Transman is an extraordinary document of a rarely seen subject - the female to male transgender. Dreyfus collaborated with her subject to photograph his gender transition from female to male in a compelling and extraordinarily intimate way. Transman was exhibited at Stills Gallery, Sydney in 2001, Nexus Gallery, Adelaide in 2001 and Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery in 2004. The exhibition was an official event of the Sydney Gay+Lesbian Mardi Gras, and the Feast Festival, in Adelaide in 2001.
Selected works from Transman were selected for the exhibition Cheveux Cheris - Frivolite et Trophees at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris in 2013.
"I am what I always was. It's just been revealed to the world instead of being kept secret. I wasn't a woman who became a man - I never was a woman. I am a transgender person - I cross gender confines. I do not have to experience your restrictions - I surpass them."
Written by the subject of Transman
What defines a body?
To begin with, a series of commonplaces.
When one emerges from the mother, a team or usually a person specifically trained in medicine peers closely at the physical formations between the legs. Based on this observation a pronouncement is made about these external features. This is a boy. This is a girl.
Our gender status is thus imposed on us and our trajectory into the world is largely fixed.
So begins the journey of life. As this journey progresses, the markers of gender become ever more complex, ever more pervasive. The social self takes shape. This? becomes femininity. This? becomes masculinity.
The internal self, of course, is another matter altogether. Or is it?
As part of the socialisation process, we are taught that there is a unity of the internal and external self. Indeed some still truly believe that there is a unitary essence that could be called "the self"; God gave this to us. Perhaps now, it is the mother and the father who now have responsibility for this task?
Ah... the dreams of perfection....
Transman, the title of Ella Dreyfus' latest exhibition, is a word that has an abbreviated, quasi-scientific and speedy tone. The word invokes the positive future promised by modernity. It speaks of a world where gender is not fixed and monolithic but plural and infinitely unstable. This world exists now, and for some, this is a shocking situation.
Transman is a portrait series of a subject in transition. To a certain extent, all photographs depict subjects in transition. Part of photography's charm is the fact that the image is removed or excised from the inexorable processes that are the ebb and flow of life. The photograph emphasises the very discontinuities and potentials of existence. No matter what the ostensible or immediate content, the photograph will always suggest other paths, other experiences. However, in this exhibition we are presented with real evidence of the notion of photography being a vital form of knowledge.
Transman depicts part of a process of gender realignment from female to male. It was in Denmark in the 1950s that the first medically assisted gender realignment occurred. Plastic surgeons enabled a man to become a woman. While it is a less common procedure, FTM (female to male) gender realignment has been available in some countries since the 1960s. Subsequent discoveries in hormone therapy have aided this procedure.
The term "gender realignment" has unfortunate mechanistic overtones. It implies that something is dysfunctional - that what is not working is the gender status that was assigned at birth, solely on the formation of the genitals. Gender is a cultural construction that, for some of us, is inappropriate. The signs, activities and roles do not fit. They do not sit well. For some, this recognition develops into the condition given another unfortunately mechanistic name, gender dysphoria. However, the transman that Ella Dreyfus depicts has always known. He says:
"I am what I always was. It has just been revealed to the world instead of being kept secret. I was not a woman who became a man - I never was a woman. I am a transgender person - I cross gender confines... I do not have to experience your restrictions - I surpass them."
The photographs in Transman promote an exponential range of meditations. There is that hoary old question of Descartes and his cogito - "I think therefore I am"-. This phrase continues to stimulate debate. For the subject of Transman, there is definitely a mind/body split where the presence or otherwise of body parts offers conflicting signals to the self and to other people in the outside world.
Transman also raises ethical questions that revolve around the role of science in creating what is medical masculinisation. These relatively new procedures challenge the Creationist argument of the self as a God-given unique creature - one that is seamless and perfect in the dawn light of conception. It was only towards the end of the twentieth century that people began to question the received "wisdom" of these constructions and the maintenance of fixed gender roles. Medical science combined with psychology were initially the disciplines used to help enforce the hegemony of gender in the early modern period. Paradoxically, it is these very disciplines that have recently shifted some of the understandings of how the self operates in the world. So again, we come back to notions of the perceived social self and the internal self. What is a body?
What makes Ella Dreyfus' portraits even more compelling is that we become aware of the active collusion of science and the subject to create a more appropriate and hopefully ideal body. Hormone treatment also effects the way people think as well as the way they look. To some this smacks of Star Trek and shape-shifters.
