Mauvais Genre/Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers

Ryerson Image Centre ⁠ accessible_forward
33 Gould St
Apr 6–Aug 6
    Unidentified photographer, [Prisoners of war in the German camp of Königsbrück, with written inscription on verso “Kriegsgefangenen Sendung (Prisoners of War Show)”], c. 1915. © 2016 Éditions Textuel – Collection Sébastien Lifshitz

Comprising over 160 amateur photographs made between the 1880s and the 1980s, drawn from the archives of French filmmaker and photography collector Sébastien Lifshitz, this exhibition offers a candid look into the hidden worlds of people who defy gender conventions. Honouring collective inventiveness and the freedom embodied by the act of dressing differently, it celebrates self-expression and the diversity of the queer and trans spectrum.

In his book Mauvais genre: Les travestis à travers un siècle de photographie amateur (2016), Lifshitz says of the collection: “I have always been interested in marginal discourses, the discourses written from the edge of History, far from all moral, political or social power, far from the normative gaze. That is why I have been collecting amateur photographs for a good many years now, because they invent another perspective on society.

“In 2001, in preparation for the film Wild Side, about the adventures of a transsexual woman in Paris and northern France, I met many members of the transsexual community in Paris. I was touched by these often bruised lives lived outside the norms. These women had the courage to transgress all taboos to reach their truth. They were both fragile and strong, ready to face the stares. They were set on becoming what they were, whatever the cost. Fascinated by this new world, I started collecting amateur photographs of transvestites that I found at flea markets, garage sales, on eBay and wherever these kinds of images changed hands. The older the photographs, the keener my interest, because the more they challenged my vision of the fate of transvestites in the twentieth century, the vision I had picked up from pulp novels and bad films. Despite my curiosity, my ignorance was immense. My classification of the images was extremely simplistic. All individuals wearing the other gender’s clothes were put in the same box, with no other distinctions. I would later discover that things were much more complex than that.

“I love all the photographs in this book, even if some move me more than others. I am thinking, for example, of Jim, a young New Yorker in the 1950s who posed in front of a bare wall, wearing an ordinary blouse set off by a double row of pearls. He has barely any make-up; he is looking downwards and exudes an impenetrable melancholy. If I find this image so troubling, it is because his manner exudes a conscious espousal of both sexes. It is as if Jim had decided to be both at once. I tell myself that for him his androgyny may have been a space of invention and freedom.

“[…] I am trying to construct a memory, to make visible what for so long was kept secret or hidden, something that you only had to mention to provoke laughter or expressions of extreme contempt. However, what these photographs reflect is the permanence of a desire for freedom, of a revolt and insubordination that, I believe, is salutary. Mauvais genre is, in its way, a political book. It takes the side of the rebels and the marginal. It conveys the playful and revolutionary spirit that informs these images, drawing attention to those whose personal combat has become the business of us all. It reminds us that identity is not unitary.”

— Sébastien Lifshitz, “Préface,” in Sébastien Lifshitz (ed.), Mauvais genre: Les travestis à travers un siècle de photographie amateur, exhibition catalogue, Paris: Textuel, 2016 (excerpt)

Curated by Sébastien Lifshitz

Produced by the Rencontres d’Arles. Presented by the Ryerson Image Centre in partnership with CONTACT