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J Houston, Tuck and Roll (2023)
J Houston, “Ella during the storm” (2018)© J Houston

J Houston’s dreamy portraits of a queer utopia in the Midwest

Tuck and Roll is the upcoming photo book bringing together the photographer’s magical realism-inspired photographs of America’s rural queer community

J Houston’s Tuck and Roll allows trans people to be seen as they want to be seen. The photo book imagines Houston’s trans sitters in a world where they can exist in the landscapes of the American Midwest — where Houston was raised and lived for many years —  without fear or compromise. Over eight years, the photographer shot their community in their homes, submerged in lakes, by the side of the road, but always on their own terms. Tuck and Roll draws from an archive they describe as containing “thousand upon thousand of negatives”, and is a nuanced, reverent exploration of rural queerness.

As Houston points out, both rural people and trans people are communities that, until recently, have usually been pictured from an outside perspective: held up as a spectacle, stereotyped, fetishised and dehumanised even when portrayed in an ostensibly positive way. In today’s landscape, trans people particularly often have less control over how they are perceived. In Tuck and Roll [published by Gost], Houston’s subjects are granted agency over their own image. 

The portraits are shot in large format photography – a time-consuming process that Houston loves for precisely that reason. “It’s a type of slow representation I don’t think the trans community gets a lot.” It also lends elements of surrealism to the pictures: the lighting and colours of the film turn a stack of chairs, a worn carpet or a coiled silver snake on the crushed brown velvet of an armchair into something otherworldly, while sitters’ personal items such as a lineup of family photos and a great grandma’s cushion appear almost as talismans or ritual objects. But the magical realism is always underpinned with deliberate mundanity – the dreamy, fairytale image of a subject in yellow laid out on the grass is taken not in some wooded glade, but in a library parking lot. It’s a deliberate move by Houston, who sees their life as a trans person as an ever-shifting mix of the magical and the everyday. 

Below, we caught up with the photographer to chat about the interplay of magic and reality, the responsibility they feel towards their sitters and the complexity of being labelled as the voice of a community. 

Could you talk a little bit about what inspired Tuck and Roll?

J Houston: So the project overall is, I think, about creating this space for trans people to be beautiful or comfortable, and about the way that you have to piece together parts of fantasy and parts of reality to make that happen. It started with me photographing friends in black and white, and then I started realising that myself and a lot of my friends were trans, nonbinary, queer, a variety of identities. I didn’t want the project to take that on as like, ‘This is the voice of trans people.’ I don’t think a lot of people making work about a group or about their community want that responsibility. I felt like it got pushed on me a little bit, initially, that I was making capital T trans portraits – but I had pictures that were more like documentary portraits and then ones that were more along fantasy lines and I was like, what does this mean? And that’s how I reached Tuck and Roll. The main focus of the book is this narrative project – it’s kind of about magical realism, of building this world that you want to live in and see. 

“The book is kind of about magical realism, of building this world that you want to live in and see” – J Houston

I love what you say about not necessarily wanting to make work that’s trans with the capital T. Like, a straight white cis man taking photos is just someone taking photos, but as soon as you’re from a marginalised community, you become that voice and have that responsibility.

J Houston: It’s sort of a blessing and a curse, right? Because it’s trendy – which is really messed up, but it is – so there is a level of actual tangible opportunity that does come with that, but at the same time, it’s holding me back in this box. I don’t necessarily want that responsibility of like, ‘This is the trans experience’, but I do think there is still a responsibility to the people I’m photographing. It can be hard to be photographed for a lot of trans people in transition. I’ve always been very consumed with this idea that they like how they look in the photographs. And that actually is important, because I think that’s something that isn’t often really part of documentary photography. It’s supposed to be about this weird objective truth that, I mean, doesn’t really exist, right? If there’s going to be some truth in my work, I’d rather it just be people looking like how they feel they look, or how they want to look. 

The photos have an intimate feeling. It feels like there’s a lot of trust there. How did you create that?

J Houston: An important part was that if they didn’t have a home that they wanted to bring me into, I would figure out some sort of outdoor space or have them come to me. It was very important, I think, to go into people’s homes invited, as opposed to being like, can I photograph you there? It kind of made it feel like there was this deep level of intimacy in people’s gazes and their comfort in the space. There's something about the large format, too. There’s this barrier of glass – they don’t necessarily see you, but you see them so intimately. It takes so long to make the photo – 20 minutes by the time you load the film and you’re focused on the lighting and the aperture, and all of that kind of leads to them letting this guard down over that period of time. And so I think a lot of it’s attributed to that, and a lot of it to the way that people invite me in. I don’t know how I could make the work without that.

“There’s some gap between how queerness is portrayed in the city and how it manifests in more rural areas... I’ve had very different experiences with the two and I don’t think rural queerness is usually documented in a way that’s accurate – it’s often othering and not thoughtful” – J Houston

You’ve spoken about how the images feel placeless, but there’s definitely a rural element to them. I feel like a lot of trans images and trans stories we’re used to seeing take place in cities. 

J Houston: There’s some gap between how queerness is portrayed in the city and how it manifests in more rural areas. It’s a different culture that you’re being raised in or you’re living in. I’ve lived in New York City for almost four years but starting this project I had lived for six years in the Midwest, and I had grown up for part of my life in the Midwest. I’ve had very different experiences with the two and I don’t think rural queerness is usually documented in a way that’s accurate – it’s often othering and not thoughtful. So [with the book] I was looking for stuff that felt authentic to me and my friends living there.

I wanted to go back to what you were saying about magical realism and blending the mundane with the arcane. There were some photos where the objects people were carrying with them felt like amulets, and the spaces themselves felt a bit magical. What made you decide on this effect and how did you create it? 

J Houston: I had a really hard time photographing landscapes and objects for the longest time, and I couldn’t figure out why. And then I realised it was because I wasn’t giving them the same reverence as people. And honestly, I did want objects in there, because there was a lot of stuff that people were bringing to shoots. A lot of the work was actually made when me and someone else I’ve collaborated with a lot, who’s trans, went back on a trip to Michigan, where we’re both from – we went to their home, and we were photographing stuff from their family. The landscape does feel identifiable, but also doesn’t quite feel like I can be there now. It’s a suspension of reality in some ways.

Do you think you’ll continue to add to the archive even now the book is published, or are you going to be starting something new?

J Houston: I’m actually starting new projects. I mean, I’ve changed a lot – I think so many people have in the last few years – and I live in a very different place. I don’t feel that I have necessarily the authority to keep adding to this archive and have it be as authentic or as fair to these other people being photographed as I would want to be. But I don’t think I’ve lost roots there [in the Midwest], and I never want to lose touch with the people in the photographs. So I think that’s more where this continues to live on – those relationships that actually come out from the photography itself.

J Houston’s Tuck and Roll is published by Gost and available to pre-order here now.

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