Wednesday 8 March 2023

Interview with Mariette Pathy Allen

Monika: Today’s guest is not a transgender woman but for the last 45 years she has been one of the biggest allies of our community and is often referred to as the official photographer of the transgender community.
Mariette Pathy Allen is a well-known photographer for transgender, genderfluid, and intersex people. Through her artistic practice, she has been a pioneering force in gender consciousness, contributing to numerous cultural and academic publications about gender variance and lecturing throughout the globe.
She published five books, "Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them" (1989), "Masked Culture: The Greenwich Village Halloween Parade" (1994) - she was one of five photographers, "The Gender Frontier" (2004), "TransCuba" (2014) and "Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand" (2017). Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and they are available in many public and private collections. She is represented by Clamp NYC.
Hello Mariette! I am so happy that you have accepted my invitation!
Mariette: Hello Monika, thanks for having me.
Monika: Did your parents always support your interest in painting and photography?
Mariette: Visual art was my strong suit from the beginning. When I went to school, I would disappear into the art studio as often as possible, sometimes missing math class! My family was in favor of my painting and I had an aunt who was an artist who was very important to me.
Monika: Do you remember the first photo you took?
Mariette: I remember taking some photographs in Venice with my father. I was using a simple camera. My father and I were surprised by how good they were!
Monika: You took thousands of photos. How do you manage their categorizing and storing? It must be difficult to remember all the background information, people's names, and other details.
Mariette: It is! I wish I had been much more thorough. Now I often just pick the decade when the work was taken. On the other hand, my prints, negatives, and slides are sorted, edited, and filed.
Monika: Do you prefer black and white to color photos?
Mariette: Very often in the past, I carried two cameras, one for color slides, one with black and white negatives, then selected whichever worked best. When I switched to digital photography, I started working just in color.

Photo by Mariette Pathy Allen.

Monika: There's long been a debate about whether or not photography is art. Is it? 
Mariette: That’s an ancient question that has been answered a long time ago! It depends on the purpose of the photograph. If the photograph is made for commercial purposes, that’s one thing. If it expresses a personal vision, it is more likely to be considered “art”, even if it’s not good!
Monika: Is it true that your first encounter with our community took place in 1978 in a hotel during Mardi Gras in New Orleans?
Mariette: Yes, that’s true. I took my first photograph when the crossdressers stood in a line around the hotel swimming pool.
Monika: Many trans women prefer living in the closet, yet you somehow managed to convince them to appear in your photographs. How did you break the ice?
Mariette: There is so much to say about this but to make it really brief, I was one of the first people to photograph gender-diverse people in the daylight of everyday life, as relatable human beings rather than freaks. People who were beginning to be political activists wanted to be photographed and included in “Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them” because they wanted to change the way they were seen by society. When the book came out, they felt comfortable showing it to their parents, wives, and even strangers. They finally had a book that showed them in a positive way.
Monika: You have mentioned parents and wives. Some photos present gender-variant people with their spouses and children in the middle of everyday situations. Was it intentional?
Mariette: My goal was to present crossdressers as relatable people so showing them with their partners, family members, and friends was important.
Monika: “Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them” (1989) includes photos of 30 crossdressers and transgender people that you took in 1978-89. How did you carry out the selection process? Was there any key behind why you chose specific photos?
Mariette: I had a number of criteria: good photographs, stories that presented a range of people and their lives so that outsiders couldn’t assume gender-expansive people were all the same, and finally, if I had a good rapport with them.
Photo by Mariette Pathy Allen.
Kathy, What Sex Am I? (1984)
Monika: In 1984, Lee Grant asked you to be the photographer for What Sex Am I?, a documentary about a group of transgender people in different places in mid-1980s America. Did you work with Lee before? How did you connect with her?
Mariette: I lived in the same building as Lee Grant in the ‘80s and met her there. I admired her films. I was thrilled to be her still photographer and to meet so many wonderful people. The researchers she worked with did a great job, and sometimes I could add my two cents. I worked with Lee on another film later on, “Down and Out in America”, which was about poverty in the US.
Monika: It is absolutely astonishing that Lee presented our community in such an educated and sympathetic way, more in line with the 21st-century sentiment than those of the 1980s…
Mariette: Lee is a good person who always stands up against injustice.
Monika: My favorite characters in this film, Kathy and Randi, appear at the very beginning of the film. Kathy is about to undergo bottom surgery and Randi had hers a couple of months ago. I love their chat in the kitchen with Kathy’s mother when they discuss whether Kathy is ready to have the operation. Did you know both ladies well?
Mariette: No, I didn’t, although they were very likable and I got some good photographs of them. I made friends with Diahanna and we remain friends to this day. (Diahanna is Afro-American. She tries on hats with a friend named Ken/Kathy).
Monika: I had an interesting interview with Connie Fleming about the New York drag scene in the 80s. She said that drag artists were looked down upon by almost everyone. It was viewed as the lowest of the low, pejorative, a nuisance to some, and to others a hindrance for the LGBTQ+ community being taken seriously. Was it a challenge for you when you took their photos?
Mariette: It was a challenge for me only when I had to explain to people outside the community that there are many differences between transgender and drag. Nowadays the differences are blended and people can decide how they want to identify. At the Gay Pride Parade in NYC in 1995, there was a major fight over where the drag artists should walk, whether they should walk with the trans or the gay contingents. Both groups wanted them! 
As far as my experiences with performers are concerned, I had a lot of fun! We could play together, act out roles, and wander around town. One of my best friends was “Lola Lowrent” who partnered with her friend “Dena Dynel.” They were very witty and smart. They would wander into clubs and entertain people just being their alter egos. They weren’t looking for cash, just making people laugh.
Monika: Did you have your favorite NYC nightclubs where you used to take photos of performers?
Mariette: Not really. There was one club, “The Red Parrot” where I went early on. They were very welcoming, even cozy. Generally, I prefer to be backstage. I enjoy the complications and coming together of the performers. It is often surreal, with all knds of unusual juxtapositions.

