One of the these is just like the other, or not.
This is the first in a series about how various photographers have dealt with trans-related issues and imagery. My interest is not only in how these photographers have presented and interpreted trans people in their work but how others have critiqued and reacted to these photos. This blog entry is about LA-based artist Charlie White, who created quite a stir in 2008 with a grouping of 5 photos called Teen and Transgender Comparative Studies . They were part of a larger project of his called The Girl Studies which dealt with various issues of tween and teenage girls (as interpreted by the artist, of course). Of all the pieces in The Girl Studies show, which included both short films and photos, these 5 particular photos were reproduced and discussed more than any of his other works.
You may have already seen them on the Internet. Each photo has two figures cropped just above their breasts. Neither figure is clothed (in what's shown to us, anyway). Both are standing in front of a gridded light blue background using what almost looks like flat, clinical lighting. Many people writing about the photos have compared them to 19th-early 20th century scientific comparative photos often found in older medical textbooks... with awkward naked figures displaying their medical conditions under harsh lighting looking more like objects of examination than portraits. Some writers have compared White's photos to those of 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge's series of anatomical studies.
On the left is a figure of a young teenaged girl, perhaps 13-14 years old. On the right is another female person who greatly resembles the girl but older. They seem to have similarly styled hair and appear to be wearing a certain spare amount of makeup. Both subjects have a slightly startled yet blank expression... as if they were lined up and photographed before they even had a chance to react to what was happening. What's unclear (and part of the artist's game) is are these two figures to be contrasted or bonded?
Kindly note the obvious transgender on the right.
It's just a label
Were there no caption or title and you were to ask most people what this is a photo of, I suspect they'd be most likely to say a mother and her daughter. Juxtaposed next to one another, they look similar enough and the right age balance to be identified as that. The woman on the right has the right kind of stereotypical "soccer mom" slightly haggard "I'm busy, don't bug me" look. As someone who's a trans woman and has a daughter this age (my daughter came into our family through adoption) I'm always a little surprised and bemused when we're in a store and people sincerely tell us how much we look alike. Context is everything. Titles mean a lot.
Same photo, two different worlds and histories
I recall seeing an art installation where they had two identical photos of a fairly generic looking, innocuously pleasant middle-aged man (kind of a blank portrait, similar to these) in different areas of the installation. One was labeled "dad". The other identical photo was labeled "child molester." The subtext might well have been about how dad and child molester could be one in the same, but it also could be about how the viewer reacts to each label and connects it with the photo. Seeing "dad" first you might be shocked to come upon the same image with "child molester" under it. If you saw "child molester" first you might be disgusted to come upon a photo of him labeled as "dad."
That's a maaan, Maury, that's soooo a maaan
It also reminds me of "The Maury Povich Show" (to be discussed in a future post) where they frequently play "spot the tranny." One by one young women march out all sassy onto the stage while the screaming, nearly out-of-control audience of yahoos shout "that's a guy... that's a guy Maury" or "that is one laaaady, definitely a bee-oo-tiful laaady." Maury taunts the audience with questions like "are you suuure that's a woman... don't you know the difference between a woman and a man?" Towards the end of the spectacle, the models saunter out and reveal a sign which either says "man" or "woman" accompanied by groans, high fives, howls of delight or sounds of incredulity by Maury's raucous crowd. The interesting twist is when they have cissexual women in the mix who start being identified as trans. Just knowing the show is about spotting the transwomen by their hands, feet, space between breasts, swearing they see an adam's apple... the cissexual women get caught in the same trap et voila... ciswomen, welcome to club trans and the big transsexual reveal.
Maury and his 'spot-the-man' crew of experts
White stated in a panel discussion about the show "Nine Lives" at the Hammer Museum (of which these photos were a part), "I wanted to keep the idea very pure so there wasn't any other information in the project." Curiously though, his identification of the adult women as trans brings a huge set of assumptions as to what the project is about and why the photos were taken. Unfortunately, rather than just naming them "untitled," Teen and Transgender Comparative Studies already opens up an entire can of worms and brings with it a huge set of assumptions for the viewer to have. Museum art as the Maury Povich Show.
We're becoming young ladies
The first assumption is that the series has to do with two sets of puberty... one experienced by the teen girl the other by the transsexual. Laurie Toby Edison writes in The Body Impolitic blog: "Central to this new work is a group of five photographs titled Teen and Transgender Comparative Study, which parallels two puberties: one biological, the other chemical/surgical." ARTINFO, which provides a digest of the content of art shows, describes it this way: White worked to identify teen and male-to-female transsexual subjects who, when viewed together, would create a visual bridge between female adolescence and male-to-female sexual transformation." In the LA Times story about the show, Sharon Mizota writes: "The subjects are both going through a form of puberty. As White wrote in an e-mail, 'Both are following a trajectory towards femininity, towards womanhood. One is doing this chemically, and the other is doing it biologically.'"
