Inserting himself into existing family photos, the artist questions and queers how we represent gender identity through the photo album.
Family photos are often our first experience of photography. The images collected in analog albums or on computers and phones capture everything from the momentous to the mundane. Usually organized according to time’s linear progression, these snaps offer proof of the beauty, awkwardness, and hard-fought grace that settles over us as we age.
Those same photos also reveal who or what is missing, if we look long enough.
Vaughan Larsen’s series Rites examines and destabilizes the gendered rituals that family photographs capture. In re-staging both important and trivial events, Larsen inserts himself - and countless others - into familial rituals and rites of passage that are too often off limits to queer-identifying people.
I met Larsen during a brief portfolio review at the SPE National conference in March. In advance of his exhibition, on view at New Orleans’ Myth Gallery through June 8, we spoke again about Rites, the role of humor and performance in the series, and the importance of representation and what viewers take for granted in vernacular photography.
Roula Seikaly in conversation with Vaughan Larsen
Roula Seikaly: What motivated this project?
Vaughan Larsen: I initially started with recreating my grandma's wedding photo. We were celebrating her 50th anniversary with my grandpa and she had it set out on the table. It was from the 60s, I believe. And it was printed on heavy cardstock, so it was more of an object than simply a photograph and she treated it as such. The image is of her standing alone in a lighting studio, looking over her shoulder with her bouquet. I was just so taken aback by it that I had this urge to recreate it. But, she wouldn’t let me borrow the original, which highlighted her attachment to it. After photographing myself in the image of my grandmother, I didn’t have further plans with the finished product. I just thought of it was a one off self-portrait for a few years.
In 2018, my art practice was beginning to solely focus on gender and LGBTQ+ identity. Looking back at Self Portrait as my Grandmother on her Wedding Day, I realized it was echoing themes that I was, at the time, exploring further and wasn’t sure how. There was something happening there, so I began exploring the snapshots from my family’s archive. I was occasionally thinking of specific memories, such as a family Christmas gathering three or four years ago.
My cousin got engaged to this guy, and everyone in the family asked them to pose by the tree and kiss repeatedly throughout the night. I realized I was upset because I know they probably wouldn't act the same way towards me if I brought a guy home for the holidays. They would definitely be accepting, but the excited attitude wouldn’t be present. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful for the acceptance and understanding my family has towards me and my identity, but there’s still something different. So, I was thinking about that memory and how I couldn't really experience those family rituals as easily as other people who aren’t queer. It’s a social norm that we have to adjust to as queer people. I wanted to point that out for people who aren’t really aware of that exclusion, or perhaps it just doesn’t cross their mind.
Seikaly: One of the things that really stood out for me during our portfolio review is that some of the images that you reproduce are funny, and others are underscored by something really deep – say, sadness. How does that lack of representation register for you artistically?
Larsen: Oh, definitely. I really am glad you mentioned that undertone because I want them to come off comedic and fun, like family photos are. But then you realize, oh, this is why this person's making these photos.
Seikaly: There are many queer artists who are working through issues of representation and identity in the wider photographic field. But this series really is unique in the way it addresses identity in familial context.
Larsen: Yeah, exactly. I'm not talking poorly about my family in any way with this project. I just feel these scenarios wouldn’t receive the same positive reception, or perhaps not even be possible, such as giving birth to my own child with my partner.
Seikaly: Absolutely. You're thoughtful, and you would pick up on that immediately. That's beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. In preparing for this interview, I spent time looking at your website and noticed certain psychological elements that come through. I’m thinking of Self Portrait as My Mother the Day Back from the Hospital. You're smiling and holding a baby doll, and your smile looks genuine, but also performative. It looks like it’s almost an endurance test for you to go through and restage moments from your family's visual legacy, altering them in a way that reflects your identity and how set apart you are from that narrative. It introduces empathy for who you are and what you’re striving to convey in a powerful way.
Larsen: When I'm looking for family photos to use, I'm looking for moments that jump out at me, usually a ceremony or tradition. The one that you just mentioned is a perfect example of something I searched the archive for specifically. Scenes like that, or a child learning to ride a bike with a parent, are scenes nearly everyone has in their family albums. I want something that’s relatable to others as well as myself.