Photo by Mariette Pathy Allen. International Chrysis, a trans performer, getting
ready backstage for a performance at a nightclub.

Monika: Are these nightclubs still alive? Do you frequent them sometimes?
Mariette: No, sadly. Life here is not jubilant and exciting now. You might have heard that there are dozens of bills being passed all over the country against transgender people.
Monika: In nightclubs, you could also take photos and interact with well-known artists. One of them was International Chrysis. I watched a documentary about her. She was a beautiful woman and successful artist but yet she was always full of this great innate sadness. Did you know her well?
Mariette: Unfortunately I didn’t know her at all. I was lucky to have taken a few different photos of her. I would love to see the film. What is its name?
Monika: The title of the documentary is "Split: Portrait of a Drag Queen". It is a 1993 American documentary film by directors, Ellen Fisher Turk and Andrew Weeks.
The next decade witnessed a profound social change that is also captured in your photos included in "The Gender Frontier" (2003). We are no longer shy, intimidated, living in a hidden world treated as social outcasts. We want to be visible and demand our rights. Is this how you chose the photos for the book?
Mariette: I got very involved in political activism for trans rights. I traveled all over the country with groups of activists, both transmen and transwomen. We made people aware of all sorts of injustices against gender-expansive people, including the many murders. It was an exciting time because we could see changes taking place. It was a big deal when President Obama used the word “transgender” in a speech.
Monika: At that time, your photos are also different. They are more intense and ‘direct’. We do not see as many family photos as before. Instead, you show us surgeries and nudity, the emergence of young people, and many political events.
Mariette: I believe that my early work is very political It took a lot of courage for people to participate in radio and television programs, and to be photographed. It was a much riskier time to “out” oneself. Around the ‘90s and onward, some people within LGBTI circles started to come together to work for common causes. There were plenty of disagreements but also forward movement. Queer and genderfluid young people started to emerge and academics wrote books. As I mentioned, there were endless rallies, marches, demonstrations, leafleting, and trips to some relatively remote places.
Photo by Mariette Pathy Allen.
Carol, wearing her mother’s dress,
CT, ‘80s.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. The need of passing as a woman and fear of being clocked are often present in our everyday lives. When you used to take photos, sometimes nude ones, did you want to accentuate gender fluidity or focus on the transition from male to female?
Mariette: There are plenty of surgeries for female-to-males as well as male-to-female. It is much easier to live one’s life when one blends in, but there are also people who want to blend their gender or sexuality without falling into the binary, or ‘either/or”. The photographs of nudes that I’ve taken usually show the beauty of the blended body, or show transformation as in the two photographs of Tony, the sheriff.
Monika: In 1996, you worked with Rosa Von Praunheim on The Transexual Menace, a documentary about transgender rights activist organization founded in New York City in 1993. The group was founded in 1993 by transgender activists including Riki Wilchins and Denise Norris among others. How did you get invited to this project?
Mariette: It was all part of my life as an activist in this community. Riki Wilchins is a friend of mine. I met her when she lived in NYC and was involved with the LGBT Community Center. I participated in some discussion groups that she organized. At first, she was a little suspicious of Me because I wanted to photograph her too soon after we met. At this point, I could say I have A large collection of photographs of her, taken during political events, as well as her wedding to Gina Reiss.


All photos: courtesy of Mariette Pathy Allen.
Mariette Pathy Allen's website:
© 2023 - Monika Kowalska

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