This month, a diverse group of unnamed and unknown characters adorn the walls of a new exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. Dating from 1880 onwards, the works in Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers explore the practice of cross-dressing as depicted in found and anonymous images. Delving into the private archive of the French filmmaker and photography collector Sébastien Lifshitz, the exhibition not only provides an intimate glimpse into a pocketed history of cross-dressing, and how this time period was captured by those that lived through it.
Born in Paris in 1968, Lifshitz started building a collection of amateur photography due to an interest in gender non-conformity and the different ways in which it can be played out in front of the camera. With a keen eye for vernacular practices of documentation, and how they combine with a perceivably hidden world of cross-dressing, his collection developed over the course of many years to include photographs from all over Europe and America. People from various backgrounds, nationalities, professions and genders come together in this collection to reflect a breadth of experience, as well as an impressively extensive personal oeuvre. This includes unique compositions of Marie-Pierre Pruvot, a well-known Algerian-born French transsexual woman who performed using the stage name Bambi. Pruvot rose to fame in France after her long-standing career in entertainment, which she later combined with academic pursuits. As the subject of several documentary films over the course of her life, she most recently appeared in Bambi, Lifshitz’s 2013 documentary which won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Collected mostly from garage sales, junk shops, flea markets and ebay, the exhibition presents a rare selection of photographs that explore private practices of gender performance and how these are acted out for the camera. Displaying a broad range of attitudes and identities; from tenderness and reserve, to pride and bravado, these intimate portraits and carnivalesque group shots offer a candid view into the long-standing practice of cross-dressing, the exploration of identity and the dislocation of gender roles.
Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers. From 23 February. Find out more: www. thephotographersgallery.org.uk
1. Guilda, [one of a triptych]. New York, United States, circa 1950. © Sebastian Lifshitz Collection Courtesy of Sebastian Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery.