It's hard to fathom a series of photographs about drag queens and transgender folk that wouldn't lean heavily on the kind of freak-show voyeurism that sustains most people's fascination and revulsion with the cultures of gender ambiguity.
Jeanette Jones' now ubiquitous Walk on the Wild Side (after the Velvet Underground's song about tranny life in New York City) is probably the best example of this photographer-as-scientific-humanist-cum-freak-show-barker brand of photography. Her work does the explicit staring for you, but insists that you see the person. On one level the book seems condescending and opportunistic. On another, the demystifyingly candid shots invoke a mostly uncontrived sympathy.
Then you've got Joel-Peter Witkin, on the other hand, a photographer who goes well out of his way to make sure you don't forget that trannies (especially preoperatives) are freaks of the sideshow variety, and capitalizes on a high-art, gothic shock-value repugnance that nevertheless exalts his subjects to the level of anti-heroic dignitaries from the underworld.
When I heard that Manitou Center of Photography proprietor Matt Chmielarczyk was putting together a series of his own photographs taken at gatherings of the United Court of the Pikes Peak Empire -- a philanthropic organization that stages heavily ritualized drag shows as a way of raising thousands of dollars for a wide variety of charities each year -- I presumed his pieces would fall somewhere in between Jones and Witkin.
But quite to my surprise I found Chmielarczyk's works to be almost disappointingly un-voyeuristic (with just one or two exceptions). Then (even more surprisingly) after few more looks, they seemed to be, refreshingly, purely formal.
"I've always thought that hetero culture was far more deviant than gay culture," said Chmielarczyk in one of his few comments about the work (he seldom writes artist statements or titles his works). In fact, his work has far more in common with his conceptual rural works from last year's show 47hr39min: New Photographs from East of Manitou than they do with Jones or Witkin, or even Nan Goldin, the "reality" photographer to whom Chmielarczyk attributes a great deal of influence.
In fact, after having quickly absorbed the subject matter, what becomes most shocking is his obsession with composition and his fastidiousness in the darkroom. Constantly reprinting and toning these pieces shot with long shutter speeds and bursts of flash to create ghosts and tracers, Chmielarczyk himself appears to have long since forgotten about the content as he points out the subtlest of tonal flaws in one of five prints he's made of a perfectly composed over-the-shoulder-shot of a hug between two court members. If anything, it's the glitz alone that attracted him to the court for its kinetic, almost holy fascination with light as it perfectly interprets the energy of the event.
This show, titled Deus Salve Regina I, is the first part of a series that will examine in its next installment more of the backstage goings-on of the proceedings.
Twenty-five percent of all the proceeds from the show will go to benefit the United Court of the Pikes Peak Empire, and Chmielarczyk says that a few of the divas just might make an appearance at the opening.