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Jane Hilton, Alexis Mateo
Jane Hilton, Alexis Mateo, Drag Queen Cowboys (2021)Photography Jane Hilton

Jane Hilton’s desert portraits of drag queens look like cult film stills

Drag Queen Cowboys documents Nevada’s drag queen community in the epic landscape of the classic Western movie

Jane Hilton was staying in Vegas when her curiosity was piqued by a poster advertising drag queen bingo. After just one visit, the British photographer was totally captivated by the charisma and wit of the women she met during that “action-packed evening full of jokes, entertainment, innuendo, lip-synched songs, and dancing” and she resolved to take the portraits of these extraordinarily glamorous bingo comperes. “I was on a mission to photograph members of this community,” she tells Dazed. “Although it did take some time!” 

Throughout her career, Hilton has travelled across the US chronicling the vast country’s liminal communities and subcultures. In pursuit of modern American folklore, her “visual odyssey” has led her to create striking, filmic images of cowboys, sex workers, burlesque dancers, gun club members, circus folk, and the relics of Americana. 

Influenced by the epic cinema of John Huston and the iconic landscape of the Western, Hilton drove out into the desert with the Vegas drag queens in her ’66 Mustang to take their pictures beneath the glare of the Nevada sun. Paying tribute to The Misfits – the troubled Huston movie starring Marilyn Monroe in one of her most dramatic and luminous onscreen appearances – Hilton’s portraits, Drag Queen Cowboys, feel like stills from a cult film you’ve only just discovered and are desperate to watch. 

As Drag Queen Cowboys goes on display as part of this year’s Photo London exhibition in London, take a look at the gallery above for a glimpse of the images featured in the show. Below, we talk to Jane Hilton about cowboy spirituality, subcultures, and her most memorable moments creating this series of portraits in the Nevada desert. 

Could you tell us about the American subcultures you’ve previously explored in your work? 

Jane Hilton: As part of examining American culture and the American dream, I have loved documenting communities on the edge of society. The working girls that earn their living selling sex in legal brothels in Nevada – the only state where this is within the law; cowboys and their lifestyles and homes in the American West; deer hunters in Texas; burlesque dancers, and ‘legends’ from the Hall of Fame in Nevada and California. There were also the gun-toting people who spent their leisure time shooting at targets in the LA Gun Club, which I did a book on. 

What fascinates you about these cultural archetypes? 

Jane Hilton: It has taken me several years to work out why I’m so fascinated by these subcultures. Now I realise that they are all legal but have fallen into the margins of social acceptability.

Please could you share with us some of the tropes of modern American folklore that have particularly captured your imagination? And how has that folklore evolved over time do you think? 

Jane Hilton: The cowboys are deeply spiritual. One cowboy explained to me that his horse was his church, he said, ‘I am out with God every day.’ Another cowboy, Johnny Green from Colorado, who sold horses to John Wayne, told me, ‘Working hard, being in the wide-open space, talking to your horse and cows, being your own boss, shooting the breeze with folks you run into... freedom is a cowboy’s life. Some cowboys got too much tumbleweed to settle down.’

These folklores are an inherent part of the Western lifestyle that has been carved over hundreds of years. Gail Steiger, another cowboy from Arizona, sums up what it means to him to be a cowboy. ‘The best thing about punching cows is that it keeps you out there in the middle of life, the kind that grows up out of the ground.’

For the uninitiated, please could you describe what happens at Drag Queen Bingo?

Jane Hilton: Expect an action-packed evening full of jokes, entertainment, innuendo, lip-synched songs, and dancing, playing bingo all the while. Three of four drag queens share the limelight and the jokes with endless costume changes. 

How did you first find yourself there? And what were your impressions?

Jane Hilton: I noticed that there was an event across from my hotel and casino in downtown Vegas, I was curious so I went along for the evening and was blown away by the queens and how talented they were. It’s an art form.

Could you tell us about some of the memorable individuals you met at Drag Queen Bingo? 

Jane Hilton: Miss Alexis Mateo was hilarious and she taught me the importance of shaping her hips and emphasising her waist to make her more sexy and streamlined. She said that if she was drowning, she would save her wig first.

The portraits draw on the Western/cowboy tradition. Was this an aesthetic that you collaborated on with your subjects? Or did they bring that style with them to the shoot? 

Jane Hilton: I was on a mission to photograph members of this community, although it did take some time! Some had been photographed but in glitzy clubs in colour, lit with a flash and retouched. I had to persuade them out of the bars and clubs and onto the plains where John Houston shot The Misfits – the Marilyn Monroe film that inspired this series. They did their own make-up and picked their own outfits. 

The images are very cinematic, they could be stills from an incredible movie! Are there any particular films, directors, or genres that have really informed your work? 

Jane Hilton: Too many iconic Westerns! Fistful of Dollars, The Searchers, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Stagecoach, The Virginian, The Misfits, The Electric Horseman. As for directors, John Huston, Wim Wenders, Quentin Tarantino.

What are your most vivid memories of those shoots in the heat of the desert? 

Jane Hilton: Driving Asia and Anetra in my ’66 Mustang to a ghost town out of Vegas. We had such fun laughing and sharing jokes with both girls squashed in the back of my car in full make-up. They were bemused by an English girl with a classic American car.

The ghost town was magical and we shot at sunset making it even more so. They were delighted and relieved to know that natural light could be flattering to them and we all enjoyed the process of shooting on an old plate camera with film, making it even more authentic.

What qualities or ideas do you hope your portraits convey above all else? 

Jane Hilton: Taking the locations and the displacement of the characters in The Misfits and photographing subjects away from their natural habitat of the clubs… the contrast of them in the desert and the locations of the American West makes them feel more iconic which was my aim.

Jane Hilton’s Drag Queen Cowboys is on display at Photo London from September 9 until September 12