In the digital age, photographs of past relationships can be uncomfortable. Lingering as they do online, they can stand permanently as a recollection of another life, with all the accompanying highs and lows of a bond with another person that has changed or fallen away. In many ways, transgender people who have transitioned have a similar relationship with images of ourselves before and during transition – they present back to us another relationship that has irrevocably changed – that with our bodies and the world. Much like a past relationship, images of transition can be affirming to some and painful to others. Usually, it’s a mixture of both.
It is what makes Relationship an exhibition now made into a photo book (published by Prestel), by artists Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst so striking. The former couple documented the intimacy of their personal relationship and daily lives for six years from 2008 until 2014. What is, perhaps, notable to many observers is the fact that Zackary is a trans woman and Rhys is a trans man and both were transitioning in the same period the photographs were taken. While the idea of a photo series of a couple transitioning ‘to opposite genders’ could have been sensationalised in a cisgender media preoccupied with the physical transition, Relationship eschews all this in favour of a day to day private conversation between two people in a relationship like any other. Though the two are no longer in a romantic couple, they continue to collaborate on a number of projects. Notably, they are Co-Producers of the Amazon television series Transparent, and Creators of the Emmy-nominated docu-series This Is Me. We caught up with them to discuss the launch of the book.
The photographs in the book came from an exhibition, Relationship, at the Whitney Biennial. When you began documenting your lives, your relationship and your transitions – how conscious were you that it would ever be seen by an audience?
Zackary Drucker: We always preface discussing this work by saying that from 2008 to 2013 we never thought it would be seen by anyone. No one ever saw the images. It began as a completely private document – a visual diary just for us. We never showed the images on social media, either.
How soon into your relationship did you start this process of taking photographs of your lives?
Rhys Ernst: It was right at the beginning of our relationship.
Zackary Drucker: Yeah, the very first image, is one of us where I have short platinum blonde hair wearing a bra. That was about a week after we had met. We are both artists so it was a natural impulse for us to document our lives. Rhys had been documenting his own transition and his own life but when you get two artists and two filmmakers together –
Rhys Ernst: You can’t stop taking pictures! Zackary is right when she says that before we met, when I was living in New York, I was taking a self-portrait every day and I intend to do that for years and make a time lapse. I did it for a year or two and then it became more inconsistent so when we met it became a continuation but in a more reciprocal way.
How did they eventually come into a public arena to be discussed for the exhibition?
Zackary Drucker: I had a studio visit with Stuart Comer, who was preparing to curate his floor of the Whitney Biennial. We showed him our film She Gone Rogue we had made for the Hammer Museum Biennial in 2012 and then not taking the project very seriously we showed him some of the images we had been taking of each other over the past five years. He thought they were suitable for a more public audience. It was very unintentional in that respect.
Were you concerned about sensationalising transitioning, which so often happens in media? Especially in this case as you were a couple transitioning in ‘opposite’ directions.
Rhys Ernst: We let the transition aspect take a back seat and, for us, it was just something that happened to be happening alongside our lives and our relationship at the time. I think the relationship was the most important story for us when we saw the pictures. It’s the same way we approach trans-ness in a lot of our storytelling as well: it’s there but it doesn’t have to be the thing that’s hitting you over the head.
What’s interesting about many of the photos is, often, a sense of the banal or mundane and I think that does extend to the shots of you both, for example, bandaged after hormone shots.
Rhys Ernst: Yeah there was a sense of banality that we allowed to be present in the images. If there were to be a picture with a hormone shot it would be next to a bag of groceries. As trans people, our transition and hormones are still a big part of our daily lives. So we also didn’t want to change our dialogue about that in response by minimising it, either.
Zackary Drucker: I think our transitions are embedded in the narrative but our audience was just each other. Of course, the world has changed a lot since we started making it. This is eight years ago we’re talking about.
“I think the relationship was the most important story for us when we saw the pictures. It’s the same way we approach trans-ness in a lot of our storytelling as well: it’s there but it doesn’t have to be the thing that’s hitting you over the head” – Rhys Ernst
A lot has changed in that time, not just for trans people but also in social media. Instagram and Tumblr encourage young people, especially young trans people, to document their lives more – obviously, not in the same mode or to the extent an artist may but do you think this kind of expression has become less unusual?
Rhys Ernst: I do wonder if now with Instagram and Snapchat there would have been the temptation to upload and or not keep the images private. Perhaps if we had done this any later aspects of it may have been very different.
Zackary Drucker: Although I think we are both artists who are very aware of the medium, a lot of the images were shot on film, for example, and so this was an extension of our work as professional artists. Things have definitely changed rapidly. When we started this project I wasn’t even on Facebook, and MySpace was still just a place for party photos!
Obviously, you are no longer in a romantic relationship but you remain artistic collaborators, particularly as consultants on Transparent. Can you explain your involvement with the show?
Rhys Ernst: We’ve been involved since the beginning. I met Jill Soloway (the show’s creator) at Sundance in 2012, which was around the time her own parent had just come out as trans. We kept in touch and as she developed the script for the pilot, she asked Zackary and me to come in and consult.
We’re now producers and we wear a lot of hats but we do try to hire trans people in as many departments as possible off-camera, and we deal with hiring trans people for speaking roles as well as extras. We work alongside the writers both generally and specifically about trans representation. We give notes on set, in editing and in PR and post-production. I also make the title sequence for the show and Zackary also assisted with that as well.
Zackary Drucker: What we’re interested in helping to create and see throughout all of the media is a wave of representation of trans people made by trans people in conjunction with writers, directors and producers who are trans. Us creating content that speaks to our community and expands our mainstream culture’s notice of what and who we are – human.
Relationship – published by Prestel – is available now
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