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 anmy book 5119710a28a copyd 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:

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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.”

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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 Imagebecause 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.”

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Photography courtesy Gerard Gaskin.

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Savvy Sailor

Frugal comrades discover how teamwork

can get you more boat for less money

Anchoring a boat for seven months adds up to a tidy sum of money down the drain, so Jerome Abernathy didn’t idle on the idea to enter a co-ownership arrangement for his second boat.  At the 2001 Annapolis Boat Show, Abernathy, a hedge fund manager with Stonebrook Structured Products, and his friend Arnold Mintz, executive vice president of Asset Alliance Corporation, found a new Beneteau 473 worthy of their $300,000 investment.  “Arnold used to own a sail boat, one day while sailing my old yacht we hatched the idea of buying a larger vessel together,” recalled Abernathy.  “It is less expensive to own a larger boat in a partnership than to own a smaller one by yourself.”  Abernathy’s first boat [“Noe”] was a Beneteau 36cc that swallowed $9,000 per year for maintenance, insurance, and dockage fees.  In contrast, he drops $6,000 into “Victory” every six months.

BEFORE YOU BUY.  The type of waters and distances you intend to sail informs the type of boat you buy.  “Sailboats are the original hybrid vehicles,” said Abernathy.  “You have sails and (usually) a diesel engine for propulsion and electricity generation.  When sailing you rely on a bank of batteries for electricity, often, a sailboat will have solar cells or a windmill to recharge its batteries.  Sailboats are very stable, it is not unusual for a 25-foot sailboat to cross the ocean.  Power boats, [however] rely solely on an engine for propulsion and usually are not stable enough for sailing open seas, and are much more expensive to operate.”  Abernathy added, “to go cruising or to sea, you should consider a boat greater than 30-feet with a proper galley (kitchen) and head (bathroom).”

Jerome Abernathy on Victory in New York.

SAILOR 101.  Abernathy has raced from Charleston, South Carolina to Bermuda and does monthly day-sails from his homeport in Mamaroneck, New York to Newport, Rhode Island and Essex, Connecticut.  Before boarding to sail any distance it’s imperative to acquire sailor 101 knowledge.  Although Abernathy and Mintz were seasoned sailors, he said, “our dealer spent many hours teaching us the boat’s systems.”  “I highly recommend courses that follow the American Sailing Association’s curriculum [which teaches] basic sailing, navigation, weather forecasting, and emergency rescue procedures.”  Abernathy advises, “Take an ASA Basic Keelboat course, join a local sailing club to gain experience on smaller boats like the J24, and volunteer to crew on a race boat return delivery.”  He also advocates attending boat shows, vacationing on a chartered yacht with a group, and subscribing to Sail and Cruising World magazines and Practical Sailor newsletter.   As you consider upgrading your boat, Abernathy suggests keeping current on “sailing techniques, technology changes and new equipment offerings.”

ADDED VALUE.  Camaraderie and spending less time on upkeep are benefits of co-ownership to Abernathy who says having “compatible uses for the boat” was important in his decision, as was having a written agreement that clearly articulates the terms of the partnership.  “A new boat will depreciate, but not as fast as cars,” said Abernathy, “and electronic systems such as radar and GPS will likely need maintenance early on.”  After initial depreciation—depending on how well you maintain your craft, the manufacturer and model—a boat actually increases in value.  According to Abernathy, “If your boat has a galley and head, your boat loan can qualify for second-home tax treatment, which considerably lowers the cost of ownership.”   For even more savings, consider mooring your boat (tethering to an offshore anchor) for roughly $100 per month, compared to paying $300 – $690 to dock it.

© SEAN DRAKES
all reproduction rights reserved

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  seandrakesphoto@gmail.com ]

Master of the Game

Chess whiz offers the right

moves to get you in the game


Long before Maurice Ashley attained the illustrious rank of International  Grandmaster of Chess in 1999 from the World Chess Federation (FIDE), he was impassioned about attracting young minds to one of the world’s most popular games of strategy.  “I want people to think of chess the way they think about tennis and golf,” offers Ashley, “with big tournaments and big prizes, so those who want to pursue chess as a career can do so without worrying about making a living.”

Ashley’s organization, Generation Chess, nurtures the skills of specially talented kids, and hosted the HB Global Chess Challenge at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minnesota which offered the largest cash prize ever for an Open chess tournament.  After years of deferring his dream, Ashley, a Jamaican national based in Queens, New York, siphoned inspiration from Tiger Woods‘ historic impact on the game of golf, and renewed his devotion to the sport of chess.  As a Grandmaster, Ashley is in an elite league shared by roughly 800 other players in the world.  He made history again in January 2003 as the first African American to qualify for the U.S. Chess Championship since the tournament’s inception in 1861.

Chess is a descendant of the Indian board game Chaturanga, which was altered as it migrated across Western Europe near the 10th century.  The game as we know it today was born near 1475.  The “complexity and never-ending freshness” of chess keeps Ashley, 38, amped as he commentates on tournaments for ESPN and grooms future Grandmasters through his work in schools.  There are over 500 million amateur and pro chess players worldwide, the popularity of this sport is rivaled only by soccer, and you can get in the game at any age.