Ella Dreyfus has been working with black and white studio photography for over twenty years. During this time, she has developed expertise with the medium and with a consistent area of content. She has created an impressive oeuvre that explores the human body in all its manifestations, in all its guises. She is constantly asking the question, how do we define ourselves in relation to our bodies. Dreyfus is particularly interested in the abjected, those who hover on the fringes of acceptability. She has depicted the pregnant, the ill and demented, the scarred, the fat and the aged. The images themselves are characterised by an extraordinary and compelling intimacy, which display a natural respect between the artist and the subject. Transman is no different in that regard.
This exhibition is a liberating experience for the artist, audience and subject alike. The images oscillate between several photographic discourses or genres: they are in part conventional studio portraits, however there is also an air of forensic documentation. This more scientific and distanced approach to content is intersected by the long-term empathic intimacy of the relationship of the artist and the sitter. There are close-ups that have a provocative abstract intensity. In addition to this, some of the images have a deliberate tongue-in-cheek glamour and beefcake sensuality that speaks of more popular culture forms.
Transman details experiences that most people can only barely comprehend. It is hard not to think about what strength and courage it took the subject to be able to speak the differences, to speak the desires, to begin the quest. Transman shows only one part of what has been a very long journey.
We are witnesses to a journey of becoming whole.
"I think many people occupy their body as an unwilling tenant - treat it as casually as if it were someone else's old clothing. I own my body in every sense - I've bought, traded, built and worked for it - it's mine."
(All quotes in this text are from the subject/sitter of Transman)
Honest, compassionate images of unidealized human bodies have long been the subject of Ella Dreyfus's photographs. While many images in her Pregnancy Series of the early '90s have great beauty and erotic appeal, most of her works defy traditional aesthetic standards. Operating in the gap between fine-art and documentary photography, Dreyfus, who has worked as artist-in-residence in two of Sydney's major public hospitals, confronts the viewer with difficult images that reveal much about the human condition. She has focused her liens upon her own body (Fat and Ugly: written on my body, 1997), upon male infants being circumcised (Covenant, 1998) and upon the aged female body (Age and Consent, 1999).
Her most recent exhibition Transman was presented as part of the 2001 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mari Gras Festival. It was, for this viewer, illuminating and haunting. A series of silver gelatin prints recorded the surgical transformation of a 49-year-old lesbian into the man he had always believed himself to be. The photographic format symbolizes the close collaboration between artist and subject: the pictures are small (12-inch-square) close-ups. The sitter's eyes, when seen, stare directly into our own.
The exhibition opened with an image of the subject's female body, from the nipples to just about the knees, in contrapposto, but that was the only display of genitalia. Most of the works focus on the transformation of the sitter's chest. In one, the subject (whose name was withheld) looks down at his bandaged chest and cups a breast that is no longer there, the empty space accentuating absence and loss. The figure is seen in raking light against an impenetrable blackness. Throughout this series, the power of the image is enhanced by its technical perfection and tonal richness.
While the viewer witnesses evidence of surgery and imagines the pain, discomfort is never seen upon the subject's face. Often one finds instead a look of satisfaction, a sense of joy. Dreyfus's photographs do more than record the subject's journey into true identity. She uses her art and certain art-historical references-contrapposto and a reclining odalisque pose - to add layers of meaning and bring viewers to reflect upon conventions and notions of the ideal.
What distinguishes the human from other animal species? This question has long tested the ingenuity of speculative minds in the Western tradition. The obvious answers - speech, tool use, the ability to control fire, bipedalism - have been contested and challenged with a range of more quirky suggestions, such as blushing, or the ability to run backwards. Another response is to turn the question in on itself: what makes humans distinct is the very idea that they are so, that they are somehow set apart from all other species. Darwin is supposed to have provided the definitive challenge to such an assumption, but Darwin himself was prone to making trenchant statements about how special humans were. They might be only a species amongst others, but they were, incontrovertibly, the top species:
Man may excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of being aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future.i
The lure of the still higher destiny and, conversely, the fear of slipping back down the organic scale, create double-edged anxieties. The human has become a species haunted by fears of deterioration and obsessions with improvement. These fears and obsessions may be cultural rather than natural, but they run very deep in modern consciousness and now drive a vast commerce in images.
