Switch - JJ Levine's Genderbending Photo Exhibit

On January 13,  the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Archives held a vernissage (an art opening) for Switch, a series of genderbending photographs by JJ Levine. A superficial glance might give the impression that each picture portrays a heterosexual couple in fancy dress. But the pictures are paired and with a serious look it becomes obvious that each pair of pictures doesn’t have four models portraying two couples, instead it has two models each portraying a man in one image and a woman in the next.

Each set of photographs impeccably confuses the representations of gender: it is not possible to identify what any models assigned or identified gender is. When asked about this JJ responds:

Approximately half of the models in switch are cisgendered, as in they identify as the gender that they were assigned at birth. Each individual model is presented as a man in one image and a woman in the next, so theoretically everyone will be dressed as their assigned gender at one point. However, the characters in these photographs are often portraying exaggerated gender roles, and many identify somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. This project is about fluidity and is intended to raise questions surrounding the discrepancy that often exists between people's identity and their physical body. For example, I identify as genderqueer, or in between male and female. And my sexuality is closer to transmasculine fag, but I present in a more androgynous way. Working on this project was interesting because for many of the models who identify as trans, dressing as their assigned gender was triggering of childhood gender trauma. Although this was consensual, and everyone knew exactly what they were signing up for, it was sometimes challenging, and reminding my friends of their sometimes painful past experiences was certainly never my intention.

As you can tell from this answer, JJ uses close friends as models instead of hiring or soliciting them in other ways. I wondered about the motivation behind that and the pros and cons. JJ’s response:

One of the most important aspects of my work is the element of trust that exists between my models and myself. I work with people I know because I believe that the power dynamic between artist and subject really comes through an image and I want that to be as balanced as possible. I also ask people to do things that will potentially make them vulnerable, and I wouldn't feel comfortable asking that of a stranger. In many ways, Switch is a less personal project for the models than most of my other work, such as my main oeuvre, Queer Portraits. And the majority of the models in Switch, which is a more contrived studio portrait project, have also been photographed by me in their own home environment, portraying themselves in the gender and sexuality that more accurately represents them.

In the press I read about Switch before attending the show, the photographs were described as “prom-style portraits.” Prom and deciding if/how to take a date was definitely an issue for me and for other queers my age when we were in high school, and there has been news made all over North America in recent years as LGBT teens try to do prom their way. I asked JJ about this aspect and if there was an adolescent audience for Switch:

Although Switch obviously references the conventional prom portrait, the project equally references the Sears family portrait, the wedding portrait and many other heteronormative, studio-based photo "documentation" style. So this project isn't actually about prom more than anything else. I use this conventional format to explain unconventional ideas.

Like much of my other work, I hope this project reaches a variety of different demographics, but specifically addressing youth has never been my goal. And as far as my experience of being one of the only out queers in my high school, I went to prom with the person I was dating at the time and we stood out but were not uncomfortable.

Switch is one of my only projects in which I appear as a model in my own work. And a funny fact is that I photographed myself as a man and as a woman posing with my real life prom date from almost 10 years earlier!

Congratulations to JJ on a successful vernissage: the place was at capacity with a line of people waiting to get in. The show will be up until February 24th so drop by to check it out. The CGLA Gallery is at 34 Isabella Street and is open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings from 7.30 pm to 10 pm.