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40 Years of Trans Life: Groundbreaking Portraits

Photographer Mariette Pathy Allen opens her portfolio and talks with FOTO about the beautiful, brave people she's documented throughout her career.

Photographs by Mariette Pathy Allen

Across four decades, and in four remarkable books — including her landmark 1990 debut, "Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them" — Mariette Pathy Allen has carved out a unique place in art history. Namely, her photographs serve as one of the most extensive and compassionate chronicles of transgender life ever produced. Forty years after she began photographing the trans community (a phrase that, today, serves largely as a catch-all for numerous distinct communities), and in celebration of Pride Month, FOTO spoke with Allen about her evolution as a photographer, growing into a staunch ally of the trans movement, and the amazing people she has met on her journey. Pictured above: Kay, an ex-Green Beret with a penchant for red and black, photographed by Allen for "Transformations."

<em>Valerie during a glamour shoot in 1986</em> Mariette Pathy Allen Valerie during a glamour shoot in 1986

For much of her life, Allen told FOTO, she expected to become a painter; as a child, she loved art, drawings, and museums, and in her 20s received an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania. But after taking a class with the great photographer Harold Feinstein in the 1960s, the trajectory of Allen's life changed. As she puts it, working with a camera "felt like I was given a passport into the world."

<em>A group of crossdressers have a pajama party in 1984 at Provincetown's Fantasia Fair, the longest running annual conference for trans people.</em> Mariette Pathy Allen A group of crossdressers have a pajama party in 1984 at Provincetown's Fantasia Fair, the longest running annual conference for trans people.

In 1978, at the end of Mardi Gras, Allen walked into the restaurant at her hotel in New Orleans — and there, her life changed again, as she met and photographed a group of crossdressers. Looking through the viewfinder, she told FOTO, "I was not seeing masculine or feminine. I was seeing the soul, the essence, of a human being." Today, she traces a direct line from that epiphany, that exact instant, to virtually all of the work she has done since.

<em>Chrysis and daughter Nicole in 1985</em> Mariette Pathy Allen Chrysis and daughter Nicole in 1985

Her first book, "Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them," was rejected by dozens of publishers before finding a home with Dutton, now an imprint of Penguin. Today, it's considered a photography classic — but at the time, Allen says, the publisher was only lukewarm on the project. She points to what she calls the "terrible printing" of her photos (visible specks of dust in the images, and the wan, uninspired tone of the pictures) to illustrate how little enthusiasm there seemed to be for bringing the book to market. "After they bought the book, there was a corporate merger," she said, "and it looked like the book might not even see the light of day. But they figured it was too far along to abandon — they'd lose money — so they published it and then forgot about it. But since then," she told FOTO with a smile, "it's had a good, long life."

<em>Jyneen (right) and partner Liz in 1985 </em> Mariette Pathy Allen Jyneen (right) and partner Liz in 1985

Allen is clear-eyed about the social and political importance "Transformations" has retained for all these years. Crossdressers — the group of men she photographed, many of them happily married, with families — had never been portrayed as anything but deviants or, at best, comical and pathetic figures. Allen's thoughtful and respectful photographs changed all that. "It's a totally pioneering book," she told FOTO. "There was nothing positive in the culture, anywhere, that these people could see that reminded them of themselves. Nothing that showed that they are loved, or can be loved."

<em>Antonia in 1993</em> Mariette Pathy Allen Antonia in 1993

"When I found trans people and crossdressers," Allen said, "I felt like I found my tribe." In fact, it became something of a mission to show the world her tribe in all its beauty and complexity. "It's so easy to make them look like freaks," she said. She wanted to move beyond the customary, crude portrayal and present a nuanced and fond chronicle of a community she embraced, and that embraced her.

