Art Talk with Mariette Pathy Allen
July 9, 2014
“I would tell people that they were paintings and that they were sculptures and that they had to find ways of taking up space that were much more their own.” – Mariette Pathy Allen
In some ways Mariette Pathy Allen’s career in the arts has been a series of fortuitous—and life-changing—accidents. An encounter with a work by Matisse during a childhood visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art revealed Allen’s innate fluency with visual language. Later, a chance opportunity to attend an off-campus photography workshop while she was studying painting at the University of Pennsylvania changed the direction of her art practice. And a casual invitation to join a group of costumed revelers for breakfast during a New Orleans vacation introduced Allen to the subject matter that’s been the primary focus of her work ever since.
Since Allen’s first book—Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them which revealed the hidden world of male-to-female crossdressers--she has explored the transgender community in its many iterations. Allen’s sensitive portraits are neither about voyeurism nor judgment. Rather, as she explained in our interview, she wants her subjects to have a positive reflection of who they are. “What I realized pretty early on is that these people—crossdressers in particular—were totally misunderstood and maligned by the general public,” Allen said. “And there was nothing for them to look at so that they could identify who they were.”
Allen has authored or contributed photos to 10 books, including her most recent volume TransCuba, which spotlights the transgender community of Cuba. Her work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and France’s Bibliotheque Natoinale. She has also exhibited in solo and group shows in Belgium, Germany, Canada, China, and many sites across the U.S. This fall Allen will receive a Pioneer award at Fantasia Fair, the oldest and longest-running transgender event in the U.S.
(All photos in the following interview are by Mariette Pathy Allen.)
Felicity--Then & Now, 1984
NEA: What do you remember as your first experience of the arts?
MARIETTE PATHY ALLEN: Well, I was basically saved by the arts. I have many early experiences. My aunt is a painter and just generally an artist all together. My parents were Hungarian and we used to go to Italy and my aunt was married to an Italian. And we used to go to Italy frequently in the summers and I would be surrounded by my aunt’s work and spirit. I was also a very shy child; I didn’t tend to talk much. But I always felt totally liberated when I was painting, drawing, whatever. It was a whole different world for me. And as I said, I feel like it saved me growing up.
I remember going to the Museum of Modern Art, again, as a child, [and seeing] the room with all of the Matisses and being just overcome. Matisse has always been one of my favorites. And what I felt I guess when I was looking at those is, “Oh I understand this.” I feel it’s almost like a form of reading.
NEA: How did you progress from seeing your aunt’s work and going to museums to becoming an artist yourself?
ALLEN: I just did. I mean in school I always painted. You had art classes, well, that was my favorite time of the day. I would be doing things and teachers noticed that I seemed to have sort of an original sense of color and great interest and pleasure in doing it. I still think when I look back at my childhood paintings that I never got any better than that, really. It’s just I took to it, right from the beginning. And never stopped.
NEA: You started your professional career as a painter, correct?
ALLEN: Exactly. I went to the Graduate School of Fine Arts at University of Pennsylvania, which suited me perfectly at the time. It was the most wonderful school, and it was just thrilling to be there. I got the master’s, MFA, in fine arts and painting. I always assumed that my career was going to be as a painter and maybe teaching art to children or something like that, never. It seemed to me fixed from the beginning that I was going to be in the arts. But the story of how I got into photography is that what you were going to ask me?
ALLEN: They didn’t even have photography when I went to school there at Penn. They had all of the other art forms but not photography. But at the time that I lived in Philadelphia there was a great teacher named Harold Feinstein and I had never heard of him or thought much about photography although I did it somewhat was a child. There was somebody who worked at the school who asked me one day, “Do you want to go to a photography class with this great guy?” I said, “Well, why not?” So I went. And it was a revelation…. [Harold Feinstein] had a way of teaching that sort of took away a feeling of burden, of the kind of burden that people feel now about making it and here are the rules and this is what you should and shouldn’t do and so on and so forth. And so I enrolled in his class, which met once a week, and mostly it was street photography that we did. Go stand out on the street and see what hits you, what astonishes you, and take the picture. I found that I did have an eye for photography. In those days it was much easier to get work and I was getting jobs all of the time and I was enjoying being out in the world because obviously the difference between being a painter and a photographer… is that as a painter you’re kind of stuck in a studio all day long and [you’re] alone. And with photography… it was like a passport into the world. And so that was very good for me.
Kiwi at a coffee shop, NYC, 2002
NEA: Many of your photo series--such as TransCuba and The Gender Frontier—focus on the transgender community and also crossdressers. How did you start photographing that community?
