Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene
Gerard H. Gaskin
Introduction by Deborah Willis
With an essay by Frank Roberts
Duke University Press in association with CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
Filled with photographs made over almost twenty years, Gerard Gaskin’s Legendary is a beautiful, lavish portrayal of underground house ball culture, where gay and trans people of color, belonging to Houses - e.g. The House of Xtravaganza, The House of Evisu - gather at masquerade balls. There they walk, or perform in front of others, and are judged on their realness. Gaskin explicitly invites the audience to immerse themselves in the realness of the performance. But he also implicitly asks us to understand that the balls are much more than a party; the creative expressions found here are reactions to constraints experienced elsewhere in life.
At the turn of the 21st century, Gaskin continues to explore tensions that his mentor Roy DeCarava and other African-American artists addressed throughout the 20th. Gaskin’s black and white work is often suggestive of DeCarava’s photography, but the continuity between Gaskin and DeCarava extends far beyond style, to sensibility and the themes of identity and performance. DeCarava once spoke about his photograph Dancers, New York, 1956, of two men dancing in a social club at 110th Street:
Yes, the figures bespeak a sophistication and a hipness. They have a quality of life that’s free, that’s abundant: that dares to mock itself and that dares to be “what ever they am and don’t give a damn”. There’s that quality to it, a rebellion against what they should be and an acceptance of what they are and what they want to be. Roy DeCarava in Roy DeCarava Photographs (1981) by Sherry Turner DeCarava
DeCarava was ambivalent about the picture, finding it joyful and expressive, at the same time that the men’s awkward contortions provided a means to reference African-Americans’ experience of pressures to conform to mainstream expectations. Gaskin, in Legendary, extends this dynamic from race to gender identity in the largely marginalized ball community.
Legendary begins with a picture that could be mistaken easily for a fashion image from the 1930s or 1940s, or one of DeCarava’s own. We see a woman in a blazer smoking a cigarette; it’s glamorous, evocative of photographs of Marlene Dietrich in look and expression, and it’s appropriate here in its signal of Dietrich’s challenge, through fashion, to conventional gender roles. The book ends with a color image of an enigmatic figure of no obvious gender and with no immediately legible cultural reference: sequins, zipper, gold belt, lipstick, leopard skin eyeglasses and facepaint combine in a mysterious ensemble, echoed in the model’s direct and inscrutable look.
“Women and men become fluid, interchangeable points of departure and reference, disrupting the notion of a fixed and rigid gender and sexual self,” writes Gaskin. “My images try to show a more personal and intimate beauty, pride, dignity, courage and grace that have been painfully challenged by mainstream society.” And so throughout the book we see models, executives, a gladiator; outfits that call up different ideas of beauty and fascination and that are meant to impress; people dressed like any passing stranger on the street, but somehow perfectly so; clothing that exaggerate existing codes (one man wears a very tiny hat); and costumes that speak to science fiction more than anything else, what Frank Roberts in his essay in the book calls “Afro Futuristic”.
The subjects are often engaged with the camera. A thumbnail index at the back of the book provides titles, but the images flow without captions, moving back and forth between black and white and color, and back and forth in time. The book feels like a cross between a fashion magazine and a yearbook; everyone presents themselves in their best light, and with the anticipation of being seen.
Legendary serves as an extension of the ball performance. The book presents the ball world as an intact space, a complete world. Gaskin encourages us to see the glamor in the event, to be lost in it; we never leave the world of the ball. The crowds in the pictures fill hotel ballrooms and other spaces with an enormous energy. An outsider to the house ball community looking through the pictures in Legendary might be surprised to learn that these celebrations are still underground.
And here’s an instance of the sleight of hand that Gaskin performs in the service of creating this impression: the remarkable image on the cover of the book is of a figure with blue eyes and blue skin, white hair and blue hat, translucent gold coat over red and gold buttons, looking at Gaskin. The same image appears within the book with a second figure in the background. The background figure has been removed from the image for the cover, presumably to highlight the realness of the figure- to give the performance its due by concealing the seams. Gaskin’s willingness to manipulate the image in this way underscores his desire for the work to be understood more as an act of expressive exposition than as documentary reportage.
The photographs in Legendary are accompanied by essays by Deborah Willis and Frank Roberts. Roberts is himself a participant in the ball community and one of Gaskin’s guides through this world as well as an academic with a background in performance studies. Roberts provides a reading of Gaskin’s pictures that combines the insight of a participant with the training of a cultural critic, and his essay “The Queer Undercommons” is particularly satisfying and educational.
Legendary depicts the ball community through the self-presentation of its participants, performing in a very self-conscious manner. The reader is transported not to a world of make- believe, but to a coherent and continuous, and increasingly fantastical world. What does it mean to be real, when you are performing not as an executive, or a movie star, or a model, but as a futuristic extraterrestrial? Realness is not the same as passing as a straight person or a wealthy person in one’s everyday life; it’s not a disguise, but a celebration of possibility, taking ownership and control of one’s own identity. Subjects claim and inhabit the glamor of a model or a celebrity and participate in an exchange between performer and audience where the performance of glamor is acknowledged and admired.
W.E.B. Dubois famously wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903): “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one-self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” What is most haunting about Legendary is the engaged, enigmatic regard of Gaskin’s subjects, combined with the apparent absence of pain; we can read this as both the comfort of a milieu of belonging, and, contradictorily, the negative space of the realities that have been excluded from these performances. For the ball walkers, who are limited in how they can express themselves in their everyday lives, Legendary honors the possibility of a truer self, performed.
Gerard Gaskin was awarded the 2012 Center for Documentary Studies/ Honickman First Book Prize, judged by Deborah Willis, to produce Legendary.