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NOT ALL FIT ALL

A Conversation with Photographer MEG ALLEN

By Marie Havens

Spring 2014

From our earliest memories of social interaction, humans have the innate desire to fit in and to feel acceptance by one or many individuals. But there’s constantly an internal battle of individualism vs. societal expectations and pressures to follow what the larger “mainstream” majority considers to be correct. This mainstream bully culture tries to define an individual based upon a series of factors beginning with the most discussed, yet misunderstood aspect of our lives: gender.

From the time we begin to crawl, take our first steps, formulate free thinking ideas of who we are and what we want to be and where we want to go, people already begin telling us who we should be, how we should be seen, what we should wear, and how we should feel, express, and accept love. We are asked to check mark “Male” or “Female” on the very first forms we ever fill out.

Yet, humans usually can’t be defined in two simple boxes. And some would prefer to never check a single box again…because not all fits all.

I recently came upon the work of Meg Allen, an incredible California-based photographer with a new photography series entitled, BUTCH. The portraits felt so beautiful yet underrepresented that I knew I had to interview her for PMc Magazine.

The series is both an exploration and celebration of female masculinity. A collection of portraits of butch women, many of whom Allen explains, “are definitely misunderstood. [But] we don’t exist as women to make the mainstream happy. We are who we are and we have never felt more attractive in our lives as we do when we are being our butch selves.”

If that isn’t a big middle finger to mainstream bully culture and gender norms I don’t know what is.

Marie Havens: Tell me about your first experiences with photography? Did the camera find you or vice versa?

MA: The camera definitely found me! I’ve been into all kinds of things but photography has been the only thing that has seemed to pick me back. My first significant experience with photography was when I was trying to learn how to surf when I was about 14. It was a huge winter and the waves were way bigger than average, not great for learning. I was just getting pummeled, but I had this Kodak disposable water camera so I went and sat on the shore and looked for things to photograph. There was an extra board lying near the water and two tiny young boys pretended like they were surfing on it. Their dad came over and stood with the surf stance on it too and I thought it was super cute and snapped a photo. I was hooked after that. That photo is still over my desk.

MH: Have you always been based in California? It’s so interesting because I grew up partially on the west coast, and I’ve found that most photographers based in CA naturally utilize (whether knowingly or not) the exploration of natural light, the contrast of nature and architecture, portraiture in diverse environments all within their photography.  I feel there’s a lot of light in your work, would you agree?

MA: Yes, I’ve been in California all my life. I would like to live other places, but it’s pretty hard to leave the San Francisco Bay Area. The natural light here really is amazing, we are surrounded by the bay which acts as a giant reflector. The fog and wind blow through here every day so the air and sky are usually crisp and beautiful. Super interesting observations about Californian Photographers. I definitely haven’t studied enough photography to pay attention to regional stuff like that but it makes sense. I never noticed that there is a lot of light in my work, but I notice it now, haha. I think I’m really drawn to silhouetted objects. I am very drawn to line and shape, even with people.

MH: There’s also such sensitivity in your work, particularly in your BUTCH photo series. Can you take us a through how the series began and your specific process for taking these incredible portraits?

MA: It began with two things. One I needed to practice my portraiture, which I thought was boring, until I found a subject matter that compelled me to take interest. Two, I felt like there was a lapse in butch imagery. There has been a lot of visibility with trans-men and a lot of visibility with lipstick lesbians, but I hadn’t seen any butch type, female masculinity focused imagery in my neck of the woods since the 90s.

So I started out with my roommate, the photo with the butch and the baby. That was taken on the fly, just trying to mess with these new strobes I had. I loved it; it was really powerful to me. So I found 2-3 other butch friends, explained that I felt like there was a void that’s leading people to believe that there is no such thing as butch anymore and would they be willing to let me practice my portraiture on them. When I put these 4 images together, that made want to do a wall of portraits, which turned into a room of portraits. It started to hit me that this would be my first real body of work.

It took about 15 for me to really get confident with the composition and technique, but now I definitely have a process. I hit everyone up individually, explained that I wanted to do a series and I eventually wanted to put them up in a show. Pretty soon I had enough to fill the Lexington Club, which is a dyke bar in San Francisco. After that, interest just took off without me. Now people I approach have heard of it before. I’ve had people contacting me about sitting for it, etc. It’s amazing. Basically I tell them all to pick a space they connect to, pick 2-3 different shirts they feel most themselves in, and I give them enough notice to get their hair barbered. It’s an hour long session. With lots of chatting and shooting and voila.

MH: In your personal essay on your website you mentioned, “These portraits are of the people I know in the San Francisco Bay Area who relate to and claim the term BUTCH. These people are my friends, friends of friends, and are part of a very large gay and queer community world wide.” No surprise I know one of your friends and photo subjects: Ariel Dunitz-Johnson! We have known each other for many years and I loved your portraits of her. Do you photograph both friends and strangers in a similar or vastly different way?

MA: Yes, Ariel! I love Ariel! She’s an amazing artist and person. I’m so bummed Levi (her new puppy) was adopted after the fact! He would have made an adorable addition to her portrait. I swear almost everyone has at least one animal and it’s usually a dog. I should call this Butches with dogs or something. I photograph friends and strangers sort of similarly. I already know my friends expressions and body mannerisms so I go in knowing, for the most part, how they will appear through the lens. With both I like to talk to them a lot during the shoot, find out what they are passionate about, find out what they’ve been doing with their free time or just hear about what their week was like. It allows them to focus more on that, than be nervous because I have a camera on them. It allows me to observe their facial expressions and mannerisms. Regardless of whether they know me well or not, they get nervous before the shoot. I give a lot of direction to pull them into a more relaxed state. I definitely tease my friends more throughout the shoot.

