In the Collection: Representation and Portraits of LGBTQ Subjects

Editor’s note: In this essay, Colby student Stella Gonzales ’22 explores portraits of LGBTQ subjects by photographers Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, and Lina Pallotta.

The Colby Museum of Art’s collection contains the photography of Andy Warhol and Diane Arbus, both of whom are known for utilizing the power of the medium to create representation for populations usually not validated in art and broader society. In Arbus’s case, her artistic life was a transformation from formal fashion photography to the gritty and real, as she chose subjects such as sex workers, gender-fluid folks, and disabled individuals to depict. Her pictures show an obvious effort by Arbus to become a part of people’s lives instead of expecting minorities to come to her to get this representation.

In Transvestite at her birthday party, N.Y.C., the subject reclines casually in her own space, enjoying her own celebration. Rather than a formal portrait of what a transvestite might look like, the image displays the joy and happiness of simply living and experiencing an event most people celebrate. Unlike a typical portrait, this photograph provides a real sense of place and time. Posters, balloons, and personal items line the walls of the room, exuding a sense of comfort and home. The subject is a transvestite but that’s not the focal point of the image, which makes it possible for her to be recognized not only as a human but a human existing in a space of autonomy in which she can live a joyous life. In her relaxed position, the subject looks off beyond the frame toward something unknown.

These visual cues of celebration depict a familiar moment, the period of pure pleasure at the end of a party, the subject’s expression of joy and relaxation displaying the invigorating quality of celebration. To celebrate oneself when one’s identity is perceived by others as deviant or morally wrong is a form of resistance. Birthday parties are markers and indicators for the passage through life, milestone occasions for people to celebrate their birth. This moment shows an affirmation of a birth outside the confines of the gender binary.

Diane Arbus, Transvestite at her birthday party, N.Y.C., 1969. Gelatin silver print, 24 3/4 x 20 3/4 in. (62.9 x 52.7 cm). Gift of John and Susan Pelosi, 2016.322.

While Arbus presents what exists beyond the binary, Warhol objectifies it to the point of questioning its existence. Most known for his iconic, colorful prints, Warhol has taken this idea of bodily representation to an extreme in his two series of photographs Sex Parts and Torsos and Ladies & Gentlemen. In these images, Warhol chooses to show portions of nude models from the LGBTQ community. In essence, what he does here is normalize the queer body by giving it the formal platform of a photograph to validate its existence. Corporeal representations are uplifted to the status of art, calling for self-love through representation. These depictions are not inherently sexual though they may be perceived that way. Framed in a clinical and almost scientific manner, the body is presented objectively. The photos force the viewer to question why we quickly impose sexuality on the naked form. The titles of the series are ironic in tone, seemingly devoid of humanity, though the body is humanity itself. This mechanical nature and reproduction of the body reveal the baseless claims we have on divisions in sexuality and gender. The cis-heteronormative gaze is so quick to contextualize everything within its own confines that it neglects to acknowledge that we are all made of the same parts. How different can people be if their foundations are all the same?

Andy Warhol, Nude Model (Male), 1977. Polacolor Type 108 on paper, 4 1/4 in. x 3 3/8 in. (10.8 cm x 8.57 cm). Gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., The Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program, 2008.105. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

My exploration of these photographs was inspired by a visit to Colby’s collection with IT 346: Geographies of R/existence: 70s Liberation Movements in Italy. Through this course I became familiar with the Italian photographer Lina Pallotta, who used trans activist Porpora Marcasciano as her muse.

There are many thematic parallels between the photographs of Warhol and Arbus and those of Pallotta, and they became clearer when I learned that some of Pallotta’s pictures were made in New York, where Warhol and Arbus also worked. This sense of place is never truly a focal point for Pallotta, though; there are many images in which the location is unclear. In the same way that Porpora Marcasciano is transient between sites and cities, she also transitions through the gender spectrum. Pallotta’s work parallels Arbus’s images in the way she depicts Marcasciano and her surrounding environment. The candid nature of Pallotta’s photographs shatters the formalities of the portrait genre. Marcasciano’s image has become a repeated motif in Pallotta’s work (reminiscent of Warhol’s repetitions), with Marcasciano’s visage reflective of life’s passages rather than simply symbolic of the trans experience.

Andy Warhol, Nude Model (Male), 1977. Polacolor Type 108 on paper, 4 1/4 in. x 3 3/8 in. (10.8 cm x 8.57 cm). Gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., The Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program, 2008.105. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Photography’s power in record keeping and memory preservation are what Warhol, Arbus, and Pallotta drew from. In order to legitimize the communities and people they interacted with they all used the photographic form. While Arbus and Warhol might have been more intentional about their purpose to legitimize, Pallotta’s legitimization and normalization were by-products of her depictions of intimacy and friendship. Her images don’t convey an immediate sense of trans representation or activism; they look more like pictures out of an old photo book of personal yet universal experiences. When one’s identity as a gender-nonconforming individual is perceived as extraordinary or deviant, the act of a normalized representation becomes radical.