They say that all of us have two sides to our personality. (And I believe that lots of us have three, four, five, or even more…) Perhaps no other segment of the population explores the fabulousness of that duality better than our drag queens. Long Island artist Rick Odell knows about this phenomenon very well. In his new collection of photography, “My Better Half”, an exclusive sorority of “girls” and their male alter egos interact with each other in the same portrait, making for a very entertaining statement about gender expression as well as the performance aspects of drag. Odell’s subjects have included such well-known New York City and Long Island drag personalities as Lady Clover Honey, Epiphany, Sherry Vine, Madison Mansfield, Carmella Cann, and nationally known homemaker Aunt Barbara, who single-handedly made Tupperware chic again. Odell’s portraits have appeared at several exhibits in the past, including Lady Clover Honey’s Award-winning visual art showcase “Strike A Pose” at New York City’s Leslie Lohman Gay Art Foundation Gallery in November 2008. Odell’s first solo show is currently in exhibit at Ripe Art Gallery in Greenlawn, Long Island, through September 7th. The artist gave an exclusive interview with Jed Ryan about the origins of “My Better Half”… and more!
RO: I’ve always wanted to do some kind of pro-gay and lesbian type of project. But it was really weird the way this particular project started. I don’t have a lot of experience in it. I went to one drag show, in college. It was on Fire Island. I had a roommate that did it just for fun. We used to do this thing called “Miss Hofstra USA”– because I went to Hofstra. One fraternity guy had to team up with a sorority, who dressed the guy up in drag. For the most part it was very campy. But every once in a while, you’d get a guy like my roommate who was very good at it. Between the drag show and real life, I saw that there were these different personas. But this was all well over a decade ago. It was always an interest, but I never knew what to do with it. Then, I started doing shoots of “regular” people for a project, and it wasn’t working out too well. One of the teachers suggested that I use people who were more flamboyant, like drag queens. And I thought about just how I wanted to use those drag queens. It wouldn’t have worked for that project I was working on. So, I took three or four months and mentally thought out the process: How would I do it? I thought about shooting a “guy” and a “girl” in their own picture, similar to what Timothy Greenfield-Sanders did a couple of years ago with the book “XXX: 30 Porn-Star Portraits “. He did porn stars, and he shot them first clothed and then nude in the same pose.
JR: Yes, I remember…
RO: He shot them in the studio, and my project was gonna be essentially the same thing with my spin on it. The more I thought about it, I liked his work but didn’t think it was as strong as it could have been. Then I thought about putting the guy and girl together in the same image. But how? Then I listened to an interview with RuPaul on the Howard Stern Show. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to the Howard Stern Show, but he’s a really good interviewer. He gets people to talk about things they would never talk about! He would egg RuPaul on, and say, “What do you do as guy? And how is that different from what you do as a girl?” Some of the interview was raunchy, but some of it was really good. So, as I was driving to work and listening to the radio, I thought, “I need to incorporate how different those two people are in the same picture.” I decided that I was going to shoot the subject as a guy and as a girl, in the same image. It took me another couple of months to figure out the logistics of doing it. I couldn’t do it with film, and at the time I was really film-based. So, this is my first project with digital as my main medium. Originally, in my very first shoot, the “guy” was gonna be on the left and the “girl” was gonna be on the right, and they were going to look at each other and play off of each other. But during the shoot, I was thinking about how that was too easy to “spot“. How could I get this to be more believable that it’s not the same person? So, I made them start to occupy the same space. The first drag queen subject I used was a classically trained ballet dancer. So, I had “him” start dancing, and then had “her” start dancing, and made sure they knew where they had to be in the space. That was my first image. It was an experiment. We used my assistant, and marked the floor up. If you look at the pictures, you can see all the spots on the floor and stuff like that! The Photoshop work was relatively easy. And then, it just evolved from there. I did about four or five shots in the studio, and then I realized that it needed more than just a white or black background. So, I started to shoot at people’s homes. It was sometimes tough to get people to let me into their home, but once they did, it was really great. My first location shoot was Candy Samples from The Gender Offenders. We had a mutual friend, so I think that’s how I was able to get in a little easier… and it was great. It was one of those that I won’t forget, because it was the first one.
JR: Not to be confused with Candy Samples the adult film star from years ago, I take it?! (Both laugh.). Now, you mentioned this before: The hardest part about the shoots wasn’t the Photo-shopping, like a lot of people think it would be; it was coordinating the schedules of the drag queens!
RO: Yeah, and I feel bad saying it, but some drag queens can be flaky!
JR: No! (Laughs.)
RO: Some people I would e-mail, and it would take me three or four months to hear back, or it would be a back-and-forth thing. A lot of people have their own shows going on, so they may be doing a month-long show, and a clip here and a clip there. Here’s a story for you: Lady Clover Honey had a drag queen friend named Rebecca. Originally, when Clover first told her about my project, she didn’t want to do it. She said it sounded stupid. Then, we met at The Fresh Fruit Festival that spring, and she said she wanted to do it. We traded e-mails back and forth, and then she became one of those people who just disappeared. I never heard from her again. When I ran into Clover at the Long Island GLBT Film Festival in November, she told me that Rebecca had passed away… in a boating accident. So, sometimes something like that happens; and other times, a subject will just disappear because they are flaky. Trying to get people nailed down can be difficult. And, all these subjects are volunteers, so I can’t be strict with them. One of the things I offer them is headshots, both as a man and as a woman. It’s like a barter system. Another thing is that it’s hard to describe the project in an e-mail or even over the phone. Sometimes people just don’t “get” it until they see it. I’m fortunate that that I now have a body of work that I can show people; those images now help to get subjects. Still, everyone has scheduling conflicts. That’s the hardest part about getting the shoots done. Now, I’m trying to shoot more on third party locations, so that’s another variable I have to schedule in. I was really fortunate in that my last shoot was at Lucky Cheng’s– and Kitten With A Whip, who I shot, works there. She was able to secure the place and be the contact person for the place.
JR: Cool! So, what’s coming up next? There’s a book in the works, right?
RO: Hopefully this project will evolve into a book. I’ve been doing interviews with the drag queens, and getting their stories on how they became who they are, their first time performing, etc… and that‘s the text of the book. That’s the next step!
You can see more of Rick Odell‘s work at http://www.RickOdellPhotography.com. “My Better Half“ is on exhibit at Ripe Art Gallery in Greenlawn, Long Island through September 7th. Ripe Art Gallery is located at 67A Broadway in Greenlawn, NY. Call 631-239-1805 or visit http://www.RipeArtGal.com for more info!