Photographer Naima Green and Photo Director Toby Kaufmann just launched a Kickstarter to support this timely project.
In 1995, photographer Catherine Opie created the now legendary "Dyke Deck,” a 52 card (plus jokers) deck of playing cards illustrated with photographic studio portraits of Opie’s friends, each representing different members of the lesbian community.
Today, more than two decades later, photographer Naima Green and award-winning, former Refinery 29 Photo Director Toby Kaufmann have joined forces to launch reinterpret the deck with a broader, intersectional understanding of contemporary queer identity. The new, more inclusive deck, called Pur·suit, also acknowledges issues impacting the transgender community in the United States, and is complemented by a continuously updating website with more than 100 portraits, video and audio files that tell the stories of each participant.
Inspiring as it is, Pur·suit coming to fruition will depend on the success of its Kickstarter campaign. It’s a project we believe in so we spent some time with creators Naima Green and Toby Kauffman to learn more.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Naima Green and Toby Kaufmann
Jon Feinstein: What sparked the idea for this project?
Naima Green: The project started with Catherine Opie’s Dyke Deck. I was in a class at ICP-Bard and stumbled upon a deck in a library database. It wasn’t circulating in any of the libraries close by so I ordered a deck on eBay. Once in hand, I thought about it for weeks.
As a queer woman who isn’t often perceived as queer, I didn’t see myself in Opie’s Deck, which centers queer-presenting, lesbian-identified women, so originally I planned to create a deck of non-queer-presenting, queer women.
There were at least two issues with this:
1) the more I tried to parse queer-presenting vs non-queer-presenting, the more problematic and false I found the dichotomy to be;
2) I wasn’t interested in being reactionary. What I really wanted after spending time with the idea was to capture my queer community for posterity.
Feinstein: What makes this particularly important right now?
Green: A trans military ban went into effect this week. Transgender violence in America continues to climb. According to the HRC, “In 2018, advocates tracked at least 26 deaths of transgender people in the U.S. due to fatal violence, the majority of whom were Black transgender women.” It’s important to highlight that the people dying are black trans women. And, at the same time, I see my own shortcomings. Over the 9 days of shooting, it was very hard for me to get any black trans women to participate in this project. That’s something I’m still sitting with. There’s certainly more work to be done.
To my mind, Pur·suit is just a beginning in a long process of naming and honoring queer communities. The archive also gives me time to correct for things and I’m excited about the way the work can grow in New York and in other cities.
Feinstein: How does the digital format differ from the physical deck?
Green: As a fixed and finite object, the deck will be a time capsule. In 20 years, it’ll be the same object we produce in a few months, though of course it’ll be understood differently. The archive allows the project to scale and morph and expand into whatever I, sitters, and collaborators want it to be. I imagine beginning the archive with the 100 portraits that I currently have and making more work to situate it in a time – whether it be a backdrop, location, or whatever else. Most of the work I make is over many years, and the digital format allows for more possibilities and more inclusion.
Feinstein: Ok, I have to admit I get a little celeb/star crazy and was excited to see JD (from Le Tigre fame) in there. Any other famous folks of note?
Green: It depends on the community you’re in. There are definitely some photo stars: Lola Flash, Justine Kurland, Michelle Groskopf and rising stars like Lia Clay, Felli Maynard, and Res. A lot of my community is in the arts: Kimberly Drew, Sable Eylse Smith, and Carolyn Lazard. I’m excited about the poets and writers: Shira Erlichman, Angel Nafis, Fariha Roisin, Jenna Wortham, and the activists and educators: Ericka Hart, Abby Stein, and master herbalist, Karen Rose. There are so many more to note!
Toby Kaufmann: Yeah, I was so excited to have JD be part of this. She’s such a legend. But also like Naima said there are some others who are also famous in their circles. Like Justine Kurland, she’s someone I’ve looked up to as an artist for years.
Feinstein: How did you go about selecting the participants?
Green: The process started with family and friends but I was particularly interested in tapping people I hadn’t worked with before. I had my first open call via Instagram. Jenna (Wortham) and I put up a short post on our stories and I had 20-30 emails by the end of a weekend. Toby also knows everyone! She helped with casting and we asked people for recommendations. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible because the goal was for this project to outstretch my immediate community.
Feinstein: How did you all come together as a creative team to make this happen?
Green: Last June, Toby and I sat down for a cold meeting. She started the conversation by asking me what my dream project was. I was hesitant to tell her about what would become Pur·suit because I didn’t really know where to start. I had just moved out of my studio in Long Island City, this was a new form of in-studio series-making and I felt like I didn’t know how to make it happen. Toby was onboard as soon as I mentioned the idea and eased all my major stresses.
Kaufmann: I saw Naima’s work and I really loved the tenderness about it and asked her to come meet with me. I always ask people about their dream projects because #1 I’m nosy and #2 that’s where the magic comes from. It can be hard for people to talk about, especially on the spot. But NG told me and I got goosebumps and knew we’d have to work together on it. After that, we just started talking, planning together. Which is pretty intense if you don’t know the person, but we’re learning each other as we embarked this major project. The good news is that we pretty much agree on everything, which makes things really enjoyable.
Feinstein: As much as I don't want to bring commerce into this, I'm going to ask --the original Dyke Deck now goes for $700+. Should collector folks be keeping an eye on this one?
Green: Yes. We are making something great and I’m excited about the lives the cards can and will have, where they’ll end up and where I might run into them someday.
Feinstein: The photo aesthetic is a little different from the original Dyke Deck. Can you tell me a bit about the aesthetic +conceptual process behind the shoots?
Green: Toby and I were both drawn to the Dyke Deck but also really took time to think through what might feel most contemporary and of our time, 2018 and 2019. Studio portraits are a new form of series-making for me, so I was learning and re-learning studio lighting as I shot. A good friend and talented designer and filmmaker, Jessie Levandov, helped me make the set. Toby and I talked a lot about texture and fabric and tension. Jessie brought it all together seamlessly.
Kaufmann: We also really wanted it to look like the time in which it was shot, which it does.
Feinstein: Is this on Catherine Opie’s radar?
Green: I reached out to Catherine Opie last fall before I started shooting. It felt important for me to tell her what I wanted to do because the Dyke Deck is so clearly a starting place. We were hoping she might sit for the project while in NY. Even though she was too busy to sit, she was encouraging and has expressed excitement about my deck ever since I shared the idea.
Kaufmann: It was really important to get her blessing, I don’t know if we would have kept going if she had a negative attitude about this.
Feinstein: That’s awesome and so encouraging! What was the process like photographing everyone for this? Did it change the way you thought about the project? Any interesting gleanings from it all?
Green: This project was a lesson in endurance. My first 4 days of shooting, I photographed 52 people. I was able to reflect on the process while watching the Kickstarter video. I didn’t realize how involved I am – you see me styling and directing, that was something I didn’t realize I was doing at the moment. The project has and still is pushing me to the edges of my own thinking, I had to check myself a few times with regards to my own relationship to gender and ultimately, this is what I hope my work will always do – grow and stretch me.
To learn more and help bring this project to fruition, visit the Kickstarter campaign.