From the series "Transformations"
1978 - 1989
Vintage dye transfer print
23 9/16 x 15 3/4 in. (59.9 x 40.1 cm)
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
Mariette Pathy Allen’s photograph Sherry graced the cover of her first book, Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, which was published by E.P. Dutton in 1989. A portion of the description from the 2020 exhibition Mariette Pathy Allen: Rites of Passage, 1978–2006 at the Museum of Sex (New York City) serves as an effective introduction to the volume and its impact: “Her first of five books, Transformations… was a landmark for gender variant awareness. She sought to show these individuals as beautiful, loving, and human, during a time of severe lack of acceptance and understanding from the broader public. Transformations at first received over 50 rejection letters [from publishers]. Because Pathy Allen persevered, the book did get released and in turn the rejection letters were replaced by letters of thanks from the many individuals who had precious few public signs that they were ok and deserved to be loved. In Pathy Allen’s words, ‘To depict them where they belong, in the daylight of daily life, rich in relationships with spouses, children, parents and friends is my tribute to their courage.’” Allen has been similarly self-effacing in other conversations about Transformations, and indeed about her broader career. She describes her extended work with the transgender community as being motivated by a sense of responsibility—once given happenstance access to that community, she felt it was her duty to do something helpful and affirming. She added interviews alongside the photographs in Transformations because she realized “It’s not fair for me to be their voice. They need to be their voice as well.” Despite the book’s impact (“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.”) Allen hardly takes full credit for it: “I felt that I was the vehicle through which this information had to come out. I was merely a vehicle.” In making the portraits for Transformations, Allen often found her subjects to be guarded at first: “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.” She responded by finding ways to make the people in front of her camera comfortable, sometimes telling them to think of themselves as paintings or sculptures, or encouraging them to take up physical space in ways that reflected their distinct personalities. She recalls her goals, noting that she had in mind both her subjects and the potentially skeptical recipients of their portraits: “I wanted to present them in a way that you could feel comfortable with the people when you looked at them… 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.” Allen’s portrait Sherry balances these concerns effectively, with perhaps a higher degree of fashionable aesthetics and outright flattery than some of her other works. The subject appears, comfortable, at ease, and indeed glamorous with a light and lacy blouse, elegantly coiffed hair, matching red lipstick and nail polish, and gently posed fingers adorned with gleaming rings. If there is anything unfashionable to be found, it is in the inclusion of the subject’s reflection in the mirror surface that they lean on, which shows their face from an upward-looking angle that would usually be considered unflattering in portrait photography. This view is perhaps less chic than the picture’s upper image, but more importantly it suggests a deep and multifaceted personality, and perhaps self-reflection. Crucially, it accomplishes this without reducing the image to a stereotypical presentation of a duality of male and female gender—the reflection does not suggest that the subject contains another hidden or obscured gender, but rather that they (like anyone) contain uncategorizable multitudes.
Signed and numbered on verso