Mistaken Identities, Images of Gender and Transformation @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing 13 groups of works (most by unidentified makers), variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the smaller library room. A central vitrine contains many of the originals as smaller prints or albums, as well as 3 magazines.

The show includes works by:

  • Charles Eisenmann: 1 albumen print cabinet card, c1890
  • Asahel S. Avery: 1 albumen print carte de visite, c1868
  • Unidentified photographer (men with beards): 1 slideshow of 88 images (on video screen), 4 photographic enlargements of gelatin silver prints, c1970s
  • Unidentified photographer (gender benders): 9 gelatin silver prints, c1970
  • Unidentified photographer (portraits from Casa Susanna): 3 chromogenic prints, 4 gelatin silver prints, c1970
  • Unidentified photographer (women in pageants): 9 gelatin silver prints, 1935-1958
  • Unidentified photographer (actresses on television screens): 9 Type 42 Polaroids, c1960
  • Unidentified photographer (The Girlfriend’s Album): 1 slideshow of 24 album spreads (on video screen), 14 photographic enlargements of gelatin silver prints, 1934
  • Unidentified photographer (Dear Martin series): 12 gelatin silver prints, 1968
  • Unidentified photographer (woman displaying various outfits): 28 chromogenic prints, c1980-1990
  • Eugene von Breunchenhein (portraits of Marie): 7 gelatin silver prints, c1955
  • Samuel Fosso: 1 chromogenic print, 1997
  • Bob Mizer (athletic model guild models): 28 gelatin silver prints, c1955-1980
  • Adolf Patiño (“Le Tierra Prohibida de Terry Holiday”): 12 photographic enlargements of chromogenic prints, 1979

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While more fluid definitions of gender and sexuality have become more commonplace in our contemporary world, discrete binary notions of male and female have always been an oversimplification of the wide range of human desires and behaviors. Photography has consistently been used to document these most personal definitions of identity, and this timely show gathers together a selection of vernacular projects that capture visual evidence of both the social norms of gender and sexuality that exist and some of the transgressive deviations from those norms that stand beyond them. Seen together, they offer a broader and more inclusive view of how bodies, fashions, performances (both public and private), and image making come together to mold how we measure and define ourselves.

For many women, famous movie actresses set a universally-known standard for female appearance and behavior, and a group of voyeuristic Polaroid images taken from TV screens capture the expressions and reactions of Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Ekberg, Doris Day, and others, turning them into a somewhat lurid taxonomy of 1960s era feminine style. Beauty pageants from the 1940s and 1950s, especially local ones, are another mode of public performance that have often influenced the evolving standards of female beauty. Here a selection of fresh faced young winners in tiaras and sashes pose with a dizzying variety of potatoes, lettuces, cantaloupes, and other produce, the mixture of heartland State Fair bounty and sexualized bodies giving the images a sense of incongruous camp.

More private albums of photographs find women defining themselves in alternate and more nuanced ways. One woman took casual self portraits in every outfit in her closet, her dresses and jeans giving us clues to the patterns (and aspirations) of her mid 1980s life. Eugene von Bruenchenhein made a series of nude portraits of his wife Marie, where backed by floral drapery and dressed in pearls, she actively took on the glamour poses of 1950s pinup models. And the aptly named Girlfriend’s Album chronicles the outdoor activities of a group of four women, their easy going personal intimacy and tender touching/posing leaving us wondering about the subtleties of their relationships.

When the show turns its attention to men, the gender signifiers get a bit muddier. A catalog of beards and facial hair offers a range of options, from tough masculinity to dandyish preciousness, while a selection of shower stall beefcake nudes by Bob Mizer places athletic muscularity at the tipping point between alternate varieties of sexual attraction.

These appearances get even more confused and ambiguous as men take on cross dressed personas. In a perplexing series entitled Dear Martin, a middle aged man poses on a rooftop wearing only women’s panties, the purpose of these proudly private photographs never clearly articulated. The portraits from Casa Susanna find men taking on more elaborate female roles and looks, the supportive environment allowing them to feel more relaxed and at ease. And Adolf Patiño’s images of the Mexican transsexual actress Terry Holiday push the theatricality quotient a few notches higher, her seductive female poses that much more performative and provocative.

While vernacular photographs are sometimes discounted due to the lack of context that surrounds their making or intention, the selections here are evidence of projects that were undertaken with consistent care and attention, and the curatorial mix leverages their collective power to encourage us to embrace more broadly ambiguous definitions of gender. The combination reinforces the interlocked ideas that vernacular photographs have their own important stories to tell, and that even in the face of rigid stereotypes and social constructs, personal identity is far more ingeniously malleable than we might imagine.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given that most of the works come from unidentified makers, we will forgo the usual discussion of gallery representation and secondary market histories normally found here.

Read more about: Walther Collection (NY Project Space)

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