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Capturing the World of Male Burlesque Means Learning to Walk in Thigh-High Boots

"Usually we imagine that makeup is used to hide something—but in this case, it was obvious to me from the start that the performers only become the men they truly are after the makeup is applied."

All photos by Magnus Arrevad

Photographer Magnus Arrevad spent the past four years traveling around the world, creating a comprehensive photographic study of the world of "male performance"—a catch-all genre that includes burlesque, go-go dancing, porn, and circus.

The series,Boy Story, has been embraced by the performance underground (the New York Times used it to illustrate a feature on "The Real Hedwigs"), but what's most interesting about Arrevad's work is its formalism. While you could say that the subject matter lends itself to a more colorfully vibrant approach, Arrevad's treatment of male performance scene lies more in the classical. In fact, it's derived more from the kind of composition and lighting you'd find in a Rembrandt painting rather than in the garishness of a Baz Luhrmann film or a David LaChapelle shoot.

I called Magnus up for a chat.

VICE: Boy Story has taken four years of your life. That's an impressive personal investment, particularly for someone with no intrinsic link to that world. What attracted you to the world of male burlesque?
Magnus Arrevad: If by "no intrinsic link" you mean I was never part of that world, that's absolutely true. It all started quite by accident in a basement in Copenhagen the night of a Gay Pride parade, which I was photographing in a completely different context.

What attracts me to the subject is that it provides a beautiful and rare glimpse of people putting themselves on. Usually we imagine that makeup is used to hide something—but in this case, it was obvious to me from the start that the performers only become the men they truly are after the makeup is applied.

I think that applies to everyone to some extent—that we believe there's some hidden, real "us." These guys are being that person. But it''s not that "true self" that fascinates me, but the process of becoming it.

Obviously, your work was mostly taken at what appear to be some fairly wild nights. But the formal qualities of the series shows this is not simply reportage. Were the circumstances a challenge?
No—quite the opposite. I'd be lying if I said I didn't have the time of my life. To be a part of that world, which was necessary to achieve many of the shots I ended up with, I had to do it properly. That meant a lot of drinks and a lot of flirting with bar staff. There's no point in doing what I do if you don't enjoy it. But I don't enjoy creating work unless I believe it matters. That balance is essential.

How many of the images were staged, and how many were spontaneous?
It was all spontaneous. There's a couple of images in which the performers are playing up because they could see a camera in the room. But I certainly never choreographed any of it.

There also seems to be a lot of traveling involved. I recognized Paris, New York, Berlin, and London in the shots. Did you ever arrive somewhere on the off-chance you'd get something worthwhile?
Yes and no. I went to events that I thought would have interesting performers or scenes, and my instincts prove to be generally good. But you are half-right: what I find oddest and most magical about it all is that I travel halfway around the world for a picture, then once I'm there it's entirely instinctive.

I let my hand and eye do the thinking, and I just try to stay out of the way. The whole work is shot on a medium-format film camera, which means that unlike digital, I did not know whether I had something worthwhile until the film was developed.

The final project consists of 112 pictures. How many images did you take altogether. Were there many that didn't make the final cut?
I took somewhere around 4,000 shots. Many, if not most, of these photographs depict performers when they're not quite yet their character but in the process of becoming it through makeup and dress.

Were the performers ever reluctant to let you in what must be a very vulnerable time for them—as they get ready to perform?
Astonishingly, they were fine with it. Of course, there was a huge amount of trust involved, and that had be earned—that is one of the reasons why the project took four years to complete. But all of the subjects recognized that I was doing something more, or at least different, than simply being voyeuristic and that the work I was producing was anything but exploitative.

But to get people to relax—which is to perform—in front of the camera, I had to perform behind it, so I was generally prancing about in knee high-boots and a top hat.

What's your relationship with the performers now? And how do they feel about Boy Story?
They've been universally supportive. If it were not for those guys and their invitations to sleep on their floors and couches, a lot of the photos would have been much harder to achieve. Many have become very dear friends. Sadly, I'm hard at work on a new series now, so I don't get a chance to attend their shows as much as I would like.