For more than four decades, Mariette Pathy Allen’s photographs have documented individuals who identify along the gender-variant spectrum. Some of the prolific photographer’s work, along with correspondence with her subjects – many of whom became close friends – and other media and activist memorabilia, is on view at the Museum of Sex through September 8, in a show titled Mariette Pathy Allen: Rites of Passage, 1978-2006.
Included in the show, curated by photographer and curator Lissa Rivera, is a collection of dye-transfer prints from Pathy Allen’s most recognizable work, Transformations. The series, created in the 1980s, is a richly textured group of images of Pathy Allen’s transgender subjects shot both alone and with family members. While the fashion and poses certainly feel like the 1980s – bright colors, big hair, lace, and props including mirrors and umbrellas – the subjects nonetheless have a quiet dignity, eliciting a sense of liberation that must have felt even more powerful when they were taken, a time that was far more dangerous for the transgender community.
But it’s the rest of the show, a collection of more candid and less formal imagery, that highlights the powerful contribution Pathy Allen has made to the trans community. Looking over these prints, some tacked up onto the walls and others edited into a ten-minute video that plays on a loop, viewers feel as if they have opened a friend’s photo album and been given access to their rich history. Pathy Allen’s subjects gather together to play music; they get ready to go out; they visit a friend in the hospital; they put their arms around one another. It’s easy to imagine Pathy Allen’s work conjuring up feelings of nostalgia or melancholy or joy for her subjects. One can almost hear them mumble, “I wonder what happened to her?” or “What could I have been thinking when I wore that outfit?” Photographs tell stories, they provide a way for us to join a collective narrative through our personal histories. Simply by being present with her subjects, by capturing both the ordinary and extraordinary, Pathy Allen has given visibility to a history that was always there.