Becoming Visible: Portrait Series on Transgender Teens Helps Tell Their Story
ARTISTICALLY SPEAKING: Q&A WITH PHOTOGRAPHER JOSH LEHRER
In 2008, Josh Lehrer’s “fledgling photo business took a real nose-dive” as the U.S. economy showed obvious signs of weakness. Lehrer, however, adhered to a valuable lesson that eventually led him to a group of homeless, transgender teenagers who changed his life and are the subject of a breathtaking portrait series, Becoming Visible. “Us emerging photographers were low hanging fruit and my phone simply stopped ringing. But one of the beautiful things about being an artist is that I do not have to be paid to create things,” Lehrer explains in an exclusive with Tania Fuentez Media. Most recently, his portrait series impressed crowds in attendance at this summer’s Photoville 2012, a pop-up village of freight containers transformed into temporary exhibition spaces on the uplands of Pier 3 at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
TFM: Tell me a bit about yourself and what inspired the amazing work that you do as a photographer?
JL: I’m a late-in-life photographer. Having spent most of my working life in the theater and television. My last job in TV was as the Senior Photo Editor for the Showtime Network. When I got that job I knew nothing about photography, you could have shown me an Annie Liebowitz and a Robert Mapplethorpe and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference. I had a lot of learning to do!
It was my great good fortune at Showtime to meet and work with some of the most amazing photographers. A few names that come to mind are Greg Gorman, Greg Heisler, Matthew Jordan Smith, E.J. Camp, Mark Seliger, Phil Marco, Albert Watson and PL DiCorcia to name just a few. These men and women completely inspired me. The dedication to their craft and the incredible visual acuity of these artists completely inspired me. Additionally, as a group, I was thrilled to see how generous they were with their knowledge, skill sets and ideas. Their ability to translate abstract concepts into concrete visual story telling was absolutely awesome, dramatic and exciting to me.
I had just turned 40, had adopted our second child and realized that the window for me to live my life as an artist was quickly closing. At the encouragement of many of the above named photo artists I took a leap of faith, leaving my cozy job at Showtime and enrolled as a full-time student at the International Center of Photography. I was determined to be one of those photographers that knew everything about how to make a good picture. I did not want to be an assistant-reliant photographer.
As the senior member of my class at ICP, I would laugh when my fellow full-time students would complain about the workload. I would always say, “I’ll see you that workload and raise you two babies in diapers!” We were encouraged to follow our own vision. To delve deeper and deeper into our own unique way of seeing things and to acquire the skill sets necessary to achieve that. It was a very “eye-opening” experience for me.
TFM: How did the compelling black and white series featured at Photoville on transgender youth happen? Describe the journey which resulted in one of the most poignant exhibits I’ve seen lately.
JL: In 2008, when the economy was melting down, my fledgling photo business took a real nose-dive. Us emerging photographers were low hanging fruit and my phone simply stopped ringing. But one of the beautiful things about being an artist is that I do not have to be paid to create things. I can make images whenever I want. With that in mind, I set about finding a project.
I called the Department of Homeless Services and asked who is the hardest hit by the current economic crisis? Without hesitation the man on the line said, “homeless transgender teenagers.” I did some more research – confirmed what I had learned and set about finding a shelter that served these kids. There aren’t that many. I found Sylvia’s Place on 36th Street in Midtown and was fortunate enough to discover that the director was also a photographer and when I described that it was my intention to make elegant, formal and ennobling portraits of the kids, he immediately “got it” and allowed me to set up a make-shift studio on the third floor of the shelter every Monday night. I shot there for two years and amassed over 80 portraits.
Developing trust and relationships took awhile. There is a tremendous performative aspect to trans kids and my process involved shooting hundreds of frames with my digital camera prior to pulling out my film camera. This served two purposes; one to get past all that performance stuff and get some really honest expression, secondly, I wanted to give all the kids who participated a highly retouched shot of themselves that showed them as absolutely beautiful (or handsome) as I see them to be. I wanted them to have a photograph of themselves as they wish to be seen. They were all delighted to get those shots and it went a long way toward building trust and encouraging greater participation in the project.
