Mariette Pathy Allen’s photographs are striking because they’re unlike any series about the transgender community I’ve seen before. Rather than focusing on the the theatrics and glamour often presented to us, Mariette wanted to capture the everyday life of a community who were choosing to live in the gender that felt most comfortable to them. Mariette’s photographed the transgendered community for 30 years now but that first photograph was completely by luck. “In 1978 I was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I stayed in the same hotel as a group of cross-dressers who invited me to join them for breakfast on the last morning,” Mariette explains. “When I took a group picture, I was moved by looking into the eyes of one of the people in the group. I felt as though I was looking at the essence of a human being, rather than a man or woman.”
This experience has shaped Mariette’s career and this selection of images comes from the series Dye Transfer taken between 1980-1989, where her focus was on male to female cross-dressers and their relationships. “My goal was the ‘de-freakification’ of transgender people, especially cross-dressers,” Mariette explains. “People could understand the concept of transsexuals to some degree, but had no idea what cross-dressers were and were suspicious of them.”
It took Mariette some time to get her images published in book form, sending the proposal to 50 publishers over 12 years. Mariette suggests it could be an inability to see this community in a different context: “At that time, most people in the art world didn’t understand who the people I photographed were or why I would want to photograph them. I was always having to explain things and tell people’s stories.” But it’s this dedication to telling these stories that allows Mariette’s work to still be relevant today.
The richness of colour and glow within each image is beautiful, enhanced by the dye transfer printing process used for the portraits. Of course the styling is wonderfully 80s but this nostalgic nod only adds to the warmth of these images. While there’s an element of staging, a naturalness seemed important to the photographer. “The women put themselves together as they chose. Often I looked for a background that related to that person and enriched the portrait and when possible, I included loved ones,” Mariette says. What I love is the honesty throughout the portraits and the way each woman carries herself proudly. The archive of images Mariette’s built up in her ongoing work is incredible, but regardless of which gender her subjects identify with, it’s a fascinating insight into humankind.