You make an ass out of me
These quotes and critiques make some curious assumptions about the trans women in the photos. First, they assume they're in the actual process of transition. How do they know the transition is currently happening and they didn't, in fact, transition 15 years ago? Second, they instantly apply standards of "what is real versus what is artificial." The reality is, physical puberty is totally a chemical transformation.
Not ready for adulthood
Furthermore, they instantly project the meme of how "people in transition are like adolescents" which, in fairness, many trans people repeat themselves. But the reality is, puberty is not just about body and social changes, it's also at its core about brain development and social independence. Yes, if an adult trans person transitions, there are body changes and some level of acclimating to social behavior (although, in my own experience, the latter was actually pretty minimal). But to suggest adults are going through the same brain changes which adolescents do is slightly absurd. Adult trans persons are not like a 12 or 13 year olds in terms of life experience, complexity of thought, decision-making processes and comprehension of the world. However the experiences overlap (and there is some) they are fundamentally different.
KCET TV's review of the show (the LA PBS station) goes a step further. Holly Willis writes, The series includes several photographs grouped as the Teen and Transgender Comparative Study; each photo unites a young girl and male-to-female transgender subject, inviting viewers to consider both a moment of transition, as well as the gap between what is considered the real and its copy." She instantly projects a question of real vs. copy to the photos. There may be some truth to this in White's intent. In a Hammer Museum discussion of the images, he curiously said, "we had to shoot the girls and the adults separately because, they (the adults) couldn't wear a top because their breasts weren't real. They hung too much." The exact intent of this statement is hard to figure out, but I think he meant it he didn't want to expose the girls to the naked breasts of the transgender women (although White himself never calls them women... he refers to them as transgenders). It's a revealing statement. More accurately, even with implants, most trans women do have a "non-implant" component to their breasts which are responding to estrogen, just as the teen girls' are. I'm curious if he had, say, cissexual women of a similar age, would he instantly know if their breasts were "real" and make a similar statement?
Lolita and the shemale
In some cases, the study is viewed as being very much about sex. Andrew Womack in The Morning News Blog (who really spread the photos and news of the project over the Internet) writes:
In the images in White’s series, both figures are blossoming into womanhood, though each along a different path. As observers, however, we have been taught to view the subjects in much the same way: with sheer terror.
For just as the original 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers warned of Communism’s impending doom, and stories of men with hooks were concocted to frighten young girls from riding in cars with boys, so often have Hollywood summer comedies acted as cautionary tales for the male who would cast his desire toward either the pubescent or transgendered woman. Because in the right skirt or the right application of makeup, each has proved alluring to our hero—or more frequently, his best man, whose idea it was to move the bachelor party to Tijuana.
So while, socially speaking, White’s subjects may represent a threat to our libido, his photos present only their innocence, and hint very strongly at a sense of our own “guilt.”
Whoa! For what is a fairly well considered arts blog, the review would have you think the photos are completely about perceived fetishism, and the forbidden nature of sexualized images and identities. Several other bloggers mentioned how the photos combine a sense of awakening sexuality contrasted with the innocence of the subjects.
Again, one wonders how they know for certain the adults are going through "awakening sexuality." These comments continue to infantilize the adult trans women into basically overgrown children who don't really know what to make of their bodies or sexuality. In the case of Mr. Womack, he's figuratively referencing the panic defense used by accused perpetrators of transphobic violence. There is an attempt to wrap this observation in irony by him mentioning "summer comedies" but since there is absolutely no reference to this in White's pieces—title or no title—it would seem this response has far more to do with the observer than the work. "Tranny" porn has made it into the consciousness of art critics.
It's there, it's really, really there!
