This month sees the release of ‘Sex in the archives: Writing American sexual histories’, an important time capsule of sexual cultures in America since the 1960s.
Written by Barry Reay, the book leaves no corner of America’s sexual history unturned and sheds a new light on sex in the city.
The book is sure to be a vital read for anyone studying American studies, sexuality studies, psychology, sociology, gender studies, or queer studies. It’s also a great opportunity to visit an era of sexual freedom and liberation. ‘Sex in the archives’ is available to buy now.
Below, author Barry Reay has written about one photographer to feature in the book: Amos Badertscher.
Amos Badertscher is something of a prophet without honor in his own city. True, his work recently featured in “The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment” (2016) in the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York and his photographs have appeared in the fashion magazine Dust (2015). But he still lives and works—largely without recognition—in Baltimore, where he has been chronicling that city’s gender and sexual cultures since the 1960s.
I would like to show you just four images in Badertscher’s vast oeuvre of photographs of street youth, drag queens, trans women, the 1990s Baltimore and Washington DC club culture, and male and female and trans sex workers, including the drug-addled hustling of the post-industrial city. (Badertscher’s is, indeed, the most extensive photographic record of the short lives of hustlers (male sex workers) that we know of.)
It is impossible in such a limited space to do justice to the range of Badertscher’s work. It includes visual imagery from the early history of transgender, for Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital was a center for what was then termed transsexual surgery and attracted a large trans population to the city. These were mainly what would come to be termed trans women who were hoping to gain support for their transitions and who, in the interim, did what they could to survive and raise the cash needed for costly treatment.
The portrait Steven is one of a series of androgynous portraits of a waif-like individual from that transsexual moment of the 1970s. She was a working-class, teenage hustler and transitioning trans woman, who told Badertscher that she considered herself a woman, acquired breasts, and transformed herself into the far from fragile Marilyn Mansfield, performing first in topless-bars and then in trans pornography.
Badertscher photographed her again as Marilyn Mansfield in 1994.
The photographer’s presence may perhaps seem unusual to those who first encounter his work but is typical of many of the images he took. He is often there, naked apart from his camera and footwear, entwined with his subjects. He has the camera, they are in his studio, the constructed nature of a studio photo shoot is consciously exposed for the viewer.
Or there was Todd, whose makeup and cross-dressing was part of his teen hustling. There are pictures of him in 1975, at the age of twenty-one, a “young Katherine Hepburn”. Androgyny and gender-ambiguity, understated female masculinity, slender youthful male bodies, and fusions of maleness and femaleness fascinated Badertscher.
His imagery is especially strong on the culturally innovative club life of the 1990s. The photograph Vita Opulence is of just one of the performers at a variety of Baltimore and Washington DC venues, an assertive, arresting, proclaiming of male femininity or female masculinity, it is difficult to decide which. The appeal of the image lies both in the gender hybridity of its subject and power of the captured performance.
Amos Badertscher is a unique photographer. Others have chronicled similar lives and immersed themselves in their assignments—and then left. However, Badertscher lived his project for the whole of his working life; it was his life. He has said that while he felt out of place in “normal” society, he was completely at home with those on that society’s borders. He felt comfortable on the street. The result is an extraordinary visual record of Baltimore’s queer history.