To Survive on This Shore: Photographs and Interview with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Older Adults
August 23 – December 7, 2019
UNM Art Museum, Albuquerque
Early into Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre’s collaborative show, I recall a scene from Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. In it, Nelson describes an encounter between her queer family and a presumably heterosexual salesman. All is smooth as long as she and her partner are mistaken for a straight couple, but then Nelson’s gender-nonconforming partner hands over a credit card. The name on the card suggests he is a woman, when the salesman had, based on visual cues, assumed he was a man. The salesman balks. “It’s complicated,” Nelson’s partner offers in explanation, but the clerk says, “No, it’s not, it’s not complicated at all.”
The scene stuck with me, in part because of its ambiguity. Probably the salesman means, no, it’s not complicated: women are women and men are men, as God made us. But maybe he means, no, it’s not complicated: what could be simpler than you being exactly who you are?
To Survive on This Shore is the product of five years of research and travel across the U.S. The show pairs Dugan’s photographic portraits with Fabbre’s interviews with transgender and gender-nonconforming adults, all aged fifty or older. I’m drawn immediately to Duchess Milan, 69, Los Angeles, CA (2017). “I just know I’m me,” begins the text beside the photo. “I identify as Duchess.” She stands on a porch, shoulders bared, eyes twinkling, hands pressed into a white iron railing. What Duchess exudes is often called pride, but I see wideopen ease.
I expected the exhibition to prove that trans and queer people are multifaceted; that is its thesis. But standing surrounded by these varied bodies and faces, I realize that despite my love of portraiture, I’d doubted the artistic potential of the project. I’d worried the message might be too clear, too didactic. I’d wondered if I would find it formally boring, overly earnest, even naïve.
In an interview for Smithsonian, Dugan explains how using medium- and large-format cameras requires her to be slow, deliberate, and communicative; how slow shutter speeds demand the full participation of the sitter; and how that process enables the creation of “a very real reflection of the person in front of the camera.” The photographs are indeed beautiful, and in them I believe I see something like psychological truth. Tony, 67, San Diego, CA (2014), is one of a few close-ups, the frame excluding even the faintest trace of place. His unadorned face, buzzed gray hair, and slate-blue eyes reflect a person of wisdom, one who’s traversed incredible hurt, as evidenced in both the accompanying text and the image itself.
Seriousness predominates. There is a history of play in some aspects of queer culture, and that playfulness—as seen in pride parades and drag shows—might allow cis and straight people to dismiss the depth and misunderstand much of the spectrum of experiences of people who identify outside of cis, straight culture. This is real, Dugan’s portraits say.
Still, without the stories, these photographs would be received differently. It’s not only the assumption-defying details of each person’s story, but the way Fabbre captures their nuanced speech patterns, their voices. The narratives are necessary, reminders that regardless of how skillfully wrought, a reflection of a person is exterior. Their words come from within.
Sky, a long-bearded man pictured sitting in the cab of a truck, says people usually assume he’s a Vietnam vet or a biker—until he opens his mouth and a purse falls out. His relationship with his trans partner is polyamorous, and together they’re raising his grandson, whose mother died of cancer. Knowing the value of choosing one’s identity, Sky and his partner asked their grandson to decide how he wanted to identify his new family, and his grandson decided he wanted not two grandpas but two dads. So Sky says, “I also identify as a father.”
Leaving the gallery, I consider how small the human world would be if there were just men, just women. Whatever that salesman meant, he was wrong. It is complicated. And the simplest forms of storytelling, the most conventional of genres, might be the best suited to bare that truth.