San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Ryan Kost

Pho­tog­ra­pher widens view on gen­der in is­land na­tion.

In some ways, to take pho­to­graphs is to study mo­ments; it is to be pre­oc­cu­pied with glances, with light­ing, with things that tran­spire in a quar­ter of a quar­ter of a quar­ter of a sec­ond. It seems right, then, to con­sider how two mo­ments shaped the ca­reer of pho­tog­ra­pher Ma­ri­ette Pa­thy Allen.

The first, which we’ll get to in a bit, was by a pool in New Or­leans in Fe­bru­ary 1978, just as Mardi Gras was wind­ing down. The sec­ond, which is where we’ll start, was at a Cuban night­club called Las Ve­gas in Jan­uary 2012.

For 35 years, Allen had taken

pic­tures of trans­gen­der peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties in the United States, watch­ing a move­ment un­fold from some­thing quiet, some­thing kept close, to some­thing loud, some­thing shout­ing for vis­i­bil­ity. That history brought Allen to the is­land for a con­fer­ence about trans­gen­der health and to the dark club for a night out. “It was very lively, a lot of fun,” she says.

As she scanned the room that night, she found Amanda. There was some­thing about her, some­thing open. “We just sort of looked at each other, and we walked over to each other and she took my hand, and we walked to the bar.”

New rel­e­vance

That mo­ment was all it took. Allen spent the next week with Amanda and another woman, Nomi, whom she’d met through a dif­fer­ent pho­tog­ra­pher. She got to know them and pho­tographed them as they lived their lives. She would wind up re­turn­ing to Cuba three more times dur­ing the next two years. The group ex­panded to in­clude Malu, Amanda’s room­mate. “It be­came a trio,” Allen says, her cam­era fo­cused “on those three women, their lives, their friends and dif­fer­ent things we did.”

The pho­to­graphs are col­lected in a book called “Tran­sCuba,” and some of them are on dis­play through July at Rayko Photo Cen­ter (along with two other se­ries, by two other pho­tog­ra­phers, ex­plor­ing queer themes). Now, as the U.S. moves to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Cuba, the pho­to­graphs take on new rel­e­vance. “There are some ter­ri­ble sto­ries in the book, ter­ri­ble things hap­pen­ing to peo­ple,” Allen says. “It’s ob­vi­ously im­por­tant for peo­ple to know about what goes on and now es­pe­cially, be­cause Cuba is open­ing up.”

That you can find value in Allen’s pho­to­graphs for both their aes­thetic merit and their util­ity is some­thing that’s been true from the very be­gin­ning, which brings us back to New Or­leans in 1978 and how all of this be­gan.

Allen doesn’t quite re­mem­ber if she was stay­ing in a ho­tel or a mo­tel at the time (not that it re­ally mat­ters), but she knows she was alone when she came down to break­fast. “I saw this in­cred­i­ble group of peo­ple — fas­ci­nat­ing-look­ing peo­ple, done up to the nines, and here it was morn­ing,” Allen says. “I was alone with my cam­era equip­ment. Some­body in the group said, ‘Well, you want to join us for break­fast?’ ” So she did.

Af­ter­ward, the group of cross-dressers (that’s the word they used to de­scribe them­selves then, the same year that Har­vey Milk was sworn in as a San Fran­cisco su­per­vi­sor and months later as­sas­si­nated) got up and walked to the swimming pool. “They stood in a line, and some­body from the group started tak­ing pic­tures of them, and then I thought, ‘I won­der if it’s OK for me to take a pic­ture?’ I didn’t know what the rules were. But I thought I’d try and I lifted the cam­era to my eye.”

‘I had work to do’

And here is the mo­ment, the one so heavy with fate that Allen al­most quotes her­self, word for word, ev­ery time she tells this story: “The per­son right in the mid­dle was look­ing straight back at me. And I had this in­cred­i­ble feel­ing that I wasn’t look­ing at a man or a woman but some­how the essence of a hu­man be­ing, I was look­ing into some­body’s soul. It’s just how I felt. I said to my­self as I took that pic­ture, ‘I have to have this per­son in my life.’ ”

That per­son was Vicky West, she lived just 20 blocks away from Allen in New York City, and the two be­came friends. That pool­side pho­to­graph was the be­gin­ning of what would be­come an al­most 40-year ex­plo­ration of gen­der through pho­tog­ra­phy for Allen (one, it should be noted, that wasn’t al­ways em­braced by gal­leries and col­lec­tors, given the con­tent). “Af­ter I started to un­der­stand much more about this cul­ture, I should say, I re­al­ized I had work to do. That I could make a con­tri­bu­tion.”

