Few men have the balls to be women, but even fewer can truly master the art of drag. New York–based photographer Leland Bobbé celebrates the fabulous queens that populate our fair metropolis in a new series titled Half-Drag, creating dynamic dual portraits of drag queens simultaneously in and out of hair and makeup.
Created organically (no Photoshop effects were used to achieve the split faces), the photographs exude a certain glamour reminiscent of press photos or screen tests, but with an inventive, thought-provoking twist. Representing the binary of gender as well as the plethora of dichotomies a person contends with, both in themselves and in the world, the portraits seize your visual attention as well as your mind.
In addition to giving drag queens the subject position they deserve (not since Nan Goldin have I seen such great shots of a subculture), the series obviously plays on our society’s visual representations of gender and the ability of the human body to transform and transcend the bounds of traditional modes of appearance.
In my view, the series could be pushed even further to its limits, incorporating half-gown, half-suit composite garments, hybrid settings that represent traditionally feminine and masculine styles, and other visual dualities.
In the meantime, I caught up with Bobbé to hear more about his bifurcated portraits.
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Alexander Cavaluzzo: What initiated your Half-Drag series?
Leland Bobbé: I had previously done a series of portraits of neo-burlesque performers that was exhibited at the Museum of Sex here in New York City for three months in the spring of 2011. I saw a shot of one of the male burlesque performers on Facebook dressed as half male and half female and asked him to come in for a studio portrait of that. The results were great. I later met a drag queen at a photography industry party and and thought it would be great to do a very tight beauty portrait using the same concept. That’s how it all began.
AC: What themes are you exploring with these works?
LB: As a visual person, my initial theme was purely visual — simply half man, half woman. The more I shot, the more I saw how the power of hair and makeup could completely transform someone on the outside and, once transformed, how differently they carried themselves on the outside.
AC: Is there anything specific you look for or respond to in a subject?
LB: In these subjects I looked for drag queens who had a really strong sense of both their male side and their female side.
AC: Do the dualities you expose in the series speak specifically to gender, or do they also highlight the more varied complexities of the human condition?
LB: The obvious duality is the gender, but I think that we all have different sides to us, many of which are internalized. Because this is done on the outside, the duality is more obvious.
AC: What artists and movements do you find inspiration from? Do you think you’re inheriting a cultural legacy with these works?
LB: I find most of my inspiration from film and rock and roll. Whether or not I am inheriting a cultural legacy I’ll leave up to other people.
AC: What do you think is the importance of drag, not just in gay culture specifically but American culture as a whole?
LB: I think, in general, that the important message of drag is one of a symbol for change and transformation. Perhaps this message could be adapted by American culture as a whole.
AC: Where do you see this series progressing?
LB: We’ll all have to wait and see …