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.
Sculpted for Eternity
Nijel Binns Sculpted Creative Encounters with
Jackie Chan, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder
She’s the only cornrow-wearing Black woman in the world who stands 16-feet-tall and embodies aesthetic attributes of Asian, African, Native American and European people. She’s part mythical goddess, part urban princess whose presence in the south-central district of Watts was intended as a symbol to urge community healing after the infamous Los Angeles riots of 1992. Every enduring gesture of The Mother of Humanity™, as she’s called by her creator Nijel Binns, offers thoughtful symbolism: She holds “a feather of peace found not only in Native American culture but it was used by the Egyptian goddess Maat,” shared Binns, “her left breast is concealed while the other is exposed, not for pornographic nature […] in the Amazon women warriors used bow and arrows and amputated their left breast to make it easier to draw their bow—the breast is symbolic of the source of mineral resources for all humanity, and her form is modeled on the continent of Africa that is sublimely established in her shape.” This graceful two-ton monument, valued at U$200,000, would be followed by six reproductions to be placed in Africa, Australia, Brazil, China, India and Spain if this portrait sculptor’s vision is ever realized.
For Binns, The Mother of Humanity™ is a testimony that the art of figurative sculpting isn’t confined to creating portrayals of living or deceased heroes. Binns, a native of Battersea, England, spent four years in Mandeville, Jamaica before migrating to Newark, New Jersey in 1963. “My first exposure to sculpting was at St Benedict’s Preparatory [in 1971], I fashioned a hand flashing a peace sign that I finished in antique gold.” Being highlighted for his talent in a Newark newspaper inspired Binns to explore his artistic ability. But his first professional sculpture wasn’t executed until 1990.
“I’m an anomaly in many ways: I’m self-taught as a sculptor and as a writer,” shared Binns, who tutored himself in ancient Egyptian history, Greek sculpture and the Renaissance period. “I did one semester at Montclair State College in New Jersey, I learned to draw lines and squiggly circles and felt that was not for me.” Binns traded college for four years in the U.S. Air Force, with the intent of entering the film industry. “I became a stuntman in Jackie Chan’s first American film The Big Brawl. Being a stuntman and fight coordinator was his priority until he decided to create a 3/4 life-size bust of Michael Jackson.
“It was clay with a ceramic gold finish,” he recalls, “I gave it as a gift to Joseph Jackson [Michael’s dad].” A photo of that statue and a thank you note from Joseph Jackson that read: “In acknowledgement of the gold statue of Michael that you sculpted for my family, I express sincerest appreciation. Your work is a pleasure to own. I find the statue is beautifully detailed and well crafted. It captures the likeness of Michael very well.” That note was in Binns’ folio during a chance meeting in 1990 with Stan Hilas of The Fitzgerald Hartley Company, who was searching for a sculptor to create a bronze figure of Michael Jackson.
That note and photograph, coupled with being prepared for the opportunity, secured the commission to create the Artist of the Decade Award that was presented to Michael Jackson by CBS/Epic executives Tommy Motolla and Dave Glew. That year, Binns was retained by Motown to create the Maasai Princess, a 18K gold-plated bronze statue valued at $75,000, that was presented to Stevie Wonder on the occasion of his 40th birthday. Among Binns’ other illustrious commissions is a bronze bust of John W. Mack, former president of the LA Urban League, and the first bronze monument of actress Shirley Temple for a daycare center that bears her name at Fox Studios in Century City, California.
From a piece of clay to a silicon mold to a wax form for a ceramic shell in which molten metal is poured, the process of crafting a bronze bust can consume four months and requires painstaking attention to details. Binns scours photographs of his subjects taken from all angles in search of the expression that “captures the soul of the person.” He passes on his ‘love of beauty’ through sculpting classes at his Los Angeles studio.
In spite of his impressive commissions, the creative life for Binns is peppered with struggle and angst. “I manufacture for eternity,” he said, “most people don’t see the value in that. I usually have to initiate projects for people to say, ‘Oh, yeah I need that.’ If there’s a Nate Holden Performing Arts Center there should be a statue of Nate Holden not just a name on a building.” One can say the same for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial site. Songwriter and music producer Joshua Thompson of Tallest Tree Music attests, “[Nijel’s] a living master who has trained with masters, he’s nearing his peak and is someone the world ought to notice. When you see how people react [with amazement] to the accuracy of his work that impact is what art is supposed to do.”
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TipSheet: Old Money
Collecting money never loses popularity
and can earn you a pretty penny
Preservation, rarity, and demand comprise the elusive trifecta sought by coin collectors and dealers. “When you get that combination the value of the coins goes through the roof,” says David Neita, director of sales for California-based American Heritage Minting (800-800-2184), “the first year of issue of any denomination is always in demand,” rarity matters little without demand. “Any bust half-dollars, dimes, quarters from 1796-1838…anything from the early beginnings of this country is very much in demand,” shares Neita, who sources gem-quality coins for his wholesale dealership, but advises, “buy the level of preservation that you can afford.”