Aside from “Tran­sCuba,” Allen has pub­lished two other col­lec­tions of pho­tog­ra­phy fo­cus­ing on trans­gen­der lives, one in 1990 and one in 2004, as­sem­bling a vis­ual history as it ac­tu­ally hap­pened. In iden­tity, Allen finds an al­most lim­it­less in­quiry.

“I saw it as not a tiny sub­ject, but as an enor­mous sub­ject. And I still do. I mean, I think it’s about our essence. What is a man? What is a woman?” Allen says. “I think that, um, your iden­tity, your sense of self is about as big an is­sue as any­thing else. It’s some­thing we all have to deal with ev­ery day. When you get up in the morn­ing, what do you put on? What does it mean? How do you present your­self? What do you see when you look in the mir­ror?”

In “Tran­sCuba,” there are mo­ments of re­pose and in­ti­macy, of a fam­ily sit­ting to­gether, of a cou­ple shar­ing a ten­der kiss on a warm beach, of a woman blow­ing on another’s dry­ing fake eye­lashes. In many of the pho­to­graphs, the sub­jects meet the cam­era head-on, an old, un­spo­ken ges­ture that says some­thing like, “We are here.”

Courage to come out

The im­ages, aside from ex­plor­ing the lives of trans women in Cuba, also re­veal the tex­tures of a chang­ing coun­try. At the gallery, Allen pointed out one pic­ture in par­tic­u­lar, set in a bar­ber­shop. Front and (al­most) cen­ter is a young man get­ting his hair cut, but around him, you can find a sort of timeline — ar­ti­facts of the past (a poster of Fidel Cas­tro) and signs of now (a man wear­ing a Play­boy tank top). “My the­sis about trans Cuba is that as Cuba sort of opens up to the out­side world and com­mu­nism is less strict, that’s mir­rored by the way im­prove­ments are oc­cur­ring for the lives of trans peo­ple. It’s a par­al­lel,” Allen says.

And times are chang­ing. The con­fer­ence that brought Allen to Cuba was put to­gether by a group that pro­vides med­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices to trans­gen­der and gay peo­ple — a group that’s headed by Mariela Cas­tro Espín, the daugh­ter of Cuban leader Raúl Cas­tro. Trans­gen­der surg­eries are now cov­ered by the state, there are days marked to fight and march against trans­pho­bia and ho­mo­pho­bia, and a few years back, a trans woman was elected to public of­fice for the first time.

“The revo­lu­tion in 1959 was sup­posed to be for ev­ery­body, but not ev­ery­one ben­e­fited from it; ho­mo­sex­u­als were ex­cluded,” Malu, one of the women at the heart of the se­ries, says in the tran­scripts at the back for the book. She adds later, “The march brought vis­i­bil­ity to ho­mo­sex­u­als in the pop­u­la­tion. It gave a lot of peo­ple the courage to come out of the closet.”

All of Allen’s books in­clude tran­scripts of in­ter­views with the sub­jects, and in the case of “Tran­sCuba,” they ap­pear both in English and Span­ish. “To me, it’s a re­quire­ment,” Allen says. “How can you keep tak­ing from peo­ple, tak­ing pic­tures? You may have dif­fer­ent skill sets or dif­fer­ent vis­ual gifts, but, at the end, you get it be­cause they’re will­ing to be pho­tographed.”

Ma­ri­ette Pa­thy Allen / “Tran­sCuba”

Malu, one of the trans­gen­der sub­jects pho­tographed by Ma­ri­ette Pa­thy Allen for “Tran­sCuba,” with her par­ents and sis­ter out­side their home in Cien­fue­gos. “The revo­lu­tion in 1959 was sup­posed to be for ev­ery­body, but not ev­ery­one ben­e­fited,” Malu says.

Ma­ri­ette Pa­thy Allen / “Tran­sCuba“

Laura, from Ma­ri­ette Pa­thy Allen’s “Tran­sCuba,” which has tran­scripts of in­ter­views with sub­jects.


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