It was an evening of performances in praise of the artistry of drag, at Projekt 105 art gallery in Manhattan. It was also the opening of a portraiture series “Drag Queens” by famed photographer Martin Schoeller. With the gallery’s permission, Victor Pickens, (Photography ’23), created a series of his own based on the performances.
“It was an amazing experience, a show of beauty, power, and artistic expression. It was like capturing lightning in a bottle,” says Pickens.
“There was no better way to encompass pride,” says Pickens “in seeing people living out their dreams and their personalities.” He describes some of the striking images he captured, like this “moment of vulnerability” by the performer Pietra Parker:
“The darkness behind the outer line of her face intrigued me. Being queer you take pride in yourself despite what others think. I see in her the experience of dealing with daily scrutiny and the impending lack of acceptance,” says Pickens.
Pickens’ favorite performance was Iggy Berlin singing a German ballad. “It was a moment of contemplation, a slow and solemn beauty. She greeted the audience with a fierce stare; it’s the attitude of not knowing what challenge awaits you.”
Ella Baum, who worked as gallery associate at Projekt 105 and organized the event, said Pickens’ evocative photos were difficult to get:
“I was so impressed with how Victor was able to operate within one-square foot of the space, jammed up against the stage with so many people in the background and create such emotive images, which is difficult to do in live performance photography. He was able to create very emotive, colorful, captivating images that not only depicted his subjects as performers, but as humans. That raw quality is nothing to be unhappy about.”
While the rainbow-themed outfit worn by Jasmine Rice LaBeija above is “jovial and colorful,” says Pickens, “it’s contrasted by an operatic performance. With her blond hair, dress and body shape, I expected to hear a high-pitched voice.
“An important thing about Pride is not assigning a stereotype to someone’s gender identity or appearance. Jasmine reaffirmed that to me,” he says.
Creating this photo as a black and white, says Pickens “isn’t just for the starkness of the image, but the power of Pattaya’s presence, and of her turning her back on negative energy.”
Pickens describes it further: “While her body is a blur of motion, her hair twisting
in the air, her hand is still. The ring, which represents her power, is steady. The
hand is what we complete most of our actions with; it does what the mind says.”
“Three is a powerful number,” says Pickens. “It can capture motion without overcrowding the eye. I wanted to show Pattaya engaging with the crowd between performances. She filled the crowd with electric energy. That’s the spirit of drag.”
The image on the bottom of this triplet “is about contemplation,” says Pickens. “The top one is about fear. Her eyes come back to the stare between the peacock and the predator to show she means business.”
“The point of my multiple exposures,” says Victor “is to show different emotional states. The way we feel and express ourselves can change in a minute. It doesn’t suffice to confine ourselves to one state,” says Pickens.
“Pattaya (below) has “an air of deadly precision,” says Pickens. “She’s at home on
the stage; there are the curtains, bright lights, and microphone. I see the power of her expression, and what it means to be a drag queen,” says Pickens.
For the first triplet of Iggy, I used red tones to signify danger and alert. For this image, I used blues, purples and pinks. I wanted it to feel like a galaxy, a land of fantasy and exploration,” he says.
“It was an amazing experience, a show of beauty, power, and artistic expression. “It was like capturing lightning in a bottle.” – Victor Pickens
Pickens opened and closed his work with images of Pietra, whose personality he finds to be an enigma. “The first image of her is reminiscent of a 1970s movie poster. This one has a Broadway burlesque performance element,” he says.
“I came expecting photographs, but I got a whole visual performance. I’m grateful because it gave me a platform to make my own art. Seeing this show encapsulated for me what it means to be proud,” he said.
While the event took place near the end of Pride month, “pride should be 365 days a year,” he says. “Once Pride month ends, we easily forget about the pain, inner struggles and discrimination. I’m compelled to tell the real stories.”
All images used with permission.