Seikaly: Exactly. Dig into pretty much anyone's family archive, and you’ll see the same mundane scenes. Or spend time on social media, and vernacular photography such as this is easy to find because many people are sharing it. It’s a category unto itself, and our collective visual literacy prepares us to read it with little trouble. But then you interrupt our spectator’s ease in such a charming way that it overwhelms possible discomfort.
Your compositions are irresistible in the joy that they convey. There is an uncanniness to this work, too. It reminds me of Diane Arbus’s knack for capturing beauty and awkwardness simultaneously. As a viewer, I find myself questioning which I respond to, the beauty or the awkwardness, or both? I'm thinking of Self Portrait as my Aunt with Her Father. You’re posed with your father. From a stranger’s perspective, the look on his face could be interpreted in different ways.
Larsen: I try really hard to encapsulate the emotion as it happened in the original photo, while also altering it with how I would respond to it, or how my personal experience would affect it. So, the photo with my father and me in the wedding dress, that awkwardness was present in the original. His hand on his side, he's not sure of what to do or how to stand. I think that's important to have because then it feels more real. That emotion present in the original is so important to me, I believe if I work to replicate it then the new photograph will somehow hold the experience of the original.
Seikaly: This interview will publish shortly before an exhibition of your work closes at New Orleans’ Myth Gallery. On that note, I’m wondering if there is any impulse to show your image and the original image in a paired format?
Larsen: I prefer to show the initial photo of my grandmother on her wedding day, and then the image of me restaging it side-by-side. But when I show these newer images together with the original photos, people just look back and forth between the two and say, wow, you did such a good job at recreating it. And that’s the end of the conversation. Exhibiting my work without the original source photos prompts viewers to relate it to their own family photos.
Seikaly: What response have you gotten from family members and friends who are part of this project?
Larsen: What I've noticed that's been really interesting is both queer and non-queer people have been able to easily relate to my work. I think queer-identifying people can relate to it, of course, due to their personal experience with feeling excluded from ceremonies. But more generally, everyone can relate to it because they see their own family photos in the back of their mind when viewing my reinterpreted ones.
My family's been extremely supportive by helping me look through our family photos every time I go home to visit. Earlier we were talking about Self Portrait as my Aunt with her Father. My sister actually took that photograph, and as we mentioned my father posed at my side wearing a tuxedo, so everything's been really amazing actually. I tried to explain to them what I was looking for in the family photos, but I don't think they could really visualize what I was doing until I started doing it, which I feel is common for anybody. My entire family has been immensely supportive of this project.
In general, people usually react like, wow, I've never really thought about this from that social perspective. When non-queer people say they can relate to it personally, it warms my heart because then I can bond with them over that in a way I maybe wasn’t able to before. It’s refreshing. That’s something I love about making art.
Seikaly: Is there a visual timeframe you work within? Do you look at family photos that predate your grandmother’s wedding photo? What temporal constraints do you observe, if any?
Larsen: I haven't necessarily. The oldest photograph I have used so far just happens to be my grandmother's photo. When I looked through family photographs, I did find one of my great grandmother, but older images weren’t working as well. So, I haven't really used them yet. I'm still exploring that. I'm also still thinking about using family photos from outside of my personal family archive.
Seikaly: Yes! What draws you to that?
Larsen: It goes back to what we were talking about, the cliché vision of the family photo. Because everyone has those photos. I’ve considered asking friends for their family photos and I’m thinking about going to antique stores to look for other source images, old family photos or albums. I haven't done this yet because I would have to do enough of them so it wouldn't feel out of place within the series. But it's something that's been in the back of my mind.
Seikaly: That’s fascinating. Because in that context, it's not strictly about you and your family. You are taking on the larger question of queer identity and representation in the expanded photographic field. If you expand it outward, you would be entering into visual dialogues that do not touch your immediate biological family at all. But from that wider community perspective, “family” takes on a different meaning and includes friends.
If you extend that idea, family could include people you’ve never met, but that you somehow inhabit in these staged photographic scenes. Also, it activates a whole series of tangential and unanswerable questions about why images or entire albums are discarded. That’s always enticing.
I saw the image Self Portrait as My Mother as a Cheerleader in a slide sequence before we met for the portfolio review. I’m wondering how many times that was shot before you settled on that image?
Larsen: My friend kept throwing the ball and hitting me in the leg, because they were afraid of hurting me. I just stopped, looked at them and said, I love you. Hit me in the face. I think I was hit in the face, like, four times.
