Robyn Renee Hasty is no stranger to outsiders, countercultures, and misfits. So it might feel a little strange for the artist to be in the midst of what’s becoming a mainstream social movement and media obsession to match, as embodied in the debut of Caitlyn Jenner. A new exhibition featuring Hasty’s most recent work, opening Thursday at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works, couldn’t be more timely. But even with a newfound frank (but still sometimes fraught) discussion of the transgender experience going mainstream, Hasty’s nude portraits of transgender, gender non-conforming, and cisgender people are still subversive.
The exhibition’s title, Z, refers to the gender neutral pronoun. “There’s so much contention around it, but it’s also such a meaningful gesture,” Hasty explained. “And there are so many people who identify as non-binary or in-between gender or who just really prefer not to be pinned down — they really want there to be a viable alternative in language. It’s such an important thing — the change of language for any activist movement, so it felt really important for me to acknowledge that.”
Though many of the people depicted in Hasty’s photographs identify as z, trans, or otherwise gender non-conforming, cisgender individuals are also included, something that makes this project potentially dizzying. It’s rarely apparent which gender category (if any) the subject falls into. “There are some people who don’t identify at all as queer or gender non-conforming, but the images of them are so ambiguous,” Hasty explained. “And I think that’s a critical element of this — it’s indicative of this broad fluidity of representation.”
Transgender bodies are certainly not what we’re used to seeing in nude portraiture. But what makes Hasty’s photos truly radical is their ability to remind us that context is everything — almost anybody is capable of challenging gender binaries. “This project is actually about a very broad spectrum of gender and how people all across that spectrum can express disorienting or non-binary qualities of gender,” Hasty explained. “It’s really about challenging the boxes that society makes.”
Many of Hasty’s artistic endeavors raise questions about societal givens. For her first major photography initiative, Homeland, Hasty moved between a variety of off-the-grid communities, photographing people leading self-sufficient lives. She drove 15,000 miles around the country with a micro-darkroom in the back of her car, her subjects “the growing social movement of DIY-ers, punks, squatters, and activists who have rejected the luxurious monotony of mainstream society to achieve the independence of self-sustainability.”
Like many of her subjects, Hasty considers herself an activist. Though she doesn’t confine herself to any one set of issues. She describes her interest in various social justice movements as “very intuitive,” and far from “clinical.” Rather than taking an objective, distanced approach to her subjects, she’s often personally connected to the people and issues involved in her projects. “I don’t believe there’s a separation between my art and my life – I don’t feel like I’m an observer in the art that I make,” Hasty explained. “Photography as a process, for me at least, is really about intimacy and connection with people, and respect.”
That’s also true of the work found in Z. “I’m not doing this completely from the outside — I’m not transgender, but I’m gender queer,” Hasty explained. “I’ve been on the fringe of a lot of queer communities and around a lot of queer people, but in this way where it’s like, I’m not really sure how I fit in. But this project has allowed for me to recognize there is a way that I fit into that community.”
The hands-on nature of darkroom photography is naturally appealing to Hasty. “I’m drawn to the DIY nature of this process,” she explained. “I mix all the chemistry myself, I’ve made or modified most of this equipment, I have a glass guy cut the glass for me, then I have to clean it and bevel the edges before I use it. So whatever I used in every single step of this process, I’ve had to make it myself.”
And though she’s been at Pioneer Works, a real institution, for the past year as an informal resident, Hasty hasn’t relinquished her self-sufficient approach. In fact, Pioneer Works doesn’t have a functioning darkroom (well, not yet; the organization has plans to build one in the near future). “I’ve been able to do darkroom photography without running water, without a darkroom, in conditions that most photographers wouldn’t be able to work,” Hasty explained.
During the interview, Hasty sat across from me on the same small, cream colored, vaguely Victorian vintage couch that appears in most of the portraits included in Z. At one point, she pointed to a black plywood four-sided box outfitted with a curtain.”That was the same dark box that was in the back of my car,” she said, referring to the road trip she embarked on for Homeland.
Dustin Yellin, the founder and director of Pioneer Works, brought Hasty in to the Red Hook-based arts organization to help teach photography classes and restore a pair of antique cameras. “When I got the big camera working, I started working with the large 14 by 14 plates–” she explained, referring to an ultra-large wet plate format. Even a seasoned photography nerd will probably be impressed by the size of Hasty’s glass plates. This particular technique (one that produces direct positives as opposed to negatives), provides an insane level of detail. “Basically what’s coming out of this camera is pure silver, so it’s already grainless, and then on top of that, it’s being viewed as a positive so it retains that crisp sharpness,” Hasty explained.
Despite the heightened detail, the photos still have a certain ghostliness typical of more primitive photographic techniques. The images are far from the perfection of digital we’ve become so accustomed to. “There are plenty of people who use these techniques who would criticize my methods,” Hasty laughed. “There’s so much opportunity for error, and I think those errors can be really beautiful.”
To get things mostly right, though, Hasty has to be super attentive and precise about getting the photo as close to perfect as possible for each shot. “It’s very different from any other kind of photography – it’s really intentional and really slow,” Hasty said of her method. “Usually in a three-hour shoot, I do four plates maximum.”
She described her studio process during the making of Z as a “ritualistic” one. Between setting up the poses and the few seconds it took to actually take the photo, Hasty said she would leave the model alone. “It’s a moment to be by yourself and not do anything that I think helps create really strong images and helps them to be really present.”
Finding willing models was easier than you might think. Hasty tapped the internet to recruit a range of transgender and gender non-conforming models. “There was one person who felt that the experience was confidence-building in a way, to have their body be treated as a work of art,” she recalled. “But 90 percent of the people who modeled seemed really confident and comfortable with their body.”
Overall, Hasty managed to capture a range of emotions – the models are far from simply posing. “There are some images that I’ve taken where that awkwardness is retained and I think it’s really expressive of some inner feeling that person carries,” she said. “There’s a process of trying to sort of put the person more at ease and get through to a more vulnerable or powerful side of them.”
Besides the range of individual expression found in the photos, there’s something pretty powerful happening here. “There’s just so much going on around gender non-conformity and visibility,” Hasty said. “It’s kind of nice to be interested in something at the same time there seems to be a movement in the world that coincides with it, and it’ll be interesting to see if people feel that way about the work.”
Z opens at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on Thursday, June 11 from 6-9pm and is on view through Sunday July 12th.