Critics’ Picks

Artist unknown, title unknown, date unknown, photographic print, 8 x 7".

London

“Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers”

The Photographers' Gallery
16 – 18 Ramillies Street
February 23 - June 3

A butch wears a Stetson and boxy suit, her leg cocked raffishly over a table. A group of cross-dressers in 1950s Washington, DC, live out their fantasies of glamour—sheer dresses and Joan Crawford hair—in suburban living rooms. And a trans showgirl named Bambi is getting her hair fixed by a muscled dancer in a dark Dusty Springfield beehive wig. These works appear in “Under Cover,” an exhibition that untethers the fixed absolutes of male and female, revealing gender to be a rich and shifting spectrum.

This trove of around three hundred found photographs, unearthed by French filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz, whose work explores marginalized identities and LGBT lives, is both anonymous and intimate: snapshots of mostly unnamed people flouting the repressive norms of their times. The camera lens—whether prefiguring the selfie in the privacy of one’s own home or capturing the spirit of a social, if secretive, milieu of fellow gender dissidents—bears witness to how many ways a person can be.

With images dating from 1880 to the early 1990s, this show is a meditation on gender as the expression of an innermost self. It is also a document of desire, an endless catalogue of possibility for radical living and liberated futures. The sheer plurality of these queer identities—flaming, defiant, unbowed—reveals “straightness” to be just another form of drag. By putting these private transformations firmly into the public eye and ensuring the sitters are seen without shame, these trailblazing nonconformists are brought to vivid life once more.