This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
I first encountered JJ Levine's artistic sensibility while wandering through Montreal's Gay Village 'hood. While working as a hairdresser he placed a sign in the shop window that read simply: "LESBIAN HAIRCUTS." I learned later that Levine had posted the sign because a man had come into the shop and asked if he could get his hair cut or if they only offered lesbian haircuts.
"The lesbian haircut thing led to some confusion," Levine told me, "because I'm trans and not lesbian. But I didn't care."
Levine's photography is rife with that sort of blunt playfulness. He has been taking gender-busting photos since studying photography at Concordia University, and often confronts the spectator's own preconceived ideas about gender and sex. One series features a person appearing in both male and female attire within the same frame. It is then left up to the viewer to decide whether the person is male or female, or, better yet, if that should even matter.
Now Levine is launching a retrospective of his work and a book that spans his entire career. I caught up with him at his Montreal studio.
VICE: Your work is so striking, it's almost hypnotic. How do you choose your subjects?
JJ Levine: Thank you! I photograph the people in my life: my friends, lovers, and siblings. This means that the same subjects come up over and over again in my work, across different projects, often years apart. I never work with strangers, and I believe that the connections I have with the people I photograph make the images what they are.
You seem to mainly photograph people in their own homes, so that gives them a level of comfort and creates a greater sense of intimacy.
It's true that I normally photograph people in their own homes. Occasionally, for logistical or aesthetic reasons, I'll do a shoot in a different location, but one familiar to the subject and to myself—for example a mutual friend's apartment, or my own, particularly if the person is visiting from out of town. The level of comfort that someone has in their own home, or a place where they are staying, comes through in the image.
Is all of your work about gender non-conformity, or do you work on other themes?
I like the idea that portraiture confers importance on its subjects, and in photographing people who do not fit into mainstream, or what are generally considered culturally valuable representations of bodies, genders, and sexualities, I'm suggesting that we are important. So in that sense I would say that my work is not about gender non-conformity, but a desire to contribute to a visual culture that assigns value to people I identify with and care about, because they are fiercely beautiful and deeply valuable to me. Some of my projects address ideas around gender perception, such as Alone Time and Switch, but Queer Portraits is more about my relationships and the people I feel connected to, some of whom are trans and some of whom are not.
Sometimes I get a whiff of Diane Arbus as I look at your photos, but I know she was hugely controversial and some saw her as deeply exploitative. How important is your own gender identity in terms of having a unique bond with the people you're photographing?
Positioning myself within my work is critical for me and a huge distinction between what I do and what many artists photographing queer and trans people have done in the past. I wouldn't say that my gender identity, specifically, is what connects me to the people I photograph, as many of my subjects are cisgender. I think anyone photographing queer and trans people today will be compared to artists like Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin—both of whom I consider to be incredible photographers, but whose processes and experiences I do not connect with at all.
The people in your photos look like they may be marginalized on some level, but they are never presented as victims. I don't feel pain when I look at them, rather, I see celebration in the photos.
That's what I'm going for, so I'm glad it's coming through. My portraits are of strong, beautiful people who look at the viewer as much as the viewer looks at them. They are present, aware of being looked at, and in control.
Has anyone you photographed ever been uncomfortable with the result once the photo was published or exhibited?
I try to avoid this by always showing the people in my images the results before exhibiting or publishing their portraits. Because I shoot on film, it often takes a few days or a week for me to see what a shoot has rendered. I never work with model release forms while I'm photographing, because I want my friends to be able to revoke their consent after seeing the image. In the making of my books, Switch and Queer Portraits 2006–2015, I checked in with everyone who appears in them, and for legal reasons, I have to use model releases for images being published. Out of 100 people, only a couple weren't into having their portrait included, which I respect. The process of contacting everyone in my images was really nice in the end; it gave me a chance to reconnect with people from my past, and I was overwhelmed with the enthusiasm that most people felt about being included in the book project.
Sometimes when artists or writers look back at earlier work, it can surprise them—it might bring up things they were dealing with when they were creating it. This being a retrospective, did looking back at any of the early work surprise you?
The laborious task of digitizing over 100 negatives turned out to be a huge exercise in nostalgia. Some of the images I made almost ten years ago, many of people who remain my best friends, and others of people I have lost touch with. Almost all were taken in apartments no longer inhabited by my friends. These images are chock full of memories of times past and relationships that have shifted, all of which flooded back as I was scanning film at 3 AM for months.
Many would argue we've come a long, long way in terms of awareness of and acceptance of queer and trans people. But Foucault said those societies that think they are the most advanced in terms of sexuality are usually the most fucked up. Most Canadians think of themselves as pretty progressive on social issues and human rights. Are we over it?
I think it's all relative. But until trans people can access employment, housing, public washrooms, and basic social services such as healthcare, with the safety, respect, and dignity that cis people are granted, I don't think anybody should be over it. Trans people, and especially trans women of color, are disproportionately subject to violence, harassment, and state repression such as incarceration in Canada. I also think that sometimes racism and imperialism are replicated when we talk about "us" as progressive, tolerant Canadians and "them" as non-Western societies that are homophobic or transphobic. I do think it is important to acknowledge when victories are won and encourage people working for change. It's because of the work of so many trans activists around the world, and people just living their queer/trans lives, that more and more people are able to come out as trans. Sometimes just bravely existing and people supporting each other day to day is huge even if it isn't under the banner of "activism."
The launch for JJ Levine's retrospective exhibit and new book, Queer Portraits 2006–2015, takes place on May 27 at 7 PM at Montreal's Articule Gallery (262 Fairmount W.)