The process hooked me. Very shortly after embarking on the portrait series I genuinely began to fall in love with my subjects and develop tremendous empathy for their plight. These are kids who are extremely bewildered and the slight anchor that my consistent showing up provided them was very bonding for us all. I became an unwitting advocate and began to learn all I could about issues surrounding trans people, kids and the impact the relationships that their unique circumstances created.
The first set of portraits I made in the darkroom as cyanotypes. A laborious process that involves creating a 4 x 5” positive from my medium format negatives and then, still using film make a 16 x 20” negative for printing. I hand-coat the emulsion onto water-color paper, sandwiched the negative and freshly coated paper into a borrowed 20 x 24” contact print frame and exposed it in the lightbox at ICP. As I was making all the negatives by hand in the darkroom, the densities were different and exposure time varied wildly. But when it worked, it really worked. I was thrilled with the results. The images had a hand-hewn quality that reflected the self-made aspects of my subjects and they also looked quite old which, for me, placed the kids in a historic context.
Trans people have been around since the dawn of time, but there is very little photographic evidence of these people. I am also drawn to the fact that portraiture in, general has, historically, been reserved for the very wealthy and I find the dynamic pull of portraying these cast-off kids in these elegant materials to be quite engaging. Following a successful exhibition at Robert Miller Gallery, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise some money to continue the project and create very large Platinum and Palladium prints. With the help of some very dedicated bloggers and the deeply committed folks at Kickstarter, my campaign was a success. It was, in fact, the third most successful photo campaign in Kickstarter history. I raised $37,000 to continue the work and purchase the paper and chemistry to begin making 30 x 40” digital negatives for platinum printing. I also built an outsized lightbox and contact printer so I could create the pieces here in my studio. After a series of all-night printing extravaganzas I was very grateful that I got to work in my own studio!
I now bring the kids here to my place, we have a support group and, in addition to bringing in guest speakers who focus on many relevant topics like name change, state ID creation, resume building and job interview skills, we also make photos. All of the new work is shot on a 1944 speed graphic camera that’s been retro-fitted with a Petzval lens from the 1800s. The lens provides a very dramatic focus fall off and lends a pictorial quality to the images that, to me, look very historic and painterly.
TFM: Where do you envision yourself in the next few years?
JL: In terms of where I see myself in the next few years, I honestly don’t know. I am on a path that I could never have predicted for myself. Rather than try and impose any road map onto my career, I would prefer to state that I hope to continue to feel free and strong enough to pursue desire to its fullest and engage in projects that inform, delight and expand me.
TFM: Name a few things to do in New York off the beaten path. Favorite or unique neighborhoods that spark your creativity, etc.
JL: I ride my bicycle all over the city. It is my primary means of transportation and most of my ideas come to me while weaving in and out of traffic. For tranquility, nothing beats Central Park on a weekday. But for me, the pavement is where it’s at, despite the ongoing gentrification of New York it’s still easy and heartening to see tremendous diversity as I ride through the great neighborhoods of New York City. And from that vantage point, it’s often easier for me to appreciate the continual urban transition that’s going on.
TFM: Have you ever embarked on a project that overwhelmed yet fueled your desire to make it happen regardless?
JL: A couple of years ago, the great Jay Maisel gave me a terrific suggestion. He said, “if you want to expand your creativity, study another art form.” I really took that to heart and for the past year have been studying the piano. I study with a great teacher and while I am still very much a beginner it gives me a tremendous perspective on my work. The piano is really hard to learn! And the process succeeds in taking me completely out of myself. The learning and practice demand that I look at the world differently and some days I can actually feel my brain burning new neural pathways that increase and broaden my perspective. It’s been amazing. And, while I do not envision myself playing at Carnegie Hall anytime soon, I am reminded that all artistic endeavors are merely a practice and that as an artist, I am never done – I am either expanding or contracting.
Josh Lehrer Photography: http://www.joshlehrer.com/
The Center: http://www.gaycenter.org/