Mariette Pathy Allen Photographs Identity into Visibility at the Museum of Sex

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It is hard to gauge whether the authenticity or the emotion is more striking in Mariette Pathy Allen’s photographs. The images themselves are compelling, yes, but it is their layers and depth that reel the viewer in towards them. Her photos tell stories—candid, personal accounts of the transgender community before it was accepted by the mainstream. These tales begin 50 years ago when gender variant lives were still lived mostly in the shadows. Unofficially known as the “official photographer of the transgender community,” Allen unveils private and social transformations of gender expression in her latest exhibition, Mariette Pathy Allen: Rites of Passage, 1978-2006, which opens tomorrow at the Museum of Sex in New York City.

Drawing from an archive of over 5,000 photographs, darkroom prints, and typed and handwritten letters, Allen offers a nostalgic look at a time before the Internet-connected world and its accesses. The exhibit transports back to a moment before the plural present, with few safe spaces for transgender identities and lifestyles. Allen’s camera and vantage provided a lifeline—a first for many gender variant men and women—to freely discover themselves. Her photographs are universal and transcendent, images that bridged hidden worlds into the broader one.

A range of subjects, circumstances, and emotions are seen across Allen’s photos. For many of her subjects, this was their first public trans expression. There are proud images where the men and women visibly felt at their most genuine and beautiful, such as “Kay, ex Green Beret,” 1983 and “Kim, Chloe, and Eva,” 1997. Photos including “Toby, at the end of the day,” 1978 and “Partners,” 1995 show the emotional complexity of their experiences. Deeper relational and community dynamics are evident in “Nancy with Her Niece,” 1994 and “Nancy at the Christian Paige Murder Vigil,” 1996.

Through powerful, vulnerable portraits, Allen gives her photo subjects a space to express themselves wholly, without judgement. In turn, they open themselves candidly, revealing the full scope of their lives. “When you look at Mariette Pathy Allen’s photographs, what really stands out is the texture of her work,” exhibition curator Lissa Rivera explains to CR. “The care she feels and the depth of the relationships she has with her subjects is evident in the personal feel of her images.”

Coincidentally, Allen only happened into the art practice that has defined her work for the past four decades. While earning her MFA at the University of Pennsylvania, she took a photography class and switched her focus from painting to photography, fascinated by the medium as a window into others’ lives. Chance intervened again in 1978, when Allen stayed at the same hotel as a transgender group during Mardi Gras. She took an interest in photographing their revelry, as well as getting to know them personally. Beyond the fun and flamboyance, the group welcomed her and her camera into their daily lives. The trip and resultant images became the foundation of her work that has since followed.

From the 1980s onwards, Allen has documented lives within the transgender community. The bond between the photographer and her subjects is readily evident. Complete trust underpins the images and friendships that have evolved from these moments. Allen views her art as a conduit for their personal expressions. In the early years of her work though, the broader culture was not as accepting as it is today. Her first book, Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, received more than 50 rejection letters before being published. “It was really important to get this work out because I knew how badly it was needed,” Allen explains. “My book showed crossdressers and when possible, family members and friends. It showed people living their lives in the daylight of everyday life.”

Throughout her career, Allen’s art has focused on awareness and positivity for gender variance. With social advancements, her advocacy has become global—including trans communities in Cuba, Thailand, and Burma—she has contributed images to ten books and her life’s work is being archived by Duke University. Times may have changed but it is a change that Allen herself helped inspire with art that speaks to an essential human experience. “By accepting and understanding gender expression on a deeper level, we can empathize with many kinds of expression within ourselves and others,” says Rivera. “There is a greater freedom that can be attained within that acceptance.”

Mariette Pathy Allen: Rites of Passage, 1978-2006 is on view at the Museum of Sex from March 28 to September 8, 2019.

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