Monday, November 24, 2008

A Few Questions for Molly Landreth

Clare Mercy, Bellingham, WA © Molly Landreth
I first saw Molly Landreth's Embodiment series while we were both grad students at the SVA. She was a year ahead of me and the series was still in the early stages, but I took notice. Earlier this year I was at Humble Arts Foundation's 31 Under 31 show and got really excited about an image that turned out to be Molly's. After the show I checked out her Web site and was amazed how far the series had come.

Embodiment is an ongoing portraiture project that has taken Molly across this country photographing "the lives of people who offer brave new visions of what it means to be queer in America today." To pay for her travels Molly is offering signed prints from the Embodiment series for the ridiculously low price of $50 apiece. When I read about her print sale I bought two and wrote her to see if she would be up for a quick interview about her project. I was very happy when she agreed.

AMY STEIN: What are your plans for this project? A book perhaps? When will you know you are done?

MOLLY LANDRETH: YES! A book is absolutely the end goal. I have been a huge collector of books on photography and art for a long time now, so that was immediately how I started thinking about this project when it began. In the book I will be combining these photographs with handwritten statements by many of the subjects and...a very new idea as of recently....a dvd of video interviews which I've been conducting during the shoots. This all just keeps getting bigger and bigger so knowing when I'm totally done may be tricky. However, I'm planning a huge trip for next year which will involve shooting from Arizona all through the southern and southern-ish/midwestern areas of the country and down through Florida. After that, if all goes well, I will be done.

AS: What are you trying to say with this work? Can you put it in the context of Catherine Opie or other photographers who have photographed aspects of gay life or culture?

ML: This body of work really grew out of my own need to see images of queer life represented in a way that I could relate to. Seeing honest representations of people within your own community is SO important. Being able to point at an image and say..."There, I can relate to that. I want to be like that. I remember what that felt like," is super empowering. It makes my heart beat faster and it feels like love. That's what I try to put into this project and I hope that's what people can get out of it. I know I felt that way when I saw Catherine Opie's photographs of drag kings, trans folks and lesbians for the first time, or saw the amazing Vaginal Davis or Nomy Lamm perform or read something by queer theorist Judith Halberstam. I was like..."Hell Ya!!" Here are artists who are taking the idea of what it means to be "Gay" in mainstream culture....with all of its limiting stereotypes.... blowing it up and reassembling it in totally subversive and amazing ways to give everyone a lot more room to move around. I hope to accomplish that with my project as well. Not all of the people in my images are super crazy or living lives in radically different ways than their neighbors, but that's not the point. The beauty is in the subtle ways they are expanding ideas of gender, sexuality, beauty, love, etc. within both straight and mainstream gay and lesbian communities, by just being true to themselves. Sometimes you don't have to be loud to cause a commotion.

Travis at Gay Skate, Glendale, CA © Molly Landreth
AS: Do you feel your project has taken on a new prescience after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, Proposed Initiative Act No. 1 in Arkansas, Proposition 102 in Arizona, and Amendment 2 in Florida.

ML: Isn't it shocking that in this country, in 2008, we can still so openly discriminate against and withhold basic rights from a particular group of people?! FREAKING CRAZY.

I don't know how the passage of these hate filled propositions and initiatives has directly affected my project or the way I think of it....but I can say this. I have seen so much compassion, strength and bravery from people that I have been photographing over the last 3 years. They fight so hard for their happiness and the freedom to live life exactly how they wish to, without fear. It is SO inspiring and it makes me hopeful that we, with the help of our amazing allies, have the strength to get back the rights that we deserve.

AS: Can you tell me an interesting story behind one of the images?

ML: Sure. When I went to Ohio for the first time, I stayed with a drag king named "Luster de la Virgion" who was absolutely incredible at finding people for me to photograph. One of these individuals being Cruz aka "Jalesa". Cruz was quitet when I first met him and I was unsure if he wanted to be a part of the project or simply wanted to hang out and watch the action. Intrigued, I started asking him questions and learned that at the age of 17, he had just performed drag for the first time to slightly uncomfortable baptist church camp! I was COMPLETELY blown away. I started photographing other folks who had stopped by, but stayed alert to what he was up to. Casually, he had started his transformation and I saw the eyebrows, the wig, the eyeliner go on, accompanied by beige cargo shorts, a retro style button up shirt and big black skateboarder shoes. Not the look of the baptist church performer that I had expected. When she seemed to be done I asked if she was ready for the shoot. After thinking for a bit she replied that Luster had a really beautiful, white, fur coat that she would love to wear for one picture, but she was too nervous to ask because it was super special. I noted that this was kind of a super special occasion and without any more prompting she ran back inside and emerged triumphant. With the coat on, she was completely in command. Marching out to the middle of the yard she said that she'd been practicing her looks from watching top model, struck a pose and told me to shoot. She was amazing.

Jalesa, aka Cruz, Columbus, OH. © Molly Landreth
Her quote from this shoot is: "First of all, not sure if I would call myself queer, but definitely trans. Trans, to me means being different. And that is something I am trying to understand. What I see when I look at this picture is a girl—maybe even a woman that needs to be set free. I keep seeing this familiar face, staring back at me and not knowing what it means. It is like a dream that you can't wake up from and I am not sure I want to."
- Cruz aka "Jalesa"
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