Kusner shooting in front of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial
214 TRANS4M, the current photography exhibit hanging in CentralTrak's arcade gallery, has been extended to July 27th. With this in mind we spoke with Daniel Kusner, one of the artists behind the show, and asked him to further explain the approach behind his work.
Historical Dallas landmarks combined with transgender models certainly is an unexpected subject matter. What brought about this series of photographs?
A few years ago, Bryan and I were walking our Shetland Sheepdogs through Fair Park. I saw a sculpture of a Columbian Mammoth modeled after a prehistoric elephant discovered at a South Dallas excavation site. The sculpture reminded me of Richard Avedon’s iconic “Dovima with the Elephants” series.
INSPIRATION: Amann+Kusner shelties at Fair Park | Avedon’s Dovima, right.
My background’s in publishing, which means I blend words with pictures. I specialized in queer content.
To me, pictures are generally more interesting with people in the frames. When planning photo shoots, I found that drag-artist models can really enhance a page.
I’d match drag with seemingly clashing elements — like home-and-garden spreads with seasonal tools on sale at local hardware stores.
Inverting gender stereotypes and asking models to “create” characters would not only conjure dynamic creative forces, the visual formula also eliminated the “stiffness” of portrait sessions.
IN SEASON: Kusner often combined drag royals in hardware-product spreads.
I’ve photographed many drag entertainers, kings and queens. But one legend eluded me: Sugar — a wild mix of couture cat-walker, nightclub goddess and a Southern-fried “Squidbillies” character.
Sugar is arboreally tall, skeleton-thin with alien cheekbones and bee-stung lips. She has a beautiful knack for grabbing a bolt of fabric and strutting across a dance floor while ignoring and mesmerizing everyone.
Her fabric begins as a scarf-like cape. Then Sugar takes four steps and the cape becomes a headdress. Four more steps, the headdress turns into a skirt. Four more steps and Sugar sings a coloratura aria while fashioning the skirt into bustier.
When performing her signature runway stomp, she’s like a wild, long-necked hoofed animal that’s trapped indoors. She can be frightening. But her willowy body is just like Avedon’s muse, Dovima.
One night, I mustered my courage, approached Sugar and blurted out, “Would you please model for me posing beside a Dallas landmark?”
Sugar locked eyes with me and said, “Honey, have you been reading my mind?”
“Sugar with Elephant” was so rewarding, that I kept repeating the approach with other landmarks and other models that fascinated me.
How did you and Bryan Amann choose the various locations and models?
When Bryan moved to Big D in the early-‘80s, he started photographing Dallas’ sleek architecture. Bryan’s a furniture designer. For him, photographing Dallas is almost an involuntary habit.
By studying Bryan’s five-decade portfolio, one notices that Dallas hasn’t held preservation in the highest regard. So many awesome buildings have been ripped down to build anew. That’s heartbreaking. But it is also reminds us that Dallas is a progressive urban sprawl that embraces transformation — not tradition.
BACK IN THE DAY:Bryan Amann started capturing Dallas architecture in the early-‘80s. One AT&T Plaza, left, and the Magnolia Oil building.
I usually choose the site. Or does the site choose me?
Then Bryan and I will visit the locations — seeing if we can frame the shot.
This process can take weeks. And sometimes, no matter how hard we try, the location doesn’t work: Either the original structure has undergone too much renovation; the location management refuses to respond to access requests; or we can’t frame the shot.
I know and have previously worked with a lot of Dallas drag artists and photogenic trans-girls. I’m also lucky to work with a diehard “214 Trans4m” supporter-collaborator: Richard D. Curtin (a.k.a. drag legend Edna Jean Robinson.) Richard also runs the Rose Room drag-cabaret lounge. He’s my best envoy for meeting models. I also go scouting for newbies on Thursdays at the Rose Room, on Sundays at Cherries, and occasional drag shows at The Brick and Tin Room.
Have you any intentions of expanding the series beyond Dallas?
The series is easily transportable — just change the area code.
Los Angeles-based “Disco Bloodbath” author James St. James reviewed “214 Trans4m” and encouraged artists in all cities to follow Dallas’ lead.
No matter how modern and sophisticated we think we are, gender disparity remains a obstacle that divides society and creates inequality. “Trans4m” is a universal idea. I think it could be done anywhere.
Is there something in particular about the local area that you find more worth developing work in and around?
Every year, there’s a popular outdoor Dallas art fair that displays wonderful technical talent. I notice trends there, like, images of the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building and the Spanish Steps; portraits of James Dean, Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe...
Those works made me wonder: Why wouldn’t Dallas artists focus on people and places within their immediate fields of vision?
I frequently bike through Dallas with my iPod blaring away, which always makes me feel like, “Everyone’s in MY music video.”
As I peddle along, North Texas’ geographic features seize my imagination. When I fixate on a location, I head over to the Texas Archives on the seventh floor of the J. Erik Jonsson Library. There, I unearth fascinating architecture facts and stories about individuals — fictional and real — associated with local landmarks.
By studying Dallas, I think I’m figuring out my own existential crises: I’m a mostly Irish, Catholic-raised Chicago South Sider with an extremely liberated sexuality. So exactly why in the hell am I in Big D?
EVERYONE’S IN HIS VIDEO: Kusner regularly bikes across Big D, peddling along with an iPod-fueled imagination.
What's next in store for you? Shows coming up? Summer plans? etc.
Well, I’m still scouting for a young Laura Bush, as well as a young Lisa McPherson, a Dallas figure whose tragic death almost brought down the Church of Scientology in 1995.
But right now I really need to escape from Dallas. My parents just visited from Chicago, and they reminded me that the last time I visited them was was Christmas 2011.
A tempting vacation idea is to traipse off to the Yucatán’s Mayan ruins to visit my buddy Buck Angel, the F-to-M trans stud whom I posed beside the Margaret Hunt HIll Bridge for “214 Trans4m.”
ANGEL IN AMERICA:Yucatán resident Buck Angel recently modeled for Kusner in Dallas.
214 TRANS4M was created by Daniel Kusner and Bryan Amann. It will remain in the arcade gallery until July 27th.