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<em>Kiwi, Drew, Grover, and AJ at the &quot;True Spirit&quot; conference for trans people in Washington, D.C., in 2002 </em> Mariette Pathy Allen Kiwi, Drew, Grover, and AJ at the "True Spirit" conference for trans people in Washington, D.C., in 2002

Allen's 2003 book, "The Gender Frontier," deepened and broadened the exploration begun in "Transformations" by featuring photos she took in the 1990s of, in her words "female-to-male as well as male-to-female people who live full time in the gender in which they identify." Her pictures of queer youth — relaxed and playful, or protesting violence against LGBTQ people — feel intimate one moment, and powerfully journalistic the next.

<em>Cori (left) and Max, both transgender, share a kiss in Atlanta in 2000.</em> Mariette Pathy Allen Cori (left) and Max, both transgender, share a kiss in Atlanta in 2000.

Terminology in any marginalized community is vitally important. The difference in meaning and intent between, for example, "Colored" and "African-American" represents not just an evolution in thinking, but a decades-long battle for respect. The trans community, too, has struggled with terminology, especially in light of the way the broader culture often lumps identifiers — trans, intrersex, gender-variant, and so many more — under a single rubric.

<em>Robert Eads, the subject of the documentary and play adaptation, Southern Comfort, in Toccoa, GA.</em> Mariette Pathy Allen Robert Eads, the subject of the documentary and play adaptation, Southern Comfort, in Toccoa, GA.

But as Allen told FOTO, the chasm that long existed between, say, drag queens and crossdressers and other communities was bridged, at least in part, by the near-universal adoption of the word "transgender."

<em>Monique in 2003</em> Mariette Pathy Allen Monique in 2003

Over the years, Allen said, she has come to appreciate that human beings are defined by three elemental aspects: one's physical self; a core identity; and one's gender expression. What makes her photographs so moving, from her earliest pictures to her most recent, is her skill at capturing people who are unafraid to explore those aspects of self — and the exhilaration and sense of freedom that the exploration creates.

<em>A spirit medium in Burma</em> Mariette Pathy Allen A spirit medium in Burma

In her two most recent books, "TransCuba" (2014) and "Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand" (2017), notions of identity, sexuality, and trans culture are again front and center — but from a purely technical standpoint the books are notable for the sheer beauty displayed on every page. As Allen herself noted, she was fortunate in that the people she was photographing for both books are very, very attractive. But above and beyond the sheer physical appeal of the locations and personalities in the books, Allen told FOTO that she believes her "strongest point as a photographer is my framing, and that comes from [her training in] painting. I never crop," she said, with a hint of pride.

<em>Nomi and Miguel in Havana, Cuba</em> Mariette Pathy Allen Nomi and Miguel in Havana, Cuba

Unlike her earlier work, Allen says that she had "no problem at all" finding publishers for "TransCuba" and "Transcendents." (Both are published by Daylight Books.) Whether that's because she's now a long-established ally, or because the visibility of trans people has increased so much in recent years, Allen finds it impossible to say. But she does voice a bit of dismay that so many young people — certainly not all, but many — seem to have little interest in the history of the movement. After all, her work has been devoted to capturing the fullness of trans life, from the quiet (and not so quiet) joys to the sorrows that have so often defined the struggle.

<em>Prem, a spirit medium in Thailand</em> Mariette Pathy Allen Prem, a spirit medium in Thailand

Meanwhile, her recent work in Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) seems to have given Allen great satisfaction, in large part because of the respectful light in which the shaman-like "spirit mediums" she photographed there are held. After so many years working in the U.S., and even in Cuba — where, she said, people are generally "much more comfortable and in tune with their bodies" — what she saw in Southeast Asia might not have been what she expected, but it provides her with hope. "These mediums see identifiers like male or female as meaningless, yet they're treated with such reverence in their communities. I really believe that sort of approach sets a fine example for the rest of the world."

<em>Mariette Pathy Allen stands with a photo from her TransCuba collection. See more of her work <a href="" target="_blank">here</a>.</em> Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images Mariette Pathy Allen stands with a photo from her TransCuba collection. See more of her work here.

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