Artists have worked in various ways against the imperative of the improved body, notably in promoting the cult of the abject body during the nineteen eighties and early nineties, but the lure of perfection is not necessarily most effectively countered through direct confrontation with its antitheses. Robert Mapplethorpe's fascination with perfection of form in young, black, male bodies is tied in with erotic studies of flower forms. The images are, as Fintan O'Toole remarked in his review of the Dublin retrospective, "extraordinarily cold, abstract and distant."ii Rather than attributing perfection to the human body, they reveal perfection as a strangely non-human phenomenon, in that it has little to do with personhood. People may work to perfect their bodies, of course, but sooner or later those bodies defeat their efforts. Perfection of form can also be fleeting or accidental, and may be surrounded by all too human deterioration. Peggy Phelan, writing about Mapplethorpe's 1988 self-portrait which shows the planes of his face ravaged by illness, notices the perfect circle of the skull's cranium on the cane he holds, and compares it with the perfect ellipse framed by the parted lips of a dying face in his portrait of Alice Neel.iii
The experience of hanging a Mapplethorpe exhibition in 1986 was a formative influence on Ella Dreyfus's work. In her 1992 exhibition Pregnancy Series (Stills Gallery, Sydney) the contours of the body are captured with a purity that evokes Mapplethorpe, but in reverse. These are white, female forms against a black background; the curves of breast and swelling abdomen replace those made by heavily improved muscles. Some of the shots are cropped, Mapplethorpe style, at the neck so that the body is a presence in and of itself, but in others Dreyfus gives us a full portrait and her subject becomes a 'sitter' in the most traditional sense, posing semi-reclined on a couch with an ornate twisted scarf around her head and an arrangement of beads draped over naked chest. It is like a statement of personhood: I am this body.
Dreyfus stresses that her relationship with the people in her photographs is collaborative: those she works with are models rather than subjects, and images produced are co-creations. The work, she says, is not just about how bodies may look, but "about whom we are and how people feel in their bodies."iv Her models make powerful statements about this, through their images and, occasionally, in verbal form. The model for her recent series Transman comments: "I think many people occupy their body as an unwilling tenant, treat it as casually as if it were someone else's clothing. I own my body in every sense - I've bought, traded, built and worked for it - it's mine."v
What does it take to become a willing tenant? The model for Transman is in some ways an exception, in that most of Dreyfus's models are people who have not attempted to design or control the changes in their bodies. Her work dissents from prevailing fashion in that it does not thematise the relationship between bodies and technologies; her concern is with the present and actual state of the body, with all its complex and detailed evidence of the life cycle. When the body undergoes rapid changes, as in pregnancy or through surgery, or in certain stages of the ageing process, the person may take time to catch up with these new states. Becoming old, seen in this way, is a succession of new experiences.
For Age and Consent, 1996 - 1999, Dreyfus worked against the taboos surrounding the aged and ageing body, encouraging the men and women who took part to put aside the internalised cultural imperative "that demands the maintenance of physical health and youthful vitality."vi She reports that some of her subjects viewed the signs of aging in their own bodies with disgust, but the project seems to have had considerable success in over-riding this reaction. A second and third phase, conducted in her own studio, concentrated on nude studies of the aged body. The result is a series of photographs that challenge the reflexes of visual judgement. The eye trained to look for what is more and less beautiful; to be repelled by those signs of age that most obviously violate the standards of beauty is offended, yet drawn in by curious aesthetic contradictions.
The changes of age are told on the skin, which drapes across the thighs and stomach, falls into fine gathers in the crevice of the navel or under the arm, stretches into translucent smoothness over knees and shoulders. It is the most delicate textures of the skin that are least tolerable to the improver's eye. They are beyond improvement, pure deterioration, an expression of the ultimate defeat of culture by nature. Mapplethorpe stylises the skin. As an artist whose first medium of choice was sculpture, he is fascinated by skin that mimics the surface of polished stone: impervious, unyielding, a permanent finish. We don't shy away from contemplating the twisted formations of bark on an old tree, the knots and lumps that gather on its limbs, or the mottled colours of its trunk, so why this squeamishness about aged human skin?
Dreyfus made photographic studies of trees early in her career. She also studied textiles. In her mature work, this technical interest in forms and surfaces moves towards a deeper enquiry into the living being that inhabits them. Here the influence of Jo Spence's work has been strong. Spence's record of the body recovering from surgery is most directly evoked in Dreyfus's Transman series, which charts the experience of surgical change that converts a female body into a male one. This is no before and after account, but rather a meditation on how the experience is told on the body, and on how the person who both is and has this body witnesses the changes.
