Whitehot Magazine

Elizabeth Waterman: Gorgeous Drag

Miss Queen Sateen & Exquisite (Dylan Monroe and Jessica Love), New York City, 2015.


It was a chance invitation to a party nine years ago that introduced Elizabeth Waterman to the New York Drag Culture. Waterman, then an LA-based fashion and portrait photographer, had been swept away and immersed herself within it. The resultant body of work you see here is unusual for a photographer in that it has a coherent vision but is highly variegated from shot to shot, with some images being as rawly real as street reportage, others as focused on faces as studio shots, some as designy as art photographs or as giddy as party pix. This is down to the remarkable modus operandi she developed for working within the clubs in Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Williamsburg where most of the pictures were taken. 

Cartier-Bresson, for instance, the demi-god of reportage, would often mask his camera in duct tape so that the ordinary folk on the street who were his subject matter wouldn’t know they were being photographed. Dragsters aren’t ordinary folk, indeed intend to be looked at. But many were not looking into the camera. Had they known they were being photographed?

Sasha Velour, Bushwick, Brooklyn, 2015.

“They were aware that I was there with my camera, that I was taking pictures,” Waterman said. “Most of the time they had given me permission, they had given me a nod, an okay. But oftentimes the moment I took the picture would be a surprise.”

Most of Waterman’s pictures were taken as the drag queens were performing. “You can see that they have dressed up,” she says. “They are presenting themselves … they are putting out a look … and they have designed an outfit, and make-up, and they are showing the world that they are stars of self-expression”.

Curiously though Waterman’s subjects don’t look particularly posey and this too is down to her modus operandi. “They were all shot with disposable film cameras,” Waterman says. “Eventually I found better quality small cameras. I was looking for a candid moment, and I would just pull it out my little camera. It was hidden in my bra. I wouldn’t look through the viewfinder but hold it up in the air. I would snap it with some flash when I was very close to them. They had no opportunity to get ready for the picture. But they were definitely aware that I was going to take it at some point”.

Muffinhead, New York City, 2016.

A night’s work was not reliably productive.

“Sometimes I would shoot a roll of film and there would be only one picture,” Waterman says. “There were many, many nights of going out with two cameras with thirty-six exposures in each. And usually I would get one picture that night. Sometimes I would get a couple. But it was really a lot of fun. My experience going out, it was like I was earning the shots. I was there in the moment and I was having fun, and I let my guard down. And I was probably getting a picture.”

Waterman’s photographs are, as I note above, formally way more variegated than the oeuvre of most photographers because of the way she nabs her shots. But they hang together excellently as a group, and this is down to their core personae: the drag queens. Who are as pictorially robust an image source as, say, opera singers, strippers or clowns but with a steaming heap of sexual politics thrown in, especially in our viciously polarizing times.

Three drag queens at party, New York City, 2014.

Curiously, a few days before I spoke to Waterman I had been in a store on the West Side when another customer had come in, a man with a bushy black beard and a white dress. After he had left the man behind the counter looked at me, gave a stunned grin and said “In my country … “ And he made a throat-cutting gesture but this had not been hostile commentary, just an observation.

“It takes a lot of courage to go out dressed in drag,” Waterman says. “Even if you’re a woman dressed as a woman it takes courage. People are going to say something, even in the most liberal cities. People don’t always know what to do with something they don’t understand. Nothing is scarier than the unknown. Drag queens are so important because they are these very public figures that make it okay to cross-dress. They make it safer for people who don’t want the limelight that they want. This work shows these figures as an important part of history. They should be celebrated, not feared. Drag queens are creative, they are like works of art in these pictures.” WM 


Anthony Haden-Guest


Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.




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