An extensive amateur photo collection from trailblazing director Sébastien Lifshitz reveals much about this century of LGBTQ issues.
Parisian collector Sébastien Lifshitz has been building a robust and internationally-sourced photo archive since he was a teenager. His focus is on queer identity, from the art of drag to transgender metamorphosis. His collection of amateur photos is displayed for the very first time at the Rencontres d'Arles — a major festival in the south of France — under the title Sincerely Queer (Mauvais Genre, also a book). Collecting these images has been his hobby and passion alongside his films, most notably Bambi, a portrait of one of the first French transgender women, for which he won the best documentary César in 2013.
The photographs, dating from 1890-1970, are a fascinating examination of how today's queer identities and visual practices have longstanding precedents, even if they were expressed in highly covert contexts. More than 400 photos — many in small format, requiring viewers to look intimately at the images — show everything from garçonnes to Japanese Kabuki to men casually dressed as women in suburban living rooms to POW camp soldiers decked out as female characters in makeshift plays to women dressed like men to provoke conversations about equal rights. The anonymous subjects are a testament to an otherwise unreported genre of daily life: shielded from public view, but integral to personal means of expression. Punishing legal penalties once existed for betraying gender norms, not to mention crushing social stigmas.These trans and gay communities reveal bold experimentation, mixing gender roles with a spirit of rebellion that conveys power and courage.
We spoke with Lifshitz in Arles about complexifying queer identity, the thrill of hunting for images, and the enigmatic power of anonymity.
How did this collection come about?
It started without me being conscious of actually starting a collection. I accumulated images I liked, which little by little increased considerably. It's the sheer volume, over the years, which turned the practice into a collection. I realised there was something pretty obsessive about wanting to find a certain type of image over thirty years. At first, I didn't classify the photos: they were in a jumble. I didn't initially have the "savoir" to decode them.
Do you ever find any information about the people in the photos?
No—though I have tried to do some historical and sociological investigating. These images constitute a kind of memory, and there are so few books that transmit this queer history in an image-based way. At the same time, the fact that the images are anonymous, amateur, context-free, gives them a mysteriousness that I find beautiful. It allows our imaginations to reign, to project stories onto the images, which is an immense freedom. These people were witnesses of their times. They communicate faces and bodies and concrete stories to viewers. If we speak too generally or too scientifically, we fall into disembodied description.
How has your work in cinema informed your collection?
I made a film in 2004 called Wild Side, in which the heroine was transsexual. To write the script and make this film, I met a lot of transsexuals in Paris in the early 2000s. The concept of queer was barely present in the media at that point. Making this movie helped me have a better understanding of the subject, in a more detailed way. In 2011, I met Bambi—one of the first transsexual women in France—and learned about her life to make a film about her. I delved into 1950s-60s Paris: the era of the cabaret and the first transsexuals.
In tandem, I was always looking for amateur photos of cross-dressers. I'd find them haphazardly: at flea markets, stoop sales, on the Internet. One time at a second-hand shop in Berlin, I was rifling through thousands of boxes of photos, and I found a bundle of 30-40 photos of Berlin transvestites from the 1950s-60s. It was incredible because all the other photos in the box with them had nothing to do with them. It was magical. Even last Sunday, when I arrived in Arles, I found photos of women dressed as men through a second-hand seller.
The tone of the exhibition is more about the joy of identity than discrimination and having to shield oneself from the world.
Each person is supposed to conform to the codes and values of a sex. One is under an injunction to obey these codes. Those who disobey, who express differences, are stigmatised. But I don't want to fall into the victim story. I think it's dangerous, and over-utilised politically as a way to be militant. The reality is more complex. Bambi told me, for example, that yes, society was hostile to her, that it wasn't easy with the police, that the laws were against her, but at the same time, she said: 'I have had a happy life. Friends at the cabaret protected me.' I think models of happiness and thriving are important, even if a form of discretion is required to maintain this. There is a lot of ground left to gain. But I hope this archival memory will convey these lives a bit better.
How did your relationship to the collection evolve through creating the exhibition?
The big issue when you work through an archive is: you're making visible what has been left invisible. Everything has been scattered, forgotten. Through desire and obsession, using images that have nothing to do with each other, the collection has to say something. It was an intuitive gesture—but I also read up on things. Like mock-weddings between women, for example: the practice happened on American college campuses [in preparation for heterosexual marriages] between the 1890s-1920s, which was rather astonishing. With the cabaret section, it was important to distinguish it from the café-concert and the music halls from the 1920s-'30s. It was more burlesque than transvestite, though the practice started then, and was commercialised.
This festival attracts a wide audience. What do you hope the general public, who may not be familiar or comfortable with these communities, will draw from this exhibition?
I hope it creates empathy. I broke the exhibition down into sequences, to convey the complexity behind these groups that are often simplified. 'Transvestite' often means 'crazy' to people. There's a diversity of practices and identities within the term. I hope people will discover new aspects, have a better understanding, and thus more tolerance.
What's interesting is to also see the continuity of these practices, despite the confidentiality.
These practices have existed since the Greeks—since always. They didn't spring from nowhere. When we think of the 17th and 18th century man, his relationship to clothes was totally flamboyant—on par with women. Jewellery, accessories, makeup, wigs: it was very pronounced. The 19th century destroyed all that. The 19th century male wardrobe reflected machismo, and the distinction between the sexes was very rigid, with little overlap.
Today, the visibility is much better than even ten years ago. Art and cinema are very powerful vectors because they're mainstream, and enable empathetic depictions. It's getting better and better, but it's important to stay vigilant, to never lower one's guard. The struggle is still playing out.
Text Sarah Moroz
Photography © 2016 Éditions Textuel – Collection Sébastien Lifshitz.