Seikaly: What stood out about that image initially and then our discussion is how it (and the source photograph) make it into the family album, but not for its aesthetic value. It’s not perfectly framed, you as the subject aren’t looking your best. But somehow, the image enters the family archive. I get the impression that in these source images, you’re looking for not just rites of passage, but the meat and bones of life. I don’t love the word “normalcy,” but it comes close to what you’re trying to capture: life’s beautiful, mundane, boring moments that are unique but not exclusive to cis or hetero lives. In that frame, it’s all the more immediate and relatable.
Larsen: I want these scenes to read as performative acts. Like, it's not necessarily about the final image. It is, and it isn’t. But with the football, for example, I want it to feel and read like I’m experiencing the actual moment as how I would experience it according to my queer identity. That image is a nod to the pressure I was under as a teenager to partake in more masculine sports such as basketball or football, as the ball is throwing itself at me in a way.
Seikaly: I'm glad that you mentioned performance. When you insert yourself into these restaged historical photographic moments, are you representing yourself as a gender non-binary person, or do you take on the role of your mother-sister-grandmother? Is it a combination of people? How would you describe that?
Larsen: I'm actually still struggling to answer that for myself. I think it’s a combination of identities. Many of the restaged photos feature my mother. I'm paying a lot of attention to how she dressed, smiled, and presented herself when she was younger. I feel like I'm getting closer to my family members in a way that I hadn't really considered or anticipated. It's strange to me because all these family members whose photos I’m recreating are still living. I feel like I'm connecting to them in a different way.
Seikaly: Is it important to you that the people whom you are representing or substituting yourself for are still alive?
Larsen: No. What’s important to me is that they are comfortable with it, or that they are part of it. I feel like I’m making a portrait with them. In Self Portrait as My Grandfather, I’m wearing a full face of makeup, a military flight suit, and holding a gun close to my face nearly licking it. In the original photo, he's just acting tough and holding the gun. I was worried he would be offended by my reinterpretation. But when they went to my thesis show, they all were really taken aback by the whole project in a positive way, so that made me feel really good. I do want their approval. I don't want this to be disrespectful in any way towards them.
Seikaly: If, in a hypothetical situation, someone in your family wasn’t comfortable with you recreating an image in which they appear, would you censor yourself? Where do you draw that line creatively and personally?
Larsen: I'm not sure because I haven't come to that yet. But, the first thing that comes to mind, I would probably go to them and talk to them about why they're uncomfortable, rather than just right away removing the image. I also want to have all the people posing alongside me be people in my life I’m close with, and some people have said no.
Seikaly: I’m glad you mentioned that. How do you go about getting someone’s permission? Is that important to secure before you restage a photo?
Larsen: Each one varies, depending on how I get ahold of the original family photo. My Aunt was present when I found her wedding photo with her father, so she knew I was considering recreating it. I haven't been asking ahead of time for others, but have asked after it’s done. I’ll show them and talk with them about it, or surprise them if I already know they’re comfortable. My mother didn’t see all of the images I used of her at first, but that’s because I was talking with her about it on the phone and knew she was comfortable.
Seikaly: Would you ever exhibit or present your restaged photographs in a family album?
Larsen: I had considered that, as I'm kind of rewriting my family history in a way. For my thesis installation, I organized it like a living room that included a photo album holding images from disposable cameras. I wanted to create more of a backstory for some of the images. Such as with Self Portrait as my Mother at my Father’s Military Ball, I included photos of the mansion where the ball was held and the marble staircase where couples are photographed kissing or tying a tie, all to build the contextualizing performative narrative. I also included a small tube television with a home video I made showing more of the story to some of the scenarios. My goal was to make it all feel as real as possible, even though I hadn’t actually lived through these scenarios.
Seikaly: You were recognized at the 2019 Society for Photographic Education national conference with a Student Award for Innovations in Imaging for Rites, which is your BFA thesis project at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Do you see graduate school in your future, and if so, carrying this project forward?
Larsen: Yes, I am graduating this May from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and I plan to continue this project after then. I would like to go to graduate school in the next few years, and I’m not sure I would still be working on Rites at that time. The project will continue, and I view it as an in progress endeavor. It’ll be exciting to see what it evolves into, but everything else is up in the air right now.
Vaughan Larsen’s Rites is on view at New Orleans’ Myth Gallery through June 8.