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Michael James O’Brien: Butch Queens in Chanel, Girlfriend (detail)

Work / Photography

Michael James O’Brien’s fantastic images capture 90s drag culture

For the past 30 years, Michael James O’Brien has photographed drag queens from around the world. His latest exhibition Girlfriend, on show at Liverpool’s international photography festival now, displays wonderfully glamorous images that encapsulate the freedom, majesty and spirit of drag culture.

Stunning in black and white, the personality Michael has managed to capture is fantastic despite the absence of colour. The drag artists’ outfits, hair and make-up are barely contained within the blank backdrops, but it’s the facial expressions I love most. From big, joyous smiles to sultry pouts, each queen looks in her element and at ease.

Inspiration for the project stemmed from the people Michael was surrounded by at the time: “I was involved in the night clubs of 80s New York at places like Jackie 60 and the Pyramid. Drag was a truly vibrant, political and performance choice for people.”

“I knew everyone in New York and was introduced to other people when I photographed in London, Berlin and Paris so it was easy getting started. Things were simpler pre-Instagram. A photo session was a special engagement and those who dressed up liked it properly recorded!”

Michael’s photographs have a fascinating theatre and allure about them, celebrating the strength and dazzling power behind the corsets and stilettos. During a time where drag culture was less mainstream, Michael reflects on the progression since he first started the project: “I am happy to say transgender in all its manifestations has a real power now and is less underground. It’s much more diverse and I dare say more accepted.”

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Michael James O’Brien: Miss Guy, Girlfriend

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Michael James O’Brien: Ebony Jet, Girlfriend

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Michael James O’Brien: Sister Dimension, Girlfriend

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Michael James O’Brien: Lady Bunny, Girlfriend

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Michael James O’Brien: Constance, Girlfriend

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Michael James O’Brien: La Homma, Girlfriend

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Michael James O’Brien: Butch Queens in Chanel, Girlfriend