Mariette Pathy Allen’s “Transformations” Returns to New York City

The New York City gallery ClampArt is pleased to announce the exhibition of “Transformations”, Mariette Pathy Allen’s first solo show with the popular art space.

“Transformations” is composed entirely of portraits of cross-dressing men, occasionally photographed with their wives or children.  All the portraits were taken in the late 1970’s or ’80’s.  The exhibit had its origins when Allen, who stated that her choice of photographic subjects is “people in their own environment”, had produced a portfolio of 11 dye transfer prints to coincide with the release of her first book, 1989’s Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them. The book depicted the lives of heterosexual, married men who wore women’s clothes. As Allen states, “I guess you could say that I was ahead of my time.  I created a book that they finally could identify with.  All the visual material up until then were either to be found in porn shops, which they did not identify with; or in medical manuals, which they also didn’t identify with.”  In that book, Allen included black-and-white portraits as well as interviews of her subjects.  “Transformations” the art show was originally exhibited 30 years ago in January 1990 at the Simon Lowinsky Gallery in New York City.  The new exhibition at ClampArt includes the complete portfolio of color vintage prints.  ClampArt’s show also includes a selection of black-and-white prints by Allen shot in the same era.

Mariette Pathy Allen has been photographing the transgender community for over forty years. Through her photography, she had also become a pioneering force in gender consciousness, contributing to numerous cultural and academic publications about gender variance and lecturing across the globe. Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them was her first book.  Her second book, The Gender Frontier, is a collection of photographs, interviews, and essays covering political activism, youth, and the range of people that identify as transgender in the United States. It won the 2004 Lambda Literary Award in the Transgender/Genderqueer category. Other books include TransCuba and Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand.   Her photographs have been widely exhibited in the United States and abroad, with some of her work represented in the permanent collections of  many museums around the world. In 2020, Queer|Art, a New York nonprofit dedicated to promoting the work of LGBTQ+ artists, launched a new $10,000 grant for Black trans women artists. The award, called the Illuminations Grant, was developed in collaboration with Allen as well as writer/consultant Aaryn Lang and multidisciplinary artist Serena Jara. Allen single-handedly endowed the award. Her work will be archived at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s Studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Looking at the portraits, it became clear that most of the subjects in “Transformations”, who were photographed in the late ’70’s and ’80’s, clearly had an affinity for the conservative women’s styles of clothing, hair, and accessories from the 1950’s and 1960’s.  That reminded me of a remarkable 1985 documentary by Lee Grant called What Sex am I?, which took an honest, bold, and sympathetic look at male cross-dressers and transgendered people. As a male-identified, cisgender man, that film served as an early but enduring educational piece for my own personal evolution for the understanding of a still-misunderstood segment of the LGBTQ community.  What Sex am I? hypothesized that many cross-dressing men chose the styles of the ’50’s and ’60’s as a possible subconscious attempt to reinforce a primary bond with their mothers. When I mentioned What Sex am I? to Ms. Allen, she revealed to me that she was the still photographer for that groundbreaking movie.  I later learned that she also provided the still photo work  and/or served as a consultant for Rosa von Praunheim’s The Transsexual Menace (1996) and Kate Davis’ Southern Comfort (2001). Allen also took the cover photo of Jamison Green’s 2004 book Becoming a Visible Man and was an associate producer for an A&E documentary The Transgender Revolution in 1998.
Allen and I spoke about one of her portraits, “Davida and Mate, Corrinne”.  She told me that the two are still a happily married couple in 2021.  She also shared that David, Davida’s alter ego, had no desire to fully transition. (“He is perfectly happy to still be David some of the time.“, Allen tells me.)  But Davida apparently was an exception: Allen revealed that many of the cross-dressing men that she knew sought to become more and more feminine, and usually eventually decided to fully transition. This often put the women they loved in a challenging situation, requiring an equal adjustment for both partners.  “First you’re a straight woman with a man.  Then, over time, if you stay with him, you are a lesbian.  You’re seen differently.” Allen also told me about the the rigidity of the original medical model for transgender surgery. Transgenderism, or transsexualism as it was called in the past, was considered a medical issue.  Therefore, medical doctors made all the decisions.   Apparently, to be considered for surgery, patients had to “agree” to be heterosexual afterward. They also had to be able to “pass” as women.  On the subject of “passing”, Allen shows a much less rigid attitude than the one held generations ago: “Some people care to pass.  Others say, ‘No, I’m trans.  Take it or leave it!'”  She adds, “In the past, people felt perfectly comfortable making fun of other people… and a lot of people still do.  They go, ‘Ha, ha,ha, that’s really a man in a dress!’ In many cases, it may be totally obvious.  But they’re having an evening out and having a good time… so what’s YOUR problem? (Laughs)”  How true!

“Transformations” runs through Saturday, April 10, 2021 at ClampArt, 247 West 29th Street, New York City. For more info, call 646-230-0020 or e-mail info@clampart.com.

Visit https://clampart.com/2021/02/transformations-3/#thumbnails for more about “Transformations”.

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