Leland Bobbé’s photography career runs from stark street photography of 1970s New York, to 21st Century Neo-Burlesque and Drag Queens. His images make us think about the wonder of what it is to be human.
Half-Drag: A Different Kind of Beauty is a series of portraits of men and their Drag Queen alter-egos – half and half. Though the maths of Leland Bobbé’s portraits don’t quite add up – a half and half equals a seriously, wonderfully odd number. It’s as if the human face he captures can’t quite contain all it has to say, can’t express all its rich humanity. It’s why Half-Drag has been such a social media phenomenon, and been highlighted by ABC, The Huffington Post and Vogue Italia among others. The latter observed, “Half-Man, Half-Drag, the world of photos created by Leland Bobbé expresses with extraordinary insight humanity’s modernity as it crosses into the third millennium.” An extravagant observation, just like the images, but Vogue Italia captures that little bit of wonder you feel when looking at these portraits.
Like Half-Drag much of Bobbé’s work explores the in-between, the stuff that falls through the gaps of everyday life, like his shots of New York street-life in the 70s, the hustling of 42 street and the men who have fallen off the edge in the Bowery. Even as a young photographer his eye for composition pulled the human drama from street spaces – a reminder that his Half-Drag are exercises in composition as much as they are portraits. The drinkers in the Bowery are statues, grey shapes melting into the environment.
Or his Neo-Burlesque project, which depicts performers re-imagining the genre of Burlesque, pushing and exploring an image of sexuality, ornamentation and self-transformation. These are also portraits of alter-egos, pushing the barriers beyond the idea of exotica into somewhere truly strange but also very human. Bobbé brings to his photographic portraiture, a curiosity then an empathy with all the various ways and masks in which we inhabit our humanity. Part of that comes out of the scale of his projects, there are so many different faces.
The question of “what is beauty?” feels like an awkward question to ask in 2013 – it’s certainly a question left long behind in the artworld of Damien Hirst’s sharks in formaldehyde and Tracy Emin’s Bed. Oddly it’s a question raised by advertisers such as Dove, who pose it through body shapes that challenge the convention. Of necessity, they never stray too far from conventional benchmarks.
In Bobbé’s work, each individual portrait and image speaks for itself. They make beauty feel ‘strange’, make us look at beauty differently, it’s why they are a celebration of humanity.
1. What was your route into photography?
I first bought a camera in my early twenties when I started to see things that I wanted to capture. At the time I was a drummer playing in a band in the CBGB, Max’s Kansas City scene. Because I didn’t write music, I eventually realized through taking pictures I was able to make more of a personal statement than playing rock n’ roll written by others.
I made my move when I was part of a gallery show on West 57th street and met some professional photographers who were also in the show. I ended up assisting one of them for 2 years and then went out on my own.
2. Your photos of New York in the mid-70s occasionally feel like a shooter on a foreign assignment – the desolation, the human debris all over the pavement in the Bowery. Doesn’t feel like the richest nation on the planet. Did you plan a regular slot to go out shooting or did you simply carry your camera around and shoot as you saw?
When I started shooting these street scenes I was living downtown below The Brooklyn Bridge and regularly rode by bicycle up the Bowery, so I was seeing a lot of this part of the city.
I was also driving a cab in those days so I spent hours checking out the streets in different neighborhoods. Whenever I went out I had a camera with me so I was always prepared.
Sometimes I just happened to be out and sometimes I’d go out specifically to cruise Times Square and The Bowery to shoot what was going on. I can’t think of any other area in NYC that’s changed as much as Times Square has.
3. You are clearly fascinated by faces, what’s the buzz you get from taking facial portraits?
I think the thing that amazes me the most about the human face is that there seem to be infinite combinations of what 2 eyes; a nose and a mouth along with bone structure can look like. A face doesn’t need to be beautiful in the classic sense for me to want to photograph it but it needs to have character. I started my career as a beauty photographer and it actually got kind of boring always shooting perfect faces. Beyond the exterior of the face what I love about portraiture is being able to capture an emotion or an expression that reveals something about the subject. I think through my editing my chosen image also reveals something about me.
