Gerard Gaskin explains how ethics, rejection and transsexuals,
influenced his 20-year photo essay about intuitive performance artists
Three months before Gerard Gaskin’s first photography book rolls off the press, we linked up via Skype to touch base amidst the flurry of activity around his monumental moment. He was in Syracuse, New York, his new home. I was at a juice bar in North Miami. In the twenty years we’ve known each other, we’re more familiar with chatting long distance than in person. Before the book launches I wanted to tour his mental journal for insights to his process while developing his documentary project into the book, Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene (Duke University Press; U$45).
A book symbolizes the pinnacle of a photographer’s career. Gaskin, originally from Trinidad and a graduate of Hunter College in New York, has been devoted to honing his craft and shaping his legacy. He won a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York. He began documenting the House Ballroom scene in 1993, it’s now a book because he won the 2012 Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize.
We’re both at that station in life where paying forward our knowledge is a priority. In that spirit, Gaskin, 45, shares insights from his experience creating this work to serve aspiring documentary photographers in and beyond the Caribbean.
First, here’s an indoctrination to the culture Gaskin embraced to record ‘Legendary’: The House Ballroom scene dates to the 1970s and was born in Harlem, New York. The vogue dance style branded by this subculture, started as the Pop Dip and Spin performed by gay inmates at Rikers Island. Today, House Balls are where gay black and Latino city kids, who are often high school educated intuitive artists, stage theatrical battles in the wee hours of the morning to earn street creds for having an incomparable avante garde aesthetic.
House Balls borrow the choreographed storytelling of Broadway to present the gratuitous exhibitionism of Miami Beach and the narcissism of Paris Couture Week, in order to elicit the spirited frenzy of Rio Carnival. House Balls start at midnight and require seven hours to allow contenders from various Houses in four categories: Butch Queens, Femme Queens, Butches and Women, to work the judges for the coveted ‘10’ scorecards. There aren’t any deep-pocket sponsors of the arts invested in validating the dramatic portrayals and dance battles that unfold on makeshift runways as performance art. Yet, House Balls have spread across the U.S. like kudzu and have over 30,000 followers. Gaskin has photographed Balls in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Here are his shoot notes, each packed with a useful take-away:
Follow as Inspiration Shifts: “I would hang out on 42nd Street (in NYC), near a peep show on 8th Avenue; it’s a place where the ‘girls’ of the Ball scene worked. The Ballroom project started with me wanting to do portraits of femme queens (transsexuals). At that point the hottest photographer in the US was Annie Leibowitz, she was doing amazing Amex ads and work for Vanity Fair. I wanted to do Vanity Fair portraits of femme queens—very stylized. It wasn’t supposed to be very documentary driven.”
Establish Mental Focus: “I always think that access was the thing every photographer tries to get.” (It took Gaskin six years to attain full access in this community.) “Going to the Balls, I try not to think about too much. When I started photographing the Balls all I did was shoot as much as I can. When I started laying out pictures, I started to figure out what I don’t have. That became a routine. What iconic image do I want to create. Then I would get one, but if I didn’t like it. I would go back and ask where do I need to be to make the image better. Those were things I thought about before I got to a Ball. I like to get to the Ball early, when the doors open I want to be there. Sometimes I just photograph trophies on the stage or [folks] getting ready. Being there for the duration was what I was there to do.”
Define Your Motivation: “The thing that drove me to the Ballroom scene is my exploration around sexuality. I have a cousin who was born on the same day, he lives in Toronto and he came out. He was shunned by my family. It’s interesting how my family dealt with sexuality. My family is a really religious catholic family. Homosexuality is a really strange thing. In turn, I wanted to deal with that idea. That was the beginning of me seeking out the project.”
Rejection Isn’t Defeat: “There are 30,000 ‘kids’ in this scene, one ‘kid’ saying no doesn’t cancel a project. I just turn my camera away, and walk away. I have photographs of people who allowed me to take their picture, but when the book was coming around and I was [seeking] permission to use their picture in the book—they flatly told me no! Balls are still a scene where people are afraid to be seen. Though many are much more comfortable with having their picture taken [than ten years ago].”
Identify Ethical Boundaries: “The idea of the photo essay has changed because of how scripted reality TV is, it’s more structured to tell a point. [Editors] are not interested in allowing people to do what they want to do. When clients call me, a magazine is not going to send you to shoot somebody for two weeks. They have structured ideas that they ultimately want from that person. [They might] say, we want them getting ready in the morning, so we literally stage that idea. Or they want them interacting with children, we stage that idea, too. If someone is putting on makeup and they’re done and ready to go, but I wanted that image, I ask them to re-do it. They don’t need to take off their makeup and put it back on. But I want them to act like they’re putting on makeup again. In the ’90s I wouldn’t do that.”
Learn Guerrilla Marketing: “When I started shopping this book I had a box of photographs, an artist statement, a book proposal answering certain questions: who’s going to buy the book, who’s my target audience. People would say, we’re interested but what does it look like. Around 2006, I made the dummy, [it] was 6” x 8” with 50 pages. Almost everything in the dummy is in the final book. You need to create a dummy digitally. Publishers want you to have an audience, they want pre-sale. You have to have a timeline and raise money yourself. It’s easier to do guerrilla marketing yourself than to have some marketing firm think they know your audience. I was about to launch a video [to post on] Kickstarter. They told me not to launch between Christmas and February because no one gives money then. I was waiting to launch my Kickstarter project, and Duke called and said I won.”
Photography courtesy Gerard Gaskin.