ALLEN: I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras with my husband [who left the hotel one morning before I did]…I walked into the dining room and there were about ten people, incredible looking people sitting there all dressed up in finery and wigs and eyelashes and they looked quite incredible. And they saw that I was alone. They invited me to join them for breakfast. So, of course, I did. And after breakfast we walked out of the dining room right to the swimming pool, which was quite large, and they started parading around the swimming pool. And then they stood there in a line with these fantastic evening gowns and feathers and just all of the most wonderful stuff. And somebody else started taking pictures and I thought, “Well why not me too?” I didn’t know if they would be angry or not.
So I lifted the camera to my eyes and looking through the lens there was somebody standing in the middle of the row who was looking straight back at me and I just had an epiphany. I felt I wasn’t looking into the eyes of a man or a woman but as if I were looking into a soul. Masculinity and femininity were just gone… essence of human beings is really what I was seeing. And so I said to myself as I took that picture, “I have to have this person in my life.” It turned out that, in fact, that person lived 20 blocks away from me in New York City and we became friends. And it was through that one person that I got to experience the transgender community of the late 70s and ‘80s and all the way through. I mean it was just this one moment that made it all possible. I actually have that picture of the exact moment where basically my life changed, not too many people can actually point to it.
NEA: That community has been your subject now for a number of decades. What do you think it is as an artist that brings you back to the same subject? What are the questions that you’re investigating artistically via the community?
ALLEN: “Questions” is a good way of putting it. I feel like I’m always questioning what is gender? What makes us men and women other than actual anatomy? Why do we decide that certain characteristics are masculine or feminine? What is appearance? All of those kinds of issues of essence and who one is--identity. When I was in high school the course I was most excited about was anthropology because when I studied that I was confirmed in my feelings that any culture can create its own way of looking at things in the world. And that just because we in the West see things in a certain way or made certain assumptions, that doesn’t mean that’s true all over the world. So I guess there’s a part of me that is an anthropologist in that way. I loved the idea of living in this sort of hidden community, which is what it was then, not so much now. And being part of it and being able to step in it so deeply and participating [in it]. And then as an artist, of course, I find it absolutely fascinating.
What I realized pretty early on is that these people--cross dressers in particular--were totally misunderstood and maligned by the general public. And there was nothing for them to look at so that they could identify who they were. If they went to a library all they could find would be statistical manuals and nothing that could make them feel good about themselves. You know, it was always presented as some kind of illness. And the only other place they could find anything about people in any way like themselves were at porn shops. And for most of the people I knew neither of these directions helped them in any way to understand their own identity. People I met at conventions told me they had grown up thinking they were insane or that they were terribly evil. I mean most churches would not have accepted them--and some churches probably still don’t…. There was so much self-hate and shame and fear and sense of humiliation and everything. And I should say that I was mostly only involved with men at the time, male-to-female cross dressers for the first decade or so.
Tiffany with her crying twins, 2011
NEA: Can you tell me about your first series—Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them?
ALLEN: I decided that with this entrée [into the community] that I had something I had to do. I mean somehow or other I was given this access and that I could do something to help so that these people would have something to read and to show people and say, “Look I’m not crazy. I’m not evil. I am a person who happens to have another aspect… that is hidden or is mostly hidden.” I started doing more and more portraits, and I also did interviews because I thought, “It’s not fair for me to be their voice. They need to be their voice as well. So I did interviews. And I specifically included wives and children and family members and anybody else who was significant who was willing to be photographed and talk. And gradually I found more and more people who were willing to participate and to come out in the book.
So the book happened and came out at the end of ’89. I had an exhibition in ’90 at the Simon Lowinsky Gallery. And ever since that book came out I’ve been getting thanked, which is kind of amazing. People said it saved their lives. They said it saved their marriages. They said it was the book that they could show people to try to get them to understand something about who they were. It was almost like a yearbook for the people that I photographed. They would be signing each other’s books. I felt that I was the vehicle through which this information had to come out. I was merely a vehicle rather than that I was some organized photographer who said, “Okay, what kind of smart thing can I do now to get the attention of people? And I’m going to go and do this for six weeks and then I’m going to write it up and I’ll do it with large format cameras so everybody will think I’m a great artist and do that sort of thing.” I felt kind of the other way around.