4. Your Women of Fifth Avenue is a different kind of street photography, images of powerful women of a certain age, with all the visual accessories of power to ward off aging. What prompted this project and how was it shot?
I saw some black and white street photos by Harry Callahan at MOMA of tight faces on the streets of Chicago. I was really struck by them and decided to take a similar approach but in color. Rather than shoot random faces on the street, I decided to shoot wealthy, 5th Ave. women. I shot them all on 5th Avenue between 53rd and 60th Street going out in the afternoons on days with bright sun.
I used a Nikon 70-300 zoom lens mostly set at the long end of the zoom. I’d try to lose myself in the crowd so as not to be too obvious and looked up the street as people walked towards me. Once I locked in on a possible subject I’d wait for them to walk into my shooting range and fired away in continuous focus mode.
Honestly I didn’t realize I was going to capture so much cosmetic surgery until I started this project and actually viewed the photos.
5. Half-Drag feels like another way for you to get an interesting angle on the conventional portrait photo. It must have challenged what you conventionally look for in a portrait?
This project was a completely unique situation because in a sense I was photographing 1 person as 2 people. One of the main differences between shooting these and a regular portrait is that these I shot as if I was shooting beauty. There was lots of attention to makeup, hair, accessories and expression as opposed to the realness I go for in a regular portrait. I started my career as a beauty photographer and applied much of my old skills to shooting Half-Drag.
6. How did they respond to seeing this split/half-complete image of themselves?
The queens I shot loved seeing both sides of themselves in 1 image. None of my subjects had ever done anything like this before and it really gave them the chance to reveal themselves in a different way.
7. The project is called Half-Drag: A Different Kind of Beauty. The drag queen often pictures an exaggerated kind of femininity, and you have combined this with the solidly masculine – stubble facial hair. What kind of beauty merges from these images?
I think these images question what we normally perceive regarding gender. With these images my intention was to capture both the male and the alter ego female side of these subjects in one image in order to explore the cross over between males and females and to break down the physical barriers that separate them. Italian Vogue said it well…“not male, not female, not biological. Bobbé’s men are colours, they’re flashes of light, reflections. They’re pure thought and emotion.”
8. Your work shows a fascination with people who express, as you say, a ‘different kind of beauty’. The Neo-Burlesque project also explores a theatrical vision of ‘sexy’, pushing the Burlesque even further. Undeniably sexy but almost cartoons. This must have presented a different kind of challenge for a portrait photographer. What are you trying to capture in such portraits?
My idea here was to capture the amazing costumes, hair, and makeup that these performers bring to the stage and show them in a very non-campy, direct and serious way as studio portraits. The NYC Neo-Burlesque scene is very much performance-art oriented as opposed to traditional old school “fan dance” burlesque. This is what most interested me about it.
9. Which were your favorite images from Neo-Burlesque and why?
It’s hard to say which are my favorites but I think 3 of them are Dottie Lux, World Famous BOB and Cheekie Lane. I like World Famous BOB because the NYC burlesque scene is not locked into the “perfect” female body, as we normally perceive it. It shows that anyone regardless of size or shape can be sexy and can get up on the stage as long as they have a message or a statement, be it social or political.
I like Dottie Lux because although there is no nudity at all it is strongly implied in a very overstated way. Those balloons were originally to be used as a kind of skirt and when I saw the pink color I thought why not use them as breasts? The cigarette adds a nice touch.
I like Cheekie Lane because of the amazing costume and creativity that Cheekie put into making it. I also found that working with the costume was challenging and fun. It’s one of those photos that I just don’t get tired of looking at.
10. Next project?
I’m working on a project right now I call New York City Wall Art that is not a portrait project. I’m shooting the ripped and tattered posters and layers of posters I find on construction site walls and other walls here in the city.
I find that this creates an unintended collage like effect based on a gritty reality. These images force the viewer to deal with disparate elements not normally viewed together. These images have been in The Huffington Post and I’ll be showing 6 of these images at Pop International Gallery in Soho, NYC this coming Spring.
Click to explore Leland Bobbé’s own site
Click to explore Leland work on Image Source