Alright, children. It’s time for a little her-story lesson. Once upon a time, long before the advent of RuPaul’s Drag Race, there was the House of Mizrahi, the House of Xtravaganza, BQ realness, and balls. Starting with the Harlem drag balls of the 1920’s, a system of competition evolved in the gay, primarily black and Hispanic scene in eastern cities (primarily New York City and Washington D. C.). As others have noted, there has been and continues to be a stigma in American life when one was queer, of color, or poor. To be all three at once, to paraphrase Lady Bracknell, is to be considered a bit unfortunate and careless. Ball culture allowed for a fabulous escape from this societal constraints, letting contestants succeed as the people they wanted to be.
The history of ball culture is fascinating, but other people have done a better job of describing it than me. Check out the Wikipedia article or this WireTap piece to get a better feel for it. Or watch the inimitably fabulous documentary Paris is Burning. Child, you will live for it.
Anywho, that brings me to Gerard H. Gaskin’s Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene. This photo collection contains brief snatches from the ball scene over the last 25 years. Additionally, a short essay gives the reader a primer on ball culture and the history of ball houses.
First off, let’s not kid ourselves: Gaskin’s can take a picture. The collection comprises both color and black-and-white images. Gaskin’s makes a point of using a lack of color to provide an emphasis on the subject of the picture rather than on the peacock-like colors that they may (probably) are wearing. The subjects of these photographs range from balls in full swing and walking competitions to before the balls as the queens get ready for the debuts. And I want to know more. Every image tells a micro-story. Every image left me wanting more.
Now, I know that I’m the prime market for this book. And please get the book. The pictures look good on a Kindle, sure, but they look even better in hard copy. Like I was saying, I’m the prime target for a collection like this: I’m gay, obsessed with drag and ball culture, love photography (especially black and white), and I love a show. Seriously, I’m sure Gaskin left a ton of pictures on the dark room floor when editing this collection, but I want to see them all. I want the director’s cut. I am endlessly fascinated by this part of culture (that I’m not and can’t really be a part of). So living vicariously through those that do is part of the allure. After all, isn’t a ball being what you want instead of what you are?
JMF Rating: 7.5/10
‘Til next time,