Evie Lovett: Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle
Backstage is the basement, a narrow room threaded with water pipes and plastic tubing running from the soda dispenser in the bar above. There's a pop and hiss each time a soda is poured upstairs. They come in, the men and one woman, from their jobs at Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, the local pediatrician's office, C&S Wholesale Grocers. They come laden with bags and suitcases; they sit in front of the grainy mirrors. The metamorphosis begins: chests are shaved, breasts pushed up, waistlines cinched; pantyhose rolled on in layers, hips inserted; rough skin smoothed with foundation; eyelashes, lips, wigs put on. This is the making of the drag queen, the private moments and shared intimacies before the public entrances of Miss Candi Schtick, Mama, Miss Kitty Rawhide, Miss Mercedes Roulet, Miss Sophia, Miss Cloe. It is the calm before the raunch, sequins, and flamboyance of the drag show.
There is noise in the basement, but for me, looking through the lens, thinking in black and white, all is silent. What pulls me in is this intense focus, the "off" before the "on," the private before the public.
Anything seems possible in these moments -- liberation, transformation, even perfect beauty.
For the past year and some, I've come to this once-a-month drag show at the recently renamed Rainbow Lounge (formerly the Rainbow Cattle Co.). I have come because I am fascinated by why and how people dress up -- a fascination which started with my children's endless games of dress-up. A friend of a friend introduced me to Mark, who told me the first time I spoke to him: "You don't want pictures of us performing; you want pictures of us transforming." He was right.
The first time I went, armed with old Rolleiflex and tripod, I was shy. As a photographer, my biggest obstacle is that I hate making people feel uncomfortable. I don't want to take a dishonorable picture, when my subject wouldn't want to be photographed. I don't "sneak" pictures. I'm always stuck trying to reconcile my own sense of responsible photo-taking with the knowledge that many great photographs are "snuck" photos. I said, "Please let me know if you want me not to take a picture." I got amused glances and this response: "Honey, we're drag queens. We're not modest!"
This, to a person such as me, was very freeing. It was the beginning of what has emerged as an unusual collaboration between photographer and subject. What I was drawn to -- those moments of silence, of utter absorption in the process of transformation from man to woman -- are only a small part of the whole picture. These photographs are my view of the private moments backstage, which are in stark contrast to the Technicolor reality of the drag show. And so, because it's always interesting to combine two perspectives on a given theme, the photographs will be shown in conjunction with a drag show at the Hooker-Dunham Theater. Black-and-white and color will coexist "for one night only."
The drag show will benefit the In-Sight Photography Project, started by my friend John Willis, who introduced me to my first drag queen.
Copyright 2004, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont