Noted gender theorist and professor at UC San Diego Judith Halberstam presented “Ceremonies of Our Present: Photography and the Queer Image” to a crowd of 50 USF student and faculty members in the Marshall Center Ballroom on Monday night. The lecture focused on how homosexual images from famous photographers in decades past have been presented out of context and sometimes in an ill fashion.
“In one incarnation, photography is an incredibly mobile form for telling social fiction that seems to come in the form of authenticity,” Halberstam said. “On the other hand, as Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about but doubt seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it.”
Some of the photography Halberstam discussed was by the French photographer Gyula Brassai, who took photos of queer life in Paris in the 1930s. He published those photos in the 1970s in a book called Secret Paris.
“He was obviously really worried about the perception of this book, so he accompanied the images of Secret Paris with a narrative,” Halberstam said. “The images tell one story, and the captions tell another.”
Many of the photos were of lesbians hanging out in a lesbian bar. Some were dressed in a masculine way. Others were not.
But the narrative said this: “All the women were dressed as men. They were so totally masculine in appearance that at first glance, one thought they were men,” Halberstam recited. “Obsessed by their unattainable goal to be men, they wore the most somber uniforms: black tuxedos, as though in mourning for their ideal masculinity.”
The caption was obviously not an accurate depiction. Halberstam said that viewing photos is a process.
“Each image unlocks the queer photographic subjects from the abjection the caption has projected onto that,” she said. “It’s that process of looking that sort of unleashes the power of the photography that I will associate with something called the transgender look, where you look, you’re not sure what you see, the caption tells you what you see, you look against the version of reality that the caption gives you, and then you begin to see the photograph somehow on its own terms.”
These obscure captions were common in older photographs of the gay community, but Halberstam believes that images today will hold a truer depiction of queer subcultures and life.
“Queer artists now give context to the previous depictions,” Halberstam said.