In the context of a culture fixated on progress and improvement, the changes present themselves as a major conceptual challenge precisely because they are not, like other forms of plastic surgery, improvements. They testify to a profound sense of necessity in the person who has decided to undergo them, but this is not the culturally generated sense of necessity that drives people to seek means towards the achievement of a "better" body. The photographs record how the person and the body appear as they pass through states of injury and trauma, until a new serenity emerges for both in the last shots of the series.
As a collaborative exercise, Transman involves searches for points of view that cannot be drawn from any already available source. Many artists spend their working lives struggling to free themselves from the ready made points of view mass produced in a culture that continually turns perspectives into commodities. This is not the problem here, where ways of seeing and being seen are a matter for complex and subtle and consideration at every stage.
Darwinian thinking, which continues to dominate the range of marketable points of view on ourselves as a species, is essentially hierarchical thinking. Many of those who call themselves Darwinist would like to deny this, or at least gloss over it, but almost every page of Darwin's writing reveals a scattering of terms that reflect his unceasing quest to sort living beings into "gradations of all kinds." There are the lower and the higher, the stronger and the weaker, the superior and the inferior, the more and less brutish, the more and most civilised. Aesthetics becomes an important dimension of this quest, in that Darwin links the aesthetic sense to the instincts of sexual selection which work in and through life forms to sort the superior from the inferior choices and so keep the species moving onward and upward in the organic scale. Since humans are marked out from other species by their higher levels of brain development, the logic goes, they should take a conscious role in deciding which of their traits to cultivate and which to breed out so as to ensure continuing improvement.
There is nothing especially modern about the eye that seeks beauty, but the eye that sorts bodies and their components for improvability is a phenomenon of modernity, born of the first concerted attempts to think of ourselves as a species amongst others. One response to this may be to turn the word improve back on the exercises of seeing and sorting, bearing in mind that the word prove means to test, and that improve was used to mean "correct" or "contest" in the Renaissance. Strictly in this sense, Dreyfus's work challenges us to improve the ways in which we look at bodies so that we can begin to focus on the mysterious relationships between bodies and persons.
Ella Dreyfus has this disarming way of responding to questions with a question. "That's such an interesting way of looking at it. I don't know. What do you think?" at first I thought it was just a technique she had learnt in a self-development course. And maybe it is. But learnt technique or instinctive response, it says a lot a bout Dreyfus. She's one of those people who are actually interested in people. She wants to converse, not just present.
"I always hope that images of the body will not just say: "the Body". My hope is that people will stand around and talk and dialogue and that the images will somehow dislodge people's attitudes a bit. I'm not thinking those things when I shoot, I'm just shooting and working, but ultimately that's the great reward."
That attitude of "conversation" certainly comes across in her current exhibition which documents the transition of her friend from female to male. The intimacy between subject and photographer prevents any accusation of exploitation. But her collusion with the subject's expressive vulnerability is what gives the images bite.
The body is Dreyfus's obsession - previous work has document pregnant and ageing bodies. And in the subject of her latest exhibition she has found the perfect partner.
Her Transman is just as obsessed with living and documenting his bodily change. "I think many people occupy their body as an unwilling tenant," he says" they treat it as casually as if it were someone else's old clothing. I own my body in every sense - I've bought, traded, built and worked for it. It's mine."
The photographic challenge Dreyfus has always set herself is how to go past theory about the body, how to actually reinvent what photography of the body might look like tin the post-modern era. At art school she was confronted with theoretical concerns about photographing the body, exploitation and the reproduction of stereotypes. But these problems made her more determined. "I just wasn't prepared to say, "oh well, you can't do that any more," she says. "I like to find tiny details in someone's body which can reveal just so much, a whole world of information.
"I've been w3oring with people for over 20 years and I can't say this is a technique that works or doesn't; its' become quite intuitive. This series in particular was both harder and more exciting because it was just me and him. Previously I've worked with 20 or 30 subjects in an exhibition."
Dreyfus talks alternately about a "great collaboration fraught with tensions" and about "playing around and having fun". Both postures are evident in the work. There is an overwhelming, at times almost excruciating, tenderness in some to the images" the delicacy of the specially prepared bandaging captured in close-up; the subject touching his new chest; the pain and determination.
And then there's the play. The final selection of images in a changing room, in bathers, laughing with a towel. They're cocky, they're knowingly laughing images. There' a new fire in this man's eyes.
He's bought his body and he owns it.