Photographer provides inside look at House ball scene

Nov. 07, 2013 @ 09:30 PM

Freelance photographer Gerard H. Gaskin has spent 20 years photographing the culture of house balls in New York and other cities. House balls are events where gay and transgender men and women, mostly African-American and Latino, dress and compete for various trophies and prizes.

For that body of work, Gaskin is the latest recipient of the First Book Prize in Photography, given by the Center for Documentary Studies and the Honickman Foundation. Before a standing-room-only audience Thursday at CDS, Gaskin talked about that long journey.
“Twenty years ago, I was just kind of hanging out,” on 42nd Street in New York, he said. His travels took him to a club where “femme queens” (men in transition to becoming women) were performing in the basement, and he wanted to photograph them. He got connected through a clothing designer who made costumes for them. “We then went on a journey for two or three years,” Gaskin said.
During that time he took portraits, but eventually began going to balls in New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Richmond. For the first year, he said he only took photos of people’s back sides. “It takes massive, massive amounts of courage to take a picture of someone you do not know,” he said. Finding that courage took about a year, he said.
His photographs of the balls have been collected in a new book, titled “Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene” (Duke University Press and Center for Documentary Studies, $45, cloth). Gaskin’s presentation Thursday launched the book and an exhibit of the same title now on view in the Juanita Kreps Gallery of CDS.
Gaskin, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, is a New York freelance photographer whose pictures have appeared in The New York Times, Black Enterprise, DownBeat and other publications.
The house balls offer people from the LGBT community a place to feel safe, Gaskin said. The style of house balls has changed during his 20 years of photographing them – from a Las Vegas showgirl style to more of an emphasis on “realness.” At the balls, participants compete for prizes based on costumes, attitude, dance moves and “realness.”
Gaskin explained how “realness” has numerous categories. He showed a photo of a contestant who was competing in the category of “executive real,” wearing a suit and tie, which drew laughs from the audience. The categories allow the participants to play around with the notion of what “real” is supposed to mean, Gaskin said.
Masks, face painting, and elaborate costumes are found in many of the photographs at this exhibit. Gaskin shoots in both color and black and white, and many of his black and white shots use blur effect to create the sense of movement and energy at the balls. Many of the photos were shot on film, although he now uses a digital camera, Gaskin said.
His journey photographing the house ballroom scene continues. In 2001, he shot some portraits using Polaroid film. Now, he is shooting new portraits of those subjects using a digital camera and lighting. 
Gaskin is the sixth recipient of the First Book Prize in Photography, sponsored by the CDS and the Honickman Foundation of Philadelphia. Given every two years, the prize is open to American and Canadian photographers who have never published a book-length work.
The exhibit remains on view through Feb. 22.

Go and Do
WHAT: Photo exhibit, “Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene”
WHERE: Juanita Kreps Gallery, Center for Documentary Studies, 1317 W. Pettigrew St., Durham
WHEN: Exhibit is on view through Feb. 22
ADMISSION: Free. Gallery hours are Monday-Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.