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Photographers exhibit portraits of LGBTQ+ people and spaces in ‘Queering the Lens’

From left to right, moderator Tony Valuenzuela is joined by photographers Rick Castro, Amina Cruz and Texas Isaiah onstage. The panelists were invited to the Getty Center as part of the “Queering the Lens” event in collaboration with Los Angeles Pride. (Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin staff)

By Avery Poznanski

June 8, 2023 3:52 p.m.

Artists and audiences kicked off Los Angeles Pride weekend with a picture-perfect celebration at the Getty Center.

In partnership with LA Pride, the Getty Center presented an exhibition and conversation with three LA-based photographers on Wednesday. Rick Castro, Amina Cruz and Texas Isaiah presented and discussed their work documenting queer individuals and spaces with moderator Tony Valenzuela. Following a land acknowledgment, Valenzuela welcomed the artists to the Harold M. Williams Auditorium stage, which was framed by rainbow-lit panels.

“All the work we’re discussing tonight for this event, ‘Queering the Lens,’ is a radical declaration of the beauty and humanity of queer and trans desires and identities,” Valenzuela said. “The work we’re seeing tonight is about the multitudes that we embody in our communities and also about pride, because we insist on joy on our terms, even in the context of our ongoing struggles for liberation.”

First up was photographer, writer and filmmaker Rick Castro, who began photographing in 1986 and has since immersed himself in capturing the dynamics and communities of queer subcultures. His first image, titled “Tattoo Love God and Son,” was taken in 1993 at the height of the AIDS epidemic and showcased the sexual freedom and expression of the queer community in the face of mainstream scrutiny.

[Related: In ‘Baby Gay,’ UCLA alumni portray a character’s navigation of her queer identity]

His next piece, “Portrait of Al Castro,” was taken for fashion designer Rick Owens’ 2014 lookbook and featured Castro’s 93-year-old father draped in a coat and wearing leather wrist cuffs. Castro noted that by spotlighting the grand demeanor of elderly men, he aimed to subvert the commercialization of youth common in the fashion industry.

Castro concluded his exhibition with a black-and-white portrait of the late transgender entertainer Sandie Crisp, called “The Goddess Bunny” (1987) after her stage name. Castro described meeting the Goddess Bunny at a club in 1985 and being drawn to her bold self-expression. The audience erupted in laughter and applause as Castro recalled Crisp lip-syncing “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone at the Santa Monica Boulevard club.

The themes of community and subculture continued in photographer and alumnus Amina Cruz’s work, which currently focuses on the cultures of brown queer punk scenes throughout North and South America. Her first image, “Amor,” captured an end-of-night embrace between two young men, with straggling club-goers visible in a strip of mirrored wall. Cruz discussed originally training to shoot on a film camera, which taught her to slowly and carefully allow what wants to be photographed to come through.

From the series “Our Desire is Our Power,” Cruz’s intimate portrait “Forest” showcased a corset-clad individual named Forest, who was part of a queer group of friends and partners that Cruz spent time photographing in Fitzgerald, Georgia. Cruz observed Forest’s reflective expression and noted the importance of building relationships with her subjects that allow her to capture moments of vulnerable beauty.

Attendees gather around an outdoor stage as lights color the museum's courtyard with the full spectrum of the rainbow. Following the hour-long talk, the Getty Center hosted an after party with live music from DJ Daisy O’Dell. (Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin staff)
Attendees gather around an outdoor stage as lights color the museum's courtyard with the full spectrum of the rainbow. Following the hourlong talk, the Getty Center hosted an after-party with live music from DJ Daisy O’Dell. (Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin staff)

From the same series, Cruz’s final image “Untitled” explored the relationship between national identity and landscape. The blue-scale cyanotype image of a towering cliff was vastly different in subject from Cruz’s previous photographs, but she emphasized the threads of community, culture and space that connect all her pieces.

“I wanted to build or renew the landscape that can hold all of us,” Cruz said. “That can hold not only identities but the internal struggles that we go through to be closer to ourselves, to allow ourselves to be loved … and the joy.”

Brooklyn-born and LA-based artist Texas Isaiah’s work also traced the relationships between queer individuals and nature. Texas Isaiah’s work focuses on the connective relationships between an image’s sitter, visual narrator and the environment. His first image, “Ms. Boogie Pelada: Chapter II” (2021), features transgender Afro Latina rapper Ms. Boogie posed among her backyard greenery. The image currently hangs in the Baltimore Museum of Art, above an altar designed by the artist as a spiritual thread between the visual storyteller, the subject and the land.

“New World In My View” was drawn from a series of photographs of transmasculine, non-binary and gender-expansive subjects. The image captures the back of the subject’s braided hair and upper body, framed by the draping greenery and waters of a Minneapolis lake. Texas Isaiah said the title draws inspiration from Sister Gertrude Morgan, an autodidact whom he was introduced to through a hip-hop remix of her sermons. With “New World In My View,” they aimed to recreate the spiritual presence of Sister Gertrude Morgan in a static image.

[Related: ‘Sister From Another Planet’ shines spotlight on self-discovery journey]

Texas Isaiah’s connection to nature continued through his final photograph, an untitled image from an Atmos magazine article highlighting young activists fighting against anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and climate change in Florida. The image features two young individuals surrounded by dazzling forest greenery, with one subject pointing into the distance.

“This image is different than all of the others. … The sitter is pointing out into this forest and you’re not able to see exactly what he’s pointing to,” Texas Isaiah said. “But also because their backs are turned towards the camera, it also represented to me this attempt by the state to invisible-ize these young people.”

In a brief question-and-answer section, the artists delved into issues of representation, censorship and the role of art in activism. While each artist expressed excitement at the potential of young activists and new generations of queer artists, Cruz also emphasized the importance of looking up to past activist movements led by queer elders. As a queer archivist, Valenzuela also voiced the importance of tracing queer activism’s roots through to today’s movements.

“I believe that the road map to our battles today have been written in the battles we’ve fought and won in the past,” Valenzuela said. “I think all of you are part of this through the arts.”

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Avery Poznanski
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