Neita, a former CBS Morning News (1968-1973) journalist, fell in love with coins while researching for a Mint Masters catalog he produced in 1986 for a dealer. “It’s a high-risk high-reward business.” The famed King of Siam coin set, including a specially minted 1804 dollar, sold for $10 million last year. Coin dealers operate like stockbrokers, they aim to buy low, sell high and keep the difference to grow their business—and they are instrumental in negotiating for collectors. At this year’s Florida United Numismatists Show in Orlando, auctions hammered $85 million, not including millions traded on the bourse floor, which hints at why this is a very secretive and close-knit community, adds Neita who hails from Brooklyn, New York.
“It took us 20 years to establish contacts in France before they would sell to us.” Neita, 59, is primarily self-trained and specializes in US, English, and French coins. He studied how to grade coins, the history of US gold coin varieties, and counterfeit US gold coin detection at the American Numismatic Association, “but there’s nothing like being on the bourse floor at a tradeshow, going from table to table studying coins,” he says. “You have to be outgoing and like a sponge to soak up information. The death in this business is the day you think you know everything. It’s impossible to be an expert on every coin, find an area of specialization.” Neita offers us what every numismatist (student of the coin) should know:
Theme strengthens a collection. Before spending a dime on a Buffalo Nickel, Indian Head Cent or any coin buy the book advises Neita. There are books on every US coin that provide dye varieties and historical insights including where the coin was struck. “I own slave tokens made in 1793 and 1838, colonial paper money (issued by the Continental Congress to support the revolutionary war, some of it was made by Benjamin Franklin), and currency that bears the signature of somebody who signed the Declaration of Independence—that’s my kind of money!”
Preservation elevates value. Transport coins in a lightweight plastic flip that allows for carrying many coins at once. “When handling coins always grip by the edge, never place a finger on the coin,” cautions Neita, “[being] thumbed or fingered effects the level of preservation, cotton gloves help.” Storage should reduce exposure to moisture and dust. Neita recommends a safe deposit box for very valuable coins, and abhors applying chemicals for preservation. Coins converted to jewelry can never be a coin again.
Investing takes patience. If exploring US coins for investment Neita suggests holding them for 3 or 5 years—or longer. “Hold foreign coins for 5 to 10 years, but avoid investment grade if you might be forced to sell before these timeframes because you’re setting yourself up for the fall.” The Guidebook of US Coins: The Official Red Book by R. S. Yeoman (Whitman Publishing; $16.95) is an annual guide that lists mintage (how many were made) and dollar value indicators. Have coins graded by a third party like the Professional Coin Grading Service or Numismatic Guarantee Corporation. Grading is key to authentication. Reputable dealers guarantee their coins are genuine and will repurchase any coin at the highest price for that grade if the coin is found to be counterfeit.
Attend the premier coin show in the US, American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money or the Long Beach Coin and Collectibles Expo to sample the thrill of the bourse floor. For a starter’s tipsheet refer to Helpful Hints on Enjoying Coin Collecting by Bill Fivaz (Stanton Books; $15.95) and A Guide Book of United States Type Coins by Q. David Bowers (Whitman Publishing; $19.95), more research available via www.coinbooks.info.
© SEAN DRAKES
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Fact Check: ‘Secret to All Coins’
Companion post to TipSheet: Old Money
The ‘slave token’, an English copper coin dating from 1793, was struck to resemble the British penny and circulated as money by abolitionists in England as a call to end slavery. Today they are valued at $300 each. “There are only a handful of us collecting them,” notes Neita, “the last one was cited in London.”
“The only Black folk pictured on currency—[usually] Southern obsolete and
Confederate money—are pictured working in fields,” says coin dealer and enthusiast David Neita of American Heritage Minting. Then there is Black America today: Jackie Robinson is on a 24K gold $5 dollar coin issued in 1997 for $300 and can now fetch $4,400—$8,500.
Crispus Attucks, a revolutionary hero and first of five people killed in the Boston Massacre of 1770, is pictured on the Black Revolutionary Patriots Silver Dollar issued in 1998 at $15 each it’s now valued at $160—$1,750 depending on coin grade.
Millions of the Booker T. Washington commemorative half-dollar, designed by African American sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway and inscribed with
“From slave cabin to hall of fame,” were issued from 1946 to 1954. Individually they cost $40—$12,500. Hathaway also designed the Carver-Washington Commemorative half-dollar that pictures conjoined busts of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver and was minted between 1951-1954.
By PCGS’s 1—70 grading scale, a 62-grade Carver-Washington costs $20, while a 67-grade can command $15,000. Neita’s forecast is the secret to all coins: “They’re not making any more of them, [as] more people collect them they will go up in value.”
California-based coin dealer David Neita worked for CBS Morning News (1968-1973) and majored in journalism at Columbia University School of Journalism. There are US mints in Denver and Philadelphia, last one to close was in San Francisco.
© SEAN DRAKES
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