I saw it... I swear I saw it
Another curious response is by Jeffrey Wallace from the culture blog, Leap Into the Void. He writes:
In Teen and Transgender Comparative Study #3 (shown above), it is possible to decipher the scar from a tracheal shave, an operation designed to reduce the prominence of the male Adam’s apple. White’s specimen-like depiction, which foregrounds his subjects’ pathologies, separates us from their humanity.**
It's a comment both fetishistic, and sensitive rolled into one. The scar he mentions likely wouldn't be noticed had White not first mentioned she was trans and, even looking for it, it's incredibly hard to see. (White has stated the images, other than the two figures being composited, are neither digitally manipulated nor retouched). Of all the aspects of the image to focus on, Mr. Wallace has gone "micro" and looked for signs of the subject's visible transness. I do, however, agree with his observation about the specimen-like depiction (other writer's have mentioned this as well) and he takes White to task for separating him from their humanity but doesn't take any responsibility for his own part in this action. Again, the cissexual viewer is a passive observer who believes they're forced to deal with a photo subject's obtrusive gender variance which would be better off concealed or omitted.
Wallace also observes:
For one, both his subjects’ identities—teen and transgender—occupy a liminal space between child and adult, or between male and female. The burden of understanding White’s subjects is left to the limited cultural identifiers within the frame. But even a reading of those identifiers is thwarted. We may infer that a teen girl and a transgender woman are both attempting to advance to their own ideals of femininity, but what we see are the efforts of an unseen hairstylist, make-up artist, and photographer who work in concert to reinforce similarities and eliminate individual identity and difference.
Again, Wallace mixes some astute observations framed by some crude assumptions. The trans woman isn't necessarily occupying a space between male and female—that's Wallace's own assumption (which he deflects from owning by assuming a stance of a supposedly passive, objective observer). Are the teen girl and trans woman really advancing their own ideals of femininity or is Wallace projecting that onto them? Also implied its the assumption femininity is a wholly artificial construct? What I do appreciate is his attempt to identify White's agenda in presenting the figures in a stylistically clinical, objective presentation while, in fact, very much manipulating the outcomes. Maybe it's all just part of the sideshow.
White in discussion about the 9 Lives show. The artists on
his left and right are supposedly real women although the one on the
right has suspicious brow bossing
What I find interesting about so many of these comments is how they assume the images are suggesting something specific without analyzing their own part in the experience. In this, art critique is not that different than someone viewing trans porn. The observer objectifies and sexualizes the performer yet assumes this is coming from the performer and not themselves. What I suspect Charlie White didn't realize is how much his project's title influenced the experience of the viewing (at least, he hasn't made mention about being conscious of it). The identification of his subjects as trans and how observers relate to this information literally dominates the entire experiencing of these images, something I don't believe was the artist's intent.
It's more convenient when it comes in a box
All the more pity he didn't trust his subjects (or viewers) enough to leave his photos completely unidentified and have the viewer freely explore the images for content (which, unfortunately for some, might lead to "spot the tranny" but at least it would be entirely viewer driven). Mostly, White and the reviewers I've mentioned never really refer to the adult women in the images as women, rather continuing White's preference for displaying them as transgender specimens. White is all about involving the viewer in his own process as creep-a-zoid and voyeur. Making us just as dirty, despite his clean gridded background and bright lighting. Like Maury's show, you know it's all about spotting "trangenders" from the get-go, so it's really no longer any kind of undirected experience.
It's doubtful the term "objectification" would be a nasty word for White since he's all about exhibiting objects for clinical investigation. There's little question he displays tween girls for similar examination although he doesn't seem to understand exactly what that public display of each exactly signifies or entails. It's fair to say much of White's views of girls this age are altogether stereotypical and condescending and that he, as a 30s-ish male, has no direct experience being either a tween girl nor a trans woman. But that's really the point, it's his assumptions about what it's like. What isn't clear is whether he actually believes his assumptions to be true? It's hard to tell if he's has asked himself that question or even cares. In this, he personifies much of how power structures within society deal with women and, especially, trans women.
White, when asked in the Hammer Museum discussion whether he'd ever consider being photographed in front of the camera like his subjects, mumbled, "I don't really belong in the picture, I'm involved in the process." What I don't think this statement entirely acknowledges is that he is the picture. They are his constructed objects, and his assumptions about the objects very carefully steer the discussion about those objects even as he presents an outward framing of them as cold objective exhibits. That is his skill as an artist—to package and present his often pervy, always voyeuristic obsessions as technical studies. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced he actually understands what his attitudes are towards the transgender women in his art (and, likely, it isn't a big concern of his). In not delving into his own attitudes and then turning around and labeling them, The art project becomes not terribly different than the big tranny reveal on the Maury show.
To see all five of the photos in the series, go to The Morning News.
**I also note the possibility he might have written image #3 but meant #5. I'm ashamed to say after he pointed out the scar in his little essay, I was compelled to search for 'clues' in the other images. Thank you Charlie White for making me have to look for that!