From the discovery of camera obscura to the development of chemical photography, photographic developments have played a significant role in the making of art history—a prism through which light and later, color, document and capture moments of life that reflect society and its changes. Since the scientific formalization of photographic techniques in the early nineteenth century, photography has spanned a wide range of subjects. But in its first hundred years or so, there was one subject that went almost unmentioned: The queer community. Into this history enters Helen Maurene Cooper.
In an effort to offer a better understanding of an oppressed part of society, the artist invited members of the culturally diverse drag (queen and king and hybrid queen) community of Chicago to present themselves as their own imaginary ancestors. Working in a historical technique, the collodion wet-plate process—which involves adding a soluble iodide to a sticky, chemical solution of collodion (cellulose nitrate) that is later poured onto clean glass plates as the first step in the production of negatives—she seeks to create a photographic record to fill that historical gap. Concerned with questions about the lack of visual representation of the LGBTQ community from the nineteenth century, Cooper presents an alternative story about inclusion—a conceptual archeology.
The artist maintains a cross-disciplinary practice that involves research, writing, installation, performance and photography—but it’s the latter she holds especially dear. “Photography holds my attention because in its short history, there have been many technological advancements—each is a mirror of the time of its invention,” she says. “In the Blue Angels series, I use the wet-plate process, which is emblematic of the Victorian era, to suggest a real and imagined history of multiple LGBTQ communities from the nineteenth century.”
The exhibition, featuring a unique body of glass plate images as well as salt prints, provides a deep understanding of the different “invisible” groups and individuals that make up our society—then and now. Cooper, who has been working at the intersection of race, class and gender for years, urges the viewer to contemplate an era long gone, which at the same time, was not so different than ours: Stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination against marginalized social groups are alive and well, and falling into the trap of such attitudes runs the risk of damaging social cohesion, instead of fostering stronger community ties by bringing people closer together.
Photography as a medium cannot claim a proud history of genuinely reflecting the true diversity of the historically marginalized queer community. Cooper cannot change history, but she’s determined not to let the very mistakes of the past keep clouding the future. Standing by the queer community’s continuous fight for change and equality, between severe underrepresentation—inside and outside the art world—and the burning desire for understanding, she channels their voices through her work. More than this, she’s aware that creating a notable collection of photographic documentation to serve as experiences and history is imperative—because so few exist. (Vasia Rigou)
Helen Maurene Cooper’s “Blue Angels” shows through November 3 by appointment at Bert Green Fine Art, 8 South Michigan, suite 620.