MH: I often feel that “butch” women are very misunderstood and very unrepresented by the world-at-large. Does the desire to “educate” the public as a photographer and to ultimately break stereotypes or misconceptions ever affect your work or the process? And/or is it a great motivator?

MA: I think butch women are definitely misunderstood. I think anyone that exists too far outside their gender norms or any social norm is misunderstood. And definitely underrepresented. And the amazing thing is, is that that’s where life seems that much more dense. It feels super robotic to me, just going through the motions of life without thinking about why you choose what you choose or if you like what you’re doing. When you stand out from the mainstream you have the opportunity to look at things more objectively and decide whether you want to comply or investigate other ways to be or think. I think society makes it very comfortable to conform and tune out, but extremely uncomfortable to question.

I don’t feel like I’m “educating” the public, I think the public has some pretty strong assumptions and usually isn’t open to unsolicited education. What I did try to do, was to really translate the beauty I see in my fellow butches, for anyone who decided to look. I decided on an environmental portrait to really take a look at what butch meant in aesthetic and lifestyle. There are still a lot of stereotypes–I mean, they didn’t come from nowhere–but what I tried to show was that although some or most fit the stereotype, not ALL fit ALL the stereotypes. I tried to frame each subject within some aspect of everyday life. I tried to highlight their handsomeness and put them in a context that just looked like regular portraiture. I think that sort of framing helps humanize them for the unaware observer, but also individualizes and celebrates each subject as unique human.

MH: How about your photo subjects? Were there ever fears about being further misperceived or exposed? Can you share the relationship and responsibility you have as the photographer to protect the overall message?

MA: Oh for sure. That was my worst fear about it, that I would misrepresent these people that I love so much. I didn’t want to be the sole representation of the butch identity and then bring harm to my friends who have so generously opened up to the world through my eyes. I think most of my friends felt so strongly about getting some sort of modern butch representation back in the limelight of queer imagery, that they sort of offered themselves up to that cause. All of us that have been our masculine and butch selves for some time are calloused to the mainstream ignoring, defaming and hating on us. We’re used to the stares, we’re used to the names and we’re used to people telling us that we aren’t valid because we aren’t attractive in the way that society finds women to be attractive. And to that we all say “Meh…we don’t exist as women to make the mainstream happy. We are who we are and we have never felt more attractive in our lives as we do when we are being our butch selves.”

But I definitely wanted to do well by all the people I was photographing and my queer community at large and the general public. I think I got over the fear of putting my vision out there like that by knowing that if it wasn’t good, no one would pay attention anyway. The best case scenario was that I was taking a risk that would ultimately grant an approving or at least and understanding gaze from a straight person who never fully looked at a butch person. I wanted to entice and excite those queers who love and sexualize butch women and I wanted to let the curious straight person who’s been afraid to stare, stare and take it all in.

In the end there will always be those really annoying comments about how ugly butches are or about how they’re trying to be men, but what are you gonna do? Haters gonna hate.

MH: I’m sure many people (both photographers and otherwise) have positively impacted your work. Catherine Opie instantly came to mind as one of the greats, but do you personally have any mentors?

MA: Oh man Catherine Opie is a HUGE one, obviously her work “Being and Having” was very influential in the posturing of masculinity. Susie Bright and Jill Posener put out this amazing book of lesbian portraits in the 90’s called “Nothing but the Girl”, Del La Grace Volcano put out “The Drag King Book”…. I saw all of those about the same time in the late 90’s and it was very influential both as a baby dyke and as a photographer. Also, Annie Leibovitz’s amazing portraits. I don’t have a mentor. I never went to art school, and only took one black and white film class back in 1997. I’ve always daydreamed about being taken under someone’s wing that I could learn from but I never got that kind of access, haha. Yet! I have so much to learn still that I think I still daydream about that. Working with a maestro and so forth. I sort of feel like I’ve zigzagged all over the place because I didn’t have a direct path, but maybe that was a good thing. Maybe everyone does that?

MH: If there was one hope you have for those who view your BUTCH series for the first time, what would you’d like for them to leave with?

MA: I would like them to leave with the feeling that I took them out of their reality for a moment. I would hope that these portraits told them a story that had all of their attention for just a while and show them something interesting. They don’t have to love it or appreciate the existence of butches. But if I told them a good or new story, than I did my job.

MH: Any hints to the next project you’re working on?

MA: Hmmmm…I”m pondering something traditional, like nudes. But I’m not even a little traditional, so it could be something way more elaborate. I never know until I know.

Meg Allen was born in 1978 in San Francisco, California. Always the watchful observer, she became mesmerized by the amount of emotion shapes, line and texture could convey in everything from people to buildings to landscapes. In 1993, she began to photograph what she saw in order to investigate and document the enigmatic beauty of simple moments. Today she shoots whatever she can get her hands on. The variation allows her to hone her skill and creates a fusion of the regular with the unexpected.

Her most well know series: BUTCH is an environmental portraiture project and exploration of the butch aesthetic, identity and presentation of female masculinity as it stands in 2013-14. It is a celebration of those who dwell outside of the stringent social binary that separates the sexes and a glimpse into the private and often unseen spaces of people who exude their authentic sense of self.

LINKS:

Meg Allen Studio

BUTCH Series

Written by Marie Havens

Photography by Meg Allen

Design by Marie Havens

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BUTCH Series, Photography by/© Meg Allen

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BUTCH Series, Photography by/© Meg Allen

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