Diana Tourjee stares straight into your eyes, pensive, resolute. There’s a slight twist of her mouth, eyebrows are raised—not confrontational or questioning, but resigned—the tenseness of her brow indicating a degree of apprehension. There is extensive lived experience etched into Diana’s face. Not all of it has been good. Her hands, only barely visible at the bottom of the frame are clasped together, for comfort, perhaps.
Octavia McKinney is seated on the first step of three leading to a doorway just behind her. All the muscles in her face appear relaxed, yet there’s a complex inner life reflected in her eyes. Her legs are splayed, toes pointed outward. Long, highly polished steel heels with rigid arcs point toward one another and are planted firmly on the ground positioned closely to the base of the first stoop. McKinney’s legs are up high because she’s sitting so close to the ground, which place her knees wider than her shoulders. Just down–center from the mid–point of the picture, it’s easy to follow the line of her long, bare legs to the focal point of the image, her crotch. Scant material runs taut over clearly defined female anatomy.
Anastasia Jackson and Friend stand side–by–side in mock stupefaction. Their toes are pointed inward bringing their knees together giving them a slightly off kilter stance; arms hang loosely, inertly to their sides. Both Anastasia and Friend are wearing the same high waisted dresses. Socks are pulled in self–conscious bedraggled fashion, one over the knee, the other, strategically rumpled, below. Both friends’ heads are cocked toward one another, not mockingly and without attitude, but presenting matter–of–fact, “This is who we are, wanna hang out?”
Benjamin Melzer is at the gym. It looks like he’s just finished a few sets of flat bench presses on the Smith machine. Two 45lbs plates on each side, no big deal. He looks competition ready, ripped, serious, middle–weight contender. Boxing, bodybuilding, wrestling? Who knows? Don’t mess.
Jamel Young and Leiomy Maldonado stand in intimate embrace. His arm is plastered around Leiomy’s waist, her arm flung across Jamel’s shoulder. They look glued together, like they belong to one another. Jamel is dressed in a tidy black shirt and black jeans. Leiomy, not to be outdone, accentuates her perfect body in a tight fitting black dress. Her startling features compliment Jamel’s quiet repose.
Mark Seliger captured these and other startling images using a medium format Hasselblad 500C/M, with Kodak TRI–X 400 film. The 500C/M is the newer version of the 500C first launched in 1957. Both cameras are no longer in production. Photographs using this particular camera create astonishing clarity giving the subjects an immediacy and hyper–real presence. Images are square, 91.4 x 91.4 cm. It is my assumption that Seliger used Carl Zeiss Planer lens, 80mm focal length, which create stunning contrast, excessively sharp images, with the range being a close approximation of how the human eye perceives the landscape. Seliger used only natural light for this particular body of work with the aid of a simple halogen light for ambient fill–in for night shots.
Seliger, who lives in Greenwich Village, NY, spent three years, from 2013 to 2016, documenting members of the transgender community in the West Village of New York City. The Village has for decades been a safe haven and migration endpoint for members of the LGBT community. People have come from all across the country to see members of their own tribe reflected back to them. Christopher Street has a unique history for the LGBT community with the Stonewall riots of 1969 acting as the catalyst for policy and legislative change that would take decades to enact.
It was the drag queens who were instrumental in resisting police raids that took place on a regular basis, harassing and arresting queers for having the gall to gather and socialize. The Stonewall Inn proved to be a place of resistance. Patrons finally had enough of the constant police harassment and rioted for several nights wanting to establish a legitimate place to gather without the fear of reprisal.
Seliger, who is primarily interested in imagery, focused his attention on this particular demographic because it was readily available around where he lives. “Tiny,” his first subject was one of many that Seliger would shoot. It was after several encounters with others and gaining their trust that he and a collaborator realized they had an interesting demographic that would later become a 72–portrait book, On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories (Rizzoli, New York).
The documentation of these lives is so important because The Village and Christopher Street is gentrifying fast. Casualties always go along with gentrification and at great cost to the centralized and established communities. Those most vulnerable are pushed further to the margins; no longer able to afford housing in the communities they helped forge. Already disenfranchised, they look for cheaper places to live in the attempt to reestablish themselves and create new networks of shared experiences. Seliger’s project gives voice and exposure to a particular group at a point in time.
It is so easy to put up walls and dismiss “other” as people living far outside our experience. Seliger’s images are a stark reminder that behind every face is a life lived. Our collective humanity is bolstered when seeing and accepting others as they are without the attempt to marginalize, vilify, and ostracize those who don’t fit our worldview. The trans communities represented in Seliger’s exhibition are people who are looking for much the same as any of us, love and acceptance.
On view at Von Lintel Gallery, Los Angeles through February 25, 2017.