the nude photo series breaking down the gender binary
The subjects of Maggie West's luminous new book of portraits, "23," refuse categorization.
Most nude photography books fall into one of two categories — hyper masculine or hyper feminine. Los Angeles-based photographer Maggie West is looking to change that. Her new book of photographs, titled 23, features 23 models that are a collective mixture of cis and transgender — and deliberately presents them as inseparable.
West made her name with two previous titles — Kiss, a book about the intimacy of kissing, and Fluids, for which she photographed bodily fluids under a microscopic lens — and now turns her lens to the human form. "I believe gender and sexuality are fluid," she said on the phone from her studio. "People are not just exclusively one thing, in our traits and characteristics, so I wanted to do a nude book that feels more contemporary, one that is done in a less binary way. I felt a lot of nude books have very masculine men and very feminine women. I wanted to examine a spectrum."
She took two months to shoot a variety of models she met through friends, on Instagram, and through L.A.'s first transgender modeling agency, Slay Models. "I just kept meeting cool, new people I wanted to put in the book," she said. "I felt the book could go on forever, so I had to end at an arbitrary number and it was 23."
The book features trans model Arisce Wanzer, a cast member of Strut, the transgender fashion show on the Oxygen network. "One of the best parts of putting together this book was talking to trans people about being trans," said West. "Long conversations on working as a trans model, their life and their experiences."
Wanzer also wrote one of the introductory essays to the book, detailing her own experience as a model. "When I'm applauded for my bravery in being 'out' and open about my gender identity, I'm embarrassed for humanity," she writes. "We live in a world where people would rather be kissed with a lie instead of slapped with the truth. Well I am the truth, staring you right in the face. Everything you've ever learned or saw as 'normal' about boys and girls is absolutely wrong. Gender is a spectrum that cannot be explained with pastel colors or genitals."
West also shot transgender model and porn star James Darling, who was one of the early trans porn stars, breaking into the industry in 2009. Darling, a former sex worker, got into the industry to represent trans bodies in an erotic setting and the shoot here reflects a similar vibe. Also featured in the book is Ryan Cassata, a singer-songwriter who has been outspoken about being trans and given talks at high schools around the country about coming out, sex reassignment surgery, and bullying.
Some models are recurring figures in West's series, like Christopher Zeischegg. A former porn star, who went by the name of Danny Wylde, Zeischegg fell in love with West on a photo shoot for her Fluids series and has since become her boyfriend. "There were moments throughout our conversation that felt so much like a film — where desire met fulfillment, and in a way, that seemed too good to be true," writes Zeischegg in the book's intro. "I was so enamored by her work, and how she spoke of it."
For West, it was easier shooting porn stars because they were more comfortable naked in her studio, which is filled with colored gels and lights that give a neon hyper-realist effect to her photos. "I also like genuine emotions in artificial settings, it all ties in together," said West. "A lot of my work has to do with intimacy and vulnerability."
West also shot porn star Janice Griffith, who came into the spotlight when she broke her foot on a Hustler magazine shoot a few years back and the publication refused to cover her medical costs. Griffith is an open critic of the porn industry's racist categories — the industry has filed her under Latina, Asian, and half-black categories — and she doesn't support how race is fetishized in porn (she is Indo-Guyanese and white). The Jamaican American porn star Kira Noir, who is openly bisexual, is also photographed in the book.
West's portraits of Noir show her in a somewhat androgynous light, which is the point. "Androgyny is when you can't tell the feminine or the masculine and I feel that's very prominent in the book," said West. "I don't think this book is going to solve society's problems with gender and sexuality, I just wanted to offer more inclusive portraits of modern sexuality, [which] a lot of photo books are not doing."
Text Nadja Sayej