Needling through the disparate throng of tourists and sight-seers on Great Russell Street, splashing in grey puddles and sopping wet at the edges, I go round in dizzying circles trying to find my destination. I peer in the rain at my iPhone, instructed that I have arrived, and look up to see a cordoned off, peeling façade where A Beautiful World should be situated, an exhibition I’ve come to visit. Damp and starting to chafe in innumerable ways, I wheel around a few more times to see if I can find alternative entry, but pass only stony faced doors refusing to yield. I’m about to leave when I spot a pink neon sign jutting out into a rather drab street, and I approach intrigued. A doorway looms, leading into a bright cavernous room. I step inside, and enter a different world to that I had anticipated.
This I discover is the home of Boy Story, an exhibition of photographs the culmination of 5 years work by Magnus Arrevad. They vividly document the international, subterranean scene of male performance, taken in cities ranging from New York to London, Copenhagen, Berlin and Paris, with cabaret performers, drag queens, strippers and go-go dancers all forming part of his eclectic tapestry. His shots strike a perceptive balance between realism, fetishism and subjectivity; refreshing given his approach could have so easily been sensationalist. Shot in black and white, rich with detail and displaying a striking, expressionistic use of light and shadow, Arrevad’s style bestows a solemn dignity on the performers. His work underlines the seriousness of their personal transformations, depicting not only the creation of a new external self, but documenting an internal journey. In Arrevad’s words, he captures them bringing “the dream of oneself into being.”
Making the conscious decision not to photograph his subjects as their final incarnation but instead during quiet moments off stage (in contemplation, preparing for a routine) Arrevad is able to explore something more psychologically incisive; the delicate journey of ‘becoming’. This is deftly expressed in a number of shots. Through the motif of mirrors to reflect back the idealised self, the camera captures a tension between the objective and the subjective. The picture of Felicity Carmichaels for example, his back to the camera, juxtaposes his short hair in the right hand side of the frame with the image of his arched eyebrows, focused gaze and mascara-clad lashes in a small round mirror, channelling the look of the drag queens pictured in front of him. In another shot blurring ‘being’ and ‘becoming’, a man in a mask, out of focus in close up, stands on the left hand side of the frame. On the right is a reflection of an identically dressed man. Set further back, he is in clear focus, a chiselled torso on display with leather straps snaking around it. It could almost be the same person, picturing an imagined, phantasy version of himself in the mirror. Through a blurring of subject and object, reality and phantasy, Arrevad articulates this process of ‘becoming’ an idealised self.
For many performers their transformations are a process of liberating themselves “from the roles they observe through the daylight hours.” This resultant sense of freedom is visible in one of Arrevad’s shots of a Marie Antoinette styled drag-queen, with large wig and elaborate gown, kicking his heel up on a rooftop overlooking New York. His subjects are shown bringing their idealised selves to life through their physicality, make-up or costume, allowing them to live the fantasy of themselves. Rather than understanding their self-created identities as personas, Arrevad describes how “the application of make up each night was [a process] in which a mask was taken off, not put on.” Similarly, his own personal journey, chronicled in more depth in his book Boy Story: A Picture Book For Boys, was equally transformative; taking him from being a “sheltered Danish photographer” to a fully immersed participant in the world of ‘Boylesque’, which he says “became my idea of being myself. I was learning, and I felt free.”
– Daniel Pateman
Boy Story is open at weekends and runs until the 31st January 2016.
5 Willoughby Street,
1 – Felicity Carmichaels at Darcelle XV Showplace, Portland, Oregon © Michael Arrevad
2 – Copenhagen # 1 © Michael Arrevad
3 – Faux Pas on a rooftop in New York © Michael Arrevad
Daniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications. He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.