As far as the shooting itself goes, I had to figure out a lot of things because I knew I didn’t want to show them in a negative way…. I wanted to present them in a way that you could feel comfortable with the people when you looked at them. And there were certain issues that people have a lot of trouble with visually--like beard growth showing through and badly placed wigs…. Obviously I wanted to make wonderful pictures without just thinking about flattery because I didn’t want to do sort of a fashion photographer way of doing things either. I really wanted to get to the soul of the person. I wanted them to express how they felt. So I found different ways of making people feel comfortable…. I would tell people that they were paintings and that they were sculptures and that they had to find ways of taking up space that were much more their own. When I would photograph them, they would sort of give me a passport photo kind of thing--stand straight, very uninteresting, shoulders straight, arms down, legs certain distance. And then if I would come towards them they would bend their head back. Apparently, it’s a typical male gesture of not wanting to express vulnerability. There were so many, many things that I had to learn, and I learned a lot of things from different other people who would go to conventions. Even just about the tilt of the head and how to relax people, which is the main thing. How to make them connect with the inner femininity and inhabit it so that I could take a picture that would reveal it both to themselves and to the outside world.
NEA: To clarify, you started out photographing the cross dressing community but now your work also includes the transgender community?
ALLEN: Well, transgender is now the umbrella term that includes cross dressers. But I was being specific about cross dressers within that, but I’m only speaking about the ‘80s. In the ‘90s I started photographing a lot of female-to-male [crossdressers]. I entered a different world in the ‘90s and I didn’t focus on cross dressers so much. The 90s were a very political time and the people who were political tended to be more on the transsexual side of the equator. And also I started photographing youth because by then a lot of young people were involved and exploring their own gender and sexuality and expression and all of that. And so that was extremely interesting. You asked why did I continue? Because it’s a movement that keeps changing and developing and evolving…. I don’t know of any other group or community or social issue area that has moved so quickly, has evolved so quickly from that level of terror and shame to coming into their own, getting laws changed. I mean it’s amazing.
Max shaving Cori's legs, 1999
NEA: What is the story that you’re trying to tell or that you want people to find in your photographs?
ALLEN: I think the transgender movement [is] a great gift that has been offered to us nowadays through people who really don’t fit into or don’t choose to even fit into the binary of the masculine or feminine. I think it’s a liberation. It’s a nod to be able to much more clearly define for yourself who you are without having to be encumbered by this whole list of—well, a woman is supposed to be nurturing and this and that and men are supposed to be tough and strong and so on. There’s no reason why that has to be the case. And we can see it in other cultures that that doesn’t have to be the case. So, you know, why limit ourselves, why burden ourselves with these kinds of constraints?
And I think we’re also in a period where science is moving along so rapidly that we’re learning more and more about our bodies and how to fix things, how to change things. I mean bodies themselves are becoming, if I can put it that way, sort of more fluid, more changeable, you know, like a piece of sculpture. We can do different things with it.
By being able to be so close to this community I have had the opportunity to meet people from all walks of society. I mean I know people from prostitutes to geniuses working in top-level jobs. I mean just knowing the life of firefighter or somebody who has been to war and what it was like living and breathing in a war but having to keep all of that, the other aspects of them in check…. I mean I feel very privileged in a lot of ways to have been able to get to know people who in ordinary life [with] the background I come from, no way I would have ever known and known so intimately about people’s lives.
Lady and Laura at the Las Vegas Club, Havana, 2012
NEA: In the transgender community and around all of the issues of the LGBT community, there are a lot of different ways to talk about the issues and bring attention to them. What do you think the arts bring to the conversation that other modes can’t?
ALLEN: The visual arts bring the opportunity for people to immerse themselves in an experience without having to react to the person directly, I think. In a way it makes it safer to encounter a subject…. And it allows you to do your thinking and work with your judgments and all of that without being put on the spot necessarily which, I think, really helps lead to greater understanding. If you read somebody’s story, that helps a great deal. If you see pictures of what that person looks like, how they interact, just how they are in life you say, “Oh, okay, that doesn’t look like a dangerous person or a sick person.” And then you start looking at the environment and you start seeing what the artist is doing and how it works in the space and all of those things they combine. And you have to create the image in order for people to understand it, obviously. And so then all right so [the viewer asks] what art does one artist do or another artist do to do that? And what is the intention of the artist also? Because I mean anybody else with the same opportunities that I’ve had would present something completely different. So it’s kind of a double pleasure. How does this artist see it all? And what it is about the people that he or she chooses to be with that attracts them? And how do I see these people now?
NEA: How does the phrase “Art works” resonate for you?
ALLEN: The kind of photography that I do, it’s all about collaboration with another human being and interacting. And I love being able to collaborate with people in that intimate way. I guess it’s also a way that the work is a form of intimacy, of creating more connection…. I think art is all about gaining some kind of intimacy.
Interested in reading more about the LGBT community and the arts? Check out our Art Talks with playwright Larry Kramer and dancer/choreographer Sean Dorsey.