me it was the kind of book that “walks” (that is, stolen). People were embarrassed to be seen buying it.
In the art community, I didn’t receive a lot of attention. The only people who wrote about my work initially were gay men and gay publications. But as far as exhibiting my work, it was slow going. My work is different in that I don’t use a large-format camera, and my work tends to be more intimate and spontaneous. It seemed hard for gallerists and curators to see it as fine art. I have representation now by [the New York gallery] ClampArt.
MB: I read that you think about three questions when you work: how do we see ourselves, how do we know who we are, and where does this knowledge come from? It seems that, for you, there isn’t one answer to each question and the community shows you how the questions themselves are infinite. It is interesting that you are pursuing that kind of infinite quality versus the “answer.” The photograph fixes and seizes, but the questions are open-ended.
MPA: Yes—the “answers” are too narrow. Trans people, by their very existence, are asking us, what does it mean to be a man or a woman or a person undefined by gender? What could be more interesting than that? The way I can answer my own questions is through photography. But I’m not sure I’ll ever know. People have asked me if I am tired of this work and these questions, and I think, how can I be tired?
This conversation between photographer Mariette Pathy Allen, her friend Allen Frame, and Makeda Best, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography in the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art, took place on January 2, 2021, via Zoom. It has been slightly shortened and edited for style and clarity.