How queer photographers challenge social convention through self expression and a fearless exploration of identity
A history of queer photography and the arts
The arts have long been a refuge for the scorned. A place for those who do not fit into the mould of society to explore and communicate who they are. For centuries, queer-identifying people have made waves in the art world, creating some of the most memorable and iconic pieces that have been and will be regarded for ages to come.
Photography is a medium that utilises the present and allows for it to be captured in standstill. Only to be relieved years after the moment has passed. The medium has the amazing quality of not just capturing the real, but the real that is perceived in the eyes of the photographer.
Queer photography has long been a glimpse into the world and lives of a diverse range of people. It seeks to express the identities of both the subject and photographer alike. Accompanied by the rise of social media platforms like Instagram, more so than ever LGBTQIA+ photographers are able to share and gain recognition for their work. No longer limited to the often exclusionary gallery world and niche coffee table books, the Queer Gaze is breaking through the rigid boxes of conventional photography more so than ever before.
Distinction from the 'straight gaze'
One can interpret the rise of the queer gaze in photography as being reactionary to the concept of the ‘straight gaze’. Defined more commonly as the male and female gaze, respectively, the straight gaze is focused on the depiction of male and female subjects for the purpose of engaging the opposite sex. Conversely, the queer gaze is recognition of how LGBTQIA+ and gender nonconforming people perceive the world and each other, expressed through art.
Queer artist Louis Fratino defined the queer gaze as ‘being an unknown gaze. It’s a way of seeing something that hasn’t been seen before’. The subjects are bold and free, the colours range from bright and vibrant to muted, black and white. The quality of the image could be pristine and sharp, printed on the finest paper, to blurred and distorted, printed on anything the artist could find.
There is no one consistent theme in the images, only that they speak to a unique, previously scorned kind of allure. Photographer Del Lagrace Volcano defines the common theme: “It seeks to empathise and see beauty where other people see abjection”. It is for those in the community, those who have known exclusion and isolation, and know that the inherent beauty of the queer identity is so much more powerful than that.
Queer photographers, then and now
Queer and gender non-conforming people have permeated the world of photography for as long as the medium has existed. You have photographers like Ruth Bernhard who was deeply involved in the lesbian subculture in Manhattan in the late 1920’s and throughout the 1930’s.
Bernhard's practice spanned across a variety of subject matter but she is most regarded for her almost sculptural nude photography. She was regarded by one of her peers, Ansel Adams, to be ‘the finest photographer of the nude’. The perfect beauty of these photographs were almost an homage, a love letter from the artist to the female form. Rather than objectifying the subject, Bernhard's photographs celebrated them as art.
Another notable queer photographer is Alvin Baltrope, who documented the lives of queer men living on the neglected Chelsea Pier of New York City in the 1970’s and 80’s, prior to the AIDs pandemic. His photographs were black and white and often contained light leaks. While maybe technically imperfect, his work spoke volumes because of their candid depictions of freedom. These men, living as they chose and deserved to live, in a time which held them in contempt.
Heather Glazzard is a photographer from Halifax, Yorkshire. Her work is fashion orientated and captures the unique beauty of her subjects poignantly. Like the queer photographers who came before her. She and her work seek to call attention to the faces, names and stories of the communities through still images.
One thing that is clear about Glazzard's work, and the work of the rest of the photographers I have mentioned, is that they allow ‘queer’ to define itself, rather than placing a prewritten label on it. You can tell by the difference in images that utilise the queer gaze that it cannot be limited and it cannot be contained. As the world becomes more accepting, and people become more free to express their identities; we will hopefully begin to see even more photography that embraces the identities of its subject and photographer alike, and radiates a warm, truth and positivity through its visage.