“Every time I look at this photograph, I stand up a little taller and feel a little braver.”
The above words were written by Adrien, one of the many participants in photographer Molly Landreth’s far-reaching exhibit, “Embodiment: A Portrait of Queer Life in America.”
Although viewers don’t learn Adrien’s last name, Landreth includes the town he’s from—Washburn, Wis.—and the fact that the photo was taken in 2009. We also intuit that he used to be a woman, but now identifies as male.
“It’s been an intense journey since then and looking back at the boy I was in that photograph, I know he has the strength to get through it,” reads Adrien’s statement that goes along with the portrait.
Landreth says she started collecting images for “Embodiment” in 2005 as her thesis project for a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
“I did it out of a real need to see images of the queer community I could connect with,” Landreth says. “I started out taking pictures of friends in Brooklyn, New York, and Seattle, but once I graduated, I started thinking about it in a much broader way.”
Calling the exhibit a work in progress, Landreth says when she first started branching out, the project was pretty much funded out of her own pocketbook. If she knew she was going to be visiting Toronto, she’d do things like arrange to land in Ohio so she could shoot there for a few days before heading north—and photograph participants in Michigan on her way back to Ohio.
Once her portfolio was beefed up, Landreth applied for, and got, a few grants. She also waged a successful Kickstarter campaign, and relied on sales of prints from the exhibit to fund a 2009 tour across the United States.
“I decided to make it a national survey, in a personal way,” Landreth says. “As much as they are environmental portraits, they are also self-portraits. As I reached outside of my comfort zone—to those living in the Ozark mountains, for example—I realized I was shattering my own preconceptions of the project.”
Landreth hasn’t been taking as many photos for “Embodiment” these days, but is still focused on publicizing the exhibit and talking about why it’s important to draw attention to the men and women—and those who identify as one, the other or somewhere between—caught in her strong lens.
“I want it to be an archive of a moment of history in a big, diverse country,” she says. “A lot of the exhibit is looking at people living in places where we’re told queer people don’t exist or thrive. Part of the visibility I want to create is around that. Just people who are living day-to-day. It’s proof that this community is everywhere—and it’s also about understanding that queer people don’t live in one place or look one way.”
When Landreth speaks May 18 at Jinx Art Space, where part of the exhibit is currently on display, she says she’ll be open to questions about what she’s learned in the six-plus years she’s been seeking out those who’ve been brave enough to come along for the ride.
When asked if she thought Americans were coming around when related to the topic of equal rights for gays and lesbians, the discussion naturally turned to President Obama’s admission last week that he believed same-sex marriage should be legal.
Political move or not, Landreth says she’s on board with what he had to say. “I think it’s amazing,” she says. “There’s still so much more to be done, but I think these victories should be really celebrated. I think it was a really historic moment.”
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