In light of Richard Saltoun Gallery’s recent exhibition of works by Pierre Molinier, a 1950s fetish photographer whose most desired extremities were the stocking-clad legs of men, we take a look at contemporary work on the portrayal of gender in photography.
I wanted to try and achieve equality by swapping and blending these orthodox definitions of gender
Chelsea Fine Arts graduate Anna Sampson’s work Gender Trouble explores the fluidity of gender in the 21st century. Philosopher Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble, which dealt with feminism and the subversion of identity, not only influenced Sampson’s own feminist motivations for the series, but also came to name it.
Sampson’s work captures a growing sensitivity to the definition of male and female and how we have come to determine them. When we meet in a crowded café in Dalston, I first start chatting to Sampson about her time at university as a fine art graduate.
I’m curious about how her final collection became a photographic series. It was a natural progression, she suggests. Although she loves to paint, photography became the media that best supported her growing desire to illustrate Gender Trouble.
Starting off as an iPhone voyeur, snapping hundreds of images of people around London, Sampson found herself led down the route of fetish photography, where she explored the work of photographers like Molinier for its interest in blurring gender stereotypes.
She created her series with the help of willing friends and her boyfriend – all captured on black and white film, a process she suffered for. With no dark room facilities at Chelsea, she was forced to sneak from college to college, getting herself kicked out of Central Saint Martins in the process, before pleading with Camberwell, which luckily allowed her to finish her project.
After a bit of a chit-chat about our collective art school experiences and her plans to do a master's, I finally glance down at the questions I wanted to ask.
What did you aim to achieve with your photography of Gender Trouble?
I want to challenge fixed definitions of gender by blurring gendered stereotypes, such as dressing a man in clothing typically associated with a woman and vice versa.
I was getting frustrated and upset by the female almost always being coded as passive and the weaker sex, so I wanted to try and achieve equality between the different sexes by swapping and blending these orthodox concepts and definitions of gender.
What’s your favourite image of the series and why?
My favourite image is of Sunshine and her boyfriend Thomas kissing. She has a very strong aesthetic, and he an effeminate one, so it's the role reversal I was hoping to achieve through this project.
I want to photograph more couples in the reversed role; I think it’s a powerful representation
Seeing them so intimate with one another breaks down those preconceptions of gendered stereotypes even more.
In the series you’ve renamed your sitters, how and why did you do this?
I would take their birth name and think of the most obviously similar name of the opposite sex ie Jenny Green would become Johnny Green, Jack Mullinger to Jackie Mullinger.
My intention here was to poke fun at the names prescribed to a fixed gender, challenging the notions and presumptions behind gendered stereotypes and blending the boundaries.
Some of the models I photographed already have stage names (eg Savoy Truffle or Jeanie Crystal), so I kept these intact to keep the gender identity neutral.
Do you have any intentions of carrying the theme over into any other of your art practices?
I think there is still a lot I can explore within this territory, and not necessarily just in photography. There are a few more people I would like to photograph first, and I definitely want to photograph more couples in the reversed role – I think it’s a powerful representation that I want to play around with more.
I paint and draw a lot too and recently have been thinking of using the images I have made to create a collection of elaborate hybrids of the third sex, using paint and collage to question gender identity even more so.
What have you got lined up for the future?
I've wanted to photograph my friend Jimi in drag since I met him a few months back but due to deadline constraints it never happened.