“The best way to get started is to crack open a book,” advises Ashley.  His reading recommendations include Logical Chess: Move by Move by Irving Chernev (B.T. Batsford; $21.95), Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess by Bobby Fischer (Bantam; $7.19), and My System by Aron Nimzowitsch (Hays Publishing; $14.87).  “It [helps] to have a practice partner you can play against frequently,” adds Ashley, who authored Chess for Success.  Traditional chess clubs are a dying species being replaced by online chess playing websites like Internet Chess Club.  Once you’ve been reading and practicing six months, you should venture into the tournament scene where player registration ranges from U$15 – U$280.  Visit the U.S. Chess Federation’s website for tournament listings.

To achieve growth in the game, players must perfect a skills set comprised of “patience, determination, and the willingness to treat failure and loss as motivation to learn,” guides Ashley.  The benefits for avid players are as rewarding as the cash prize incentives.  “Studies show that [chess] helps kids read better and boosts their self-esteem,” adds Ashley.  “Chess helps you become a better problem solver, improves concentration and critical thinking skills, and sharpens your mental focus.”

© SEAN DRAKES

Previously published.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

15 Minutes: Meiling on Mentoring Anya

Tonight, when Heidi, Tim, Nina and Michael unveil another layer of their process to transform an unknown designer into a brand name, many viewers expect a challenge involving stilt walkers will be a cinch for Caribbean contender Anya Ayoung-Chee. 

The skyscraping stilt walker, which originates from West Africa, is a traditional  character known as the Moko Jumbie in Trinidad’s Carnival.  Odds are in favor that Anya’s vision for styling that silhouette will knock it out the ballpark.  Among those with high confidence is  Meiling, the women’s wear designer who groomed Anya for her shot on Project Runway season 9.

Meiling, Tyson Beckford, Anya Ayoung-Chee. Photo: SeanDrakes.com.

From her charming Gingerbread house on Carlos Street, in Trinidad’s capital city, Meiling offered 15-minutes to reflect on mentoring Project Runway contestant Anya Ayoung-Chee:

How and when did your mentorship of Anya begin?

“I’ve known Anya even before she was born, since her mother has been a close friend and loyal customer for many years.  Anya is like a daughter to me and nothing pleased me more when I saw her interest in fashion.  When she returned from studying graphic design at Parsons in New York, she gravitated to a natural passion for fashion and her second home became my atelier.  She has been privy to my creative design process and she has always been open to advice and guidance.”

A fashion design apprentice should possess the mix of what personality traits and skills?

“It has often been said that to succeed in anything, you need one-third talent, one-third skill and one-third discipline.  The most successful interns I’ve had are the ones who are open to embracing new experiences as an opportunity to learn and grow.  Whether they are asked to sew a hundred flowers on a dress, assist in a model photo shoot or attend a fitting, they must do it all in a spirit of enthusiasm and readiness.  The ones who think they are ‘above’ sorting out a box of buttons or feel they are better than the seamstresses, quickly fall by the wayside.”

Did Anya resist your advice to learn to sew or is it something emerging designers can work around?

“Anya is a very talented designer but as she admitted, her one weakness was the lack of technical experience in sewing.  I stress experience, not skill because as a designer she would still be able to recognize quality workmanship and be able to hire staff to create her designs.  However, not knowing how a garment is constructed or  understanding the jargon in the industry in order to get her ideas across to a seamstress would be a handicap.  All the great designers, such as Alexander McQueen, were also great couturiers in their own right.”

Recent collections by Meiling. Photos: SeanDrakes.com

What’s the likely domino effect from Anya’s participation on Project Runway?

“I would hope, firstly, that PR would open many doors for Anya and people would see what an incredibly talented Trinidadian designer she is.  Secondly, it can also open up new avenues for other Trinidadian and Caribbean designers since this show will definitely perk up interest in designers of the region.  I have been mentoring many young women and men for several years and my door has always been open to up-and-coming designers, photographers, models, stylists and writers in the industry.  I welcome the opportunity to work with new applicants since they will be the ones to sustain the industry.”

Describe the common threads that connect your aesthetic and Anya’s?

“I think the common thread with Anya is an understanding that fashion must be relevant to the times.  It is important to be aware of current and future influences and to incorporate them into your designs.  This has been one of the truths I stress to all my interns.  In terms of an aesthetic, I was very proud to behold the top of Anya’s first [Project Runway] outfit which had a surprising T-back.  I believe that the rear of an outfit should always be interesting since people see your back just as much as your front.  It is one of my signature looks, especially in my wedding dresses.  I was thrilled to see when Anya pulled that look out from her years of working in my atelier to shine under such a stressful first challenge.”

MORE ON MEILING:

Meiling. Photo: SeanDrakes.com

The Meiling brand has been in existence for over 30 years, the philosophy is simply “less is more”.  My trademark designs are deceptively simple looking but with great attention to detail.  My customer is a woman who is comfortable in her own skin.  She does not need to bare it all to be sexy, and has the confidence to stand out from the crowd in simple elegance.  She loves fun, occasional whimsy and does not take herself too seriously.  However, she does appreciate and can recognize quality in fabric, cut, fit and workmanship.

[ 404.654.0859  |  SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]

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