enter pepper levain’s wonderful queer world

Photographer Pepper Levain documents queer scenes around the world, as a homage to the colorful people who live to express their freedom.

by Osia Katsidou
27 January 2016, 7:39pm

Pepper Levain's photographs document the glimmering people who come to life at night. The 30-year-old Cologne-based artist's images are engaging, dramatic and honest; they challenge gender stereotypes and question body ideals, they capture the ephemeral moments of fantastic beauty that disappear as dawn breaks. 

You come from a performance art background and now you're a photographer. What brought on that change?
I don't really separate the two. At first I wanted to come out of the pure performance art context so I could make what I do into something more cinematic. Photography started as a way simply to document and record things. I didn't expect the pictures to be met with so much interest, or that I'd be doing exhibitions. At the moment I'm working on a performance film that was inspired by the things I captured in the photographs. In this way, photography, film, and performance flow together in the end. 

What draws you to documenting the gay scene?
The scene is full of energy, creativity and punk attitude. Gender is questioned, twisted, exaggerated and invented, but it goes way beyond mere sexuality. It's a boycott of everything that's complacent, it revolts against conservative lifestyles. Everyone can be whoever they want to be, there's a lot of solidarity in that. Then there's the fact that pop culture and fashion trends often begin in queer nightlife circles. Madonna took vogueing from the ballroom scene, Gaga's looks were worn years ago by club kids in a much more radical way. The queer scene is a part of me, so it's automatically a part of my work. I've performed at queer parties from New York to Brighton and have a lot of friends in the scene.

What do you think about the German gay scene?
There's a lot going on here. It's darker and rougher than New York, for example, where the queens often need hours to get their looks ready. Berlin is trashier and nastier, but I like that a lot too.

You've also photographed famous people before. For example, I saw Amanda Lepore on your Instagram and Shaun Ross on your website.
I met Amanda at an after hours breakfast and I was so drunk and hungry that I ate French fries off her plate. That was a funny encounter. I photographed Shaun at New York Fashion Week for Nina Athanasiou's show. I photographed him backstage and then I met Melanie Gaydos, who became a friend. She's a really great person. Dominique Echeverria influenced me incredibly from the day I met her. She's a designer and nightlife queen in New York and is a true phenomenon. I own a few of her pieces and also love photographing her. She just had a really bad accident and I wish her the best. 

Sex and gender both play major roles in your work. Why do you think we have such an unhealthy relationship to one of the must natural things in the world?
That's a hard question. The porn industry shows a very one-sided view of sex, especially towards women. Sexism feels ubiquitous these days, on public transport, in the club, in advertising and music videos… I think the first step towards a healthy relationship with sex to be respectful of one another. Also, all the beauty ideals don't necessarily lead to you loving your body the way it is. That's why I think models like Shaun Ross and Melanie Gaydos are so important, they're swimming against beauty norms. Respect and appreciation for others as well as for yourself is of paramount importance. If you're able to create a safe space, then you can start slipping into roles and experimenting. The subject of sex is one the one hand aggressively present, and on the other, it's still a taboo. What's in between is what we're missing.

What do you want to provoke in people with your work?
I show portraits of people who are original and courageous. I'm happy if the person looking at the pictures sees beauty in otherness. There's so much exclusion and intolerance today, my pictures are an homage to the colorful people who express freedom. 



Text Osia Katsidou 
Photography courtesy Pepper Levain 

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