Best known as a co-producer of the TV series Transparent, Zackary Drucker is an artist-activist who has devoted her career to making the world less grey and lonely for people who, like her, define themselves as transgender or non-binary. Her photographic and video artwork has been shown at the Whitney Biennial in New York, the Venice Biennale and nominated for an Emmy. But in one of her most recent projects, she has resorted to direct action, creating an open-access database of pictures available to any media outlet, anywhere in the world, wishing to represent people who don’t fit into traditional gender moulds.
The Gender Spectrum Collection was initiated by editors of the news website Vice, who found there were no quality stock pictures available from photo agencies to illustrate media stories about those who fell outside binary norms.
“There are so few images of trans and gender non-conforming people in stock imagery. Typing transgender into a search engine yields results that are generic – a white trans woman in front of a trans flag, and that’s pretty much it,” says Drucker. “We were interested in revealing trans and non-binary people in everyday life: falling in love, taking selfies, gossiping, going to school, waiting for a bus. Our identities are so often sensationalised, but we navigate the world and are embedded in society in ordinary ways.”
They signed up 15 models, who are pictured at work and at play in seven categories, from relationships to school, work, health and moods. Provided you are prepared to suspend the preconceptions of the binary world, these are very safe images – of good-looking young people doing normal things – with none of the camp wit or edgy eroticism of Drucker’s artwork. And that is precisely the point of them.
In a sense, the GenderSpectrum Collection is a mirror of her fabric-printed collages, in which she appropriates images of trans people from vintage magazines. “The history of gender-diverse people is spread out and not cohesive, so it’s not easy to find,” she says. “I’ve always believed that understanding the history and tradition you come from gives you a sense of solidity and strength. These magazines are the closest thing we have to a documentation of our community.”
Drucker’s most recent art show, as part of a group exhibition at London’s Gazelli Art House called It’s Not Me, It’s You, included two films that are a tribute to her mother, Penny Sori, whom she describes as her muse: “She was really wonderful when I was a young person. I wouldn’t say everything was completely fine, because it’s a learning process and our children teach us how to shepherd them into the world. But so many trans people don’t have the support of their parents, and it makes all the difference in the world to know that you are coming from a place of peace and acceptance.”
But transitioning from one sex to another is not easy, and Drucker made the point in a collaboration with a fashion photographer friend, Luke Gilford, for which she was covered with long white hair. In I Am the Lover Inside of You (The Barrier Between Us Too), her hirsute face is intimately probed by surgical-gloved hands; in This Is What It Looks Like (To Go from One Thing to Everything), she lies forlornly in bed, presumably post-operative.
But it is another autobiographical project that takes outsiders most deeply into her world. As a man transitioning to a woman, she was in a relationship with a woman transitioning to a man. Her partner, Rhys Ernst, was also an artist, and together they chronicled their six-year relationship in thousands of photographs, a small selection of which were shown at the Whitney Biennial in 2014, and two years later became a book.
One of their most moving pictures is a moody-blues tableau in which a topless Drucker flaunts her budding breasts to the camera, her shadow falling across the chest of Ernst, who looks adoringly on, his top lip shaded by a wisp of moustache. It’s such a beautifully composed, tender image that I wonder if they were deliberately recording a second adolescence? Absolutely not, says Drucker. “Our intention was to create images of the pure joy of being seen by each other. But Rhys and I were aware that so few images of trans people loving each other existed in the world. Of course there’s a rich history, but how do you know it exists if there’s no representation?”
The couple’s big representational breakthrough came through a connection with Jill Soloway, creator of Transparent. “Rhys and I had existed on the periphery of Hollywood in independent queer art circles, and it was the first time anyone had invited us in,” she says. “For so long, film and television were pandering to the status quo in the hope that it would reach everyone; but the more specific you are, the more it grounds people. Transparent ushered in a golden age where experiences that would have been considered niche became universal.”
It was a cultural breakthrough fuelled by the then new technology of streaming, spreading around the world as one of the first hits on Amazon Prime with a healthy presence on social media. In the Gender Spectrum Collection, technology gets its own section, with tableaux ranging from two kids avidly gaming in their living room to lovers reading together from a phone, and neon-haired revellers posing for a group selfie.
“Social media has created this space where we can perform our idealised selves and really tailor and customise what people see and how they see us. It’s a very exciting prospect,” says Drucker.
So how does her autobiographical art relate to the selfie culture featured in the collection?
“As an artist with a traditional photography background, I still think of image-making as a more carefully rendered thing, though our visual lexicon is more advanced because of the number of images we see, and that doesn’t mean I don’t take a selfie every now and then and send it to someone,” she says. But some things remain the same: “When people ask me how I identify, I always say ‘As human’.”
The Gender Spectrum Collection: broadlygenderphotos.vice.com