Photographing New York City’s drag queens at the intersection of their identities.
The premise of Half Drag is simple. Photographer Leland Bobbé’s striking, gender-bending photo series captures New York City drag queens with half of their faces done up in full regalia, the other half au naturel. The result, achieved without any digital effects, is a collection of portraits that put the visual iconography of gender into striking juxtaposition.
There is also a harmony, a wholeness within each split image. In each side, one naturally sees echoes of the other. The traction between the two poles of gender expression suggests that gender itself is anything but either/or. That’s not to say that the two sides in these images aren’t very distinct.
Indeed, Bobbé suggests holding up a card (or just your hand) to cover one side of each image at a time. The contrast is startling. “People have told me that the male sides in these photos seem vulnerable, the female side with the makeup and jewelry are so powerful,” he says.
The queens in these photos don’t usually step into town or onto a stage until their metamorphosis is complete. The makeup, jewelry and wardrobe provide the foundation for a complete identity after all. So for some in this series, going half-way was a real challenge.
“A lot of them said they didn’t know what to feel, half-male or half-female,” Bobbé says. “When I shot, I directed them as if they were female, and the male side just came along for the ride.”
The series represents an intersection of Bobbe’s experience as a fashion photographer in the 80s, and his growing passion for personal portraiture. “Having the eye for eye makeup and lips, making sure everything is perfect, blowing hair, knowing how to direct the hand by the face, directing a certain response to the camera, all that was helpful,” he says. “They know how to put it on for the camera. The challenge was also not to put it on too much. I wanted to make sure the pictures weren’t too campy, but more of a serious, seductive portrait.”
The project got rolling in November of 2011, after Bobbé did an experimental shoot with a queen he met at an industry party. After the first subject shared their photo on Facebook, Bobbé began noticing the other drag queens in their photo stream. He immediately saw subjects that would make great candidates for the series, and started reaching out to propose a shoot. “Pretty much 100 percent of them said yes.”
The models he photographed came into the studio wearing regular clothes, with several days of facial growth. They then shaved half their faces, and prepared their own hair and makeup. The hair proved to be the hardest part of the process.
“One came in and cut the wig down the middle,” Bobbé says. “Stray hairs would get over to the male side, that’s why the images are all cropped into the forehead, on top of the head are a lot of pins holding everything in place.”
Bridging a gendered divide
Bobbé has no immediate plans to continue Half Drag. But he says that the project has afforded him a deeper understanding of gender expression, and those who live outside of its mainstream.
“I got a lot emails from transgender people, young people facing the difficulties of coming out, who tell me how important these have been because of how supportive they are,” he says. “These are photos of a group of people who are sometimes looked down upon, or seen as outsiders of society. But the way I wanted to handle it was dignified, respectful and elegant.”
Today, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people are specifically targeted by society and government. From the presidential decree banning transgender people from the military, to the justice department arguing that civil rights protections don’t apply to homosexuals, to the historically high targeting for violence, gender nonconformity comes with real risks. Striking, even disconcerting representations of the many shades between male and female — not to mention the many things those two words themselves can mean — help add necessary shading to our understanding of gender and its many expressions.
Fabulous though these images are, they might be challenging for some. They defy us to make sense of two roles and identities that our society has conditioned us to consider as being sharply distinct, even incompatible. But viewers of all persuasions may well relate to these images more than they suspect. As RuPaul has said, “You’re born naked — the rest is drag.”
Representation matters immensely for marginalized communities. The reason can be felt even by those viewers who are not part of these communities: in the tension, confusion, or fascination they might feel when sitting with images like these. That is the feeling of scratching at preconceptions or misapprehensions. And any photo that can confront viewers with unfamiliar complexity, or demystify an ‘other’, is worth looking at a little longer.
All photos by Leland Bobbé