LOS ANGELES — Mark Seliger is a widely known photographer, with over 125 Rolling Stone covers to his name, yet there is something new and revelatory in On Christopher Street, his current exhibit at Von Lintel Gallery showing portraits of trans women and men. Seliger lives and works in Manhattan’s West Village, and although he is primarily a celebrity photographer, this new body of work arose from engaging with the trans people in his own neighborhood.
Seliger has the rare ability to get his subjects to open up to the lens, their deeper layers rising to the surface of the picture. The photographs are black and white, executed in the high-gloss stew of hero worship and advertising we have come to expect from images of the famous. Though the Christopher Street subjects are mostly ordinary folk, his visual style confers a measure of stardom upon them without eclipsing their human vulnerability.
Take, for example, Seliger’s images of two very masculine guys, Benjamin Melzer (an up and coming male model) and Ni’tee Spady, who also models. Both are muscled and tattooed. Spady holds his hands and raises his eyes in a gesture that feels quietly self-protective. Melzer sits on a bench press staring straight at the camera, his body a wall of power yet his eyes somehow beseeching. It’s easy to find images of Melzer online, in which he projects an easy, shirtless confidence or offers the smoldering gaze of the magazine cover. Seliger’s picture of him is entirely different, an unstable mix of strength and vulnerability.
Mahalya Mcelroy’s portrait is lodged in my mind for its elegance: She is liquid, composed, wistful, her long white scarf blown to a blur. The picture evokes classic Hollywood as well as Renaissance portraiture. In Seliger’s book, On Christopher Street, containing all 72 photos in this project, Mcelroy is quoted talking about cutting ties with her family and then reconnecting with her father after five years. The gallerist, Tarrah von Lintel, told me that the picture was taken the day after Mcelroy’s lover was discovered at the very spot she is photographed, floating in the Hudson, a suicide. She was 24 at the time.
A number of pictures show couples and families, with love and tenderness being the primary themes (for example, “Jamel Young + Leiomy Maldonado” or “Adrian Torres and Carmen Carrera”). On the one hand, it is encouraging to see evidence that New York City has reached a point where trans people can, perhaps, raise a family in relative peace. On the other hand, it is impossible not to think about the rising threat to trans people all over this country. Seliger surely did not imagine when he began this project in 2014 that these photographs would be exhibited just as a paroxysm of hatred was roiling American culture. With the inauguration of our 45th president we face an ascendancy of the right in all branches of government; attempts have already been made in the first weeks of this administration to roll back civil rights gains made by the LGBT community, though thus far the President, a New Yorker after all, has refused to support them. 2016 was a year of increasing visibility as LGBT celebrities such as Caitlin Jenner used their star power to widen the public discourse, but the far right would like every LGBT person to disappear.
Jamel Young and Leiomy Maldonado are a couple in which each person transitioned to the opposite sex of their birth. They are dressed entirely in black, arms around each other, their faces suffused with a suave confidence. It is a tough-minded act to become uniquely oneself against society’s onslaught of conformist pressures and the mass-market culture of sameness, most especially when that becoming involves defying dominant norms and risking the loss of your family and friends. The people in these pictures have not only engendered themselves anew, they have helped to construct a more fluid notion of sex and identity than our culture permitted us to imagine just one or two generations back.
Octavia McKinney, photographed in a tight white tank and very short shorts, pulls her long legs wide apart and stares into the camera with confrontational frankness. A number of those pictured in the exhibit made the trip to LA to attend Seliger’s opening, and Octavia herself stood next to her portrait, meeting my eyes purposefully as I looked. Her presence that night spoke to one of the most powerful qualities of this work, a simple yet far-reaching statement: I am here.
Mark Seliger: On Christopher Street continues at Von Lintel Gallery (2685 S La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles) through February 25.