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Features / May 5, 2016

When a Private Trans Archive Becomes Public Art

The Casa Susanna photographs once belonged only to a small, private community. Now, they are public art. What are the ethical consequences?
An image from the Casa Susanna archive displayed at St. Patrick subway station in Toronto as part of the Contact Photography Festival. An image from the Casa Susanna archive displayed at St. Patrick subway station in Toronto as part of the Contact Photography Festival.

St. Patrick subway station in Toronto can be an alternately jittery and sleep-inducing place on most weekday mornings.

As a southbound train pulls into the station, some commuters dozily nod their heads, clutching backpacks and briefcases to their chests as if they were grown-up versions of ragged teddy bears and soft, satin-edged blankies.

Other riders, as the train slows, group close and caffeinated at the exits, jiggling their heels with anticipation; as soon as the doors slide open, a few bolt for the escalators, while others take the stairs two a time, speeding off to wherever their phones tell them they need to be next, or need to have been five minutes ago.

This month, there are some occupants of St. Patrick station who project a different manner altogether—one that is by turns festive and regal, sophisticated and silly, tentative and vulnerable. Some stare out from billboards on the southbound platform, while others pose coyly in poster-frames along the escalator— frames that typically house advertisements for breakfast sandwiches and coffee-ordering apps and one-month-free streaming-service specials.

These new residents of St. Patrick station are better known, to some, as the guests of Casa Susanna and Chevalier d’Eon—1950s and 60s resorts that were co-owned by a person who historians have identified as a “masculine-to-feminine cross-dresser,” and who provided a safe and welcoming place for others with the same interests.

“The photographs from Casa Susanna are significant early visual expressions of a group of cross-dressers (only some of whom later identified as trans), who were able to find each other and used photography to not only express their desired identity, but also to foster a community,” says Art Gallery of Ontario photography curator Sophie Hackett in an email. “Made at a moment when the individuals in question risked much by even attending the resort and documenting themselves ‘en femme’, the joy and playfulness in these photographs in undeniable. It seemed important to include that…in the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, as a public project.”

Indeed, a sense of joy and playfulness is palpable in some of the photographs, particularly in a small snapshot that has been blown up wall-sized on the southbound platform.

And the power of these images may also be pondered by some other people travelling the streets of Toronto these days, as Casa Susanna images are also now being used as promotional posters for the Contact Photography Festival.

But what are the ethical consequences of taking an image that was intentionally, and originally, private, and then making it extremely public decades later?

From a Cardboard Box to the World

The manner in which the Casa Susanna photographs first came to light is worth reviewing. In many ways, it’s a story not unlike that of so many other found-photography collections (like that of Vivian Maier), but with its own distinct ethical issues.

As the Toronto Star reports, “in 2003, collectors Robert Swope and Michel Hurst found a box of photo albums and loose snapshots…in a cardboard box at a New York City flea market.”

Swope and Hurst, already active in the fields of art and design, were struck by the images and organized to publish a book of the photographs. Casa Susanna was published by Powerhouse Books in 2005 and reissued again soon after, becoming, as the New York Times put it, “an instant sensation, predictably, in the worlds of fashion and design… Paul Smith stores sold it, as did the SoHo design store and gallery Moss, which made a Christmas diorama of a hundred copies.” The book even turned up “in the hands of a child-size mannequin in the Marc Jacobs store on Bleecker Street.”

“It was only after the book’s publication that Mr. Swope and Mr. Hurst began to learn the story of Casa Susanna,” the New York Times notes, with the duo aided by academics expert in trans histories.

It was also only after the photographs gained public notice that Swope, Hurst and others became aware of the steps Casa Susanna’s community took to keep the images private in their own era—Andrea Susan (aka Jack Malick), now credited with taking many of the photographs, recalls that darkroom equipment was purchased so that he could develop the negatives and prints without the risk of taking the images to a commercial photo shop.

Around 2014, there was another noticeable flurry of public attention around the Casa Susanna photographs. Harvey Fierstein debuted Casa Valentina, a Tony-nominated play based on the Casa Susanna story and photographs, on Broadway in April 2014. In June 2014, that Broadway show closed, and 25 of the photographs came to Toronto to be part of “Fan the Flames” and “What it Means to be Seen,” WorldPride exhibitions also organized by Sophie Hackett. And also in 2014, the first season of Transparent developed a plotline centred around a resort much like Casa Susanna.

In October 2014, the complete collection of some 300 Casa Susanna photographs were auctioned off in Chicago. And shortly after, the Art Gallery of Ontario announced the addition of the photographs to its collection through a purchase made possible by the generosity of local philanthropist Martha LA McCain.

Over more than a decade of public distribution, the Casa Susanna photographs—or at least some of them—have become easily viewable on Google, with the complete collection still reproduced on the website of Wright, the auction house which handled their 2014 sale.

Yet is the fact that these images—like so many other “found” photographs—have effectively become public property erase the thorny issues around their continued use? Critics say no.

The Argument for Photography as a Form of Trans Empowerment

Toronto Transit Commission users aren’t the only ones seeing more of Casa Susanna’s guests this month.

In addition to curating the public-art display at St. Patrick Station, AGO photography curator Hackett has included Casa Susanna photographs in the exhibition “Outsiders: American Photography and Film 1950s–1980s,” on at the Art Gallery of Ontario until May 29.

And Contact as a festival is using Casa Susanna photographs as its main promotional images, putting them front and centre on festival posters, catalogue covers, and advertisements.

In part, Contact’s choice to use the Casa Susanna pictures prominently in its promotional material “was a very conscious decision to try and help raise visibility for queer and trans people at the present time. We felt that that was an important contribution to make,” says Contact artistic director Bonnie Rubenstein.

Experts note that photography has been a crucial medium in trans, queer and cross-dressing communities for decades.

“Photography has been incredibly important to the trans community for a very long time,” says UK-based critic and journalist Juliet Jacques. “I think for a lot of people, further back in time, they were only able to be the people they wanted to be at certain times, and often behind closed doors. Photography gave people an audience, even if that audience would only be themselves, and it gave them a tangible record of the person they wanted to be.”

Photography has also said what words couldn’t, Jacques argues.

“There have been, I think, a lot of issues around gender variance and gender identity that are hard to express in written and spoken language,” says Jacques, noting that this is particularly so in English, in which gendered pronouns are so rigid and binary.

But, Jacques explains, “you could be something else in a photograph, [and] you wouldn’t necessarily have to put labels on it. I think it’s a medium lots of trans and gender variant people have used to express themselves.”

“Found” Photographs and the Issue of Consent

But even while there may be many positives to using the Casa Susanna photographs to celebrate trans lives, some observers are also concerned about issues around consent and disclosure.

“I think we have to come back to this idea that there’s a tradition in photography, and certainly in journalism and media-making, of being a bit laissez-faire with informed consent, especially around privacy,” says Montreal artist, writer and therapist Kai Cheng Thom. “And I have no training in curation—but to me, as an artist, and working on the ground, as they say, there’s a cowboy kind of attitude in this the idea that sharing of information is [always] good… and that everything is fair game, and visibility that is always a good thing. That is not always true.”

As “a trans person living in contemporary times,” Thom says, “I think we have to ask, What was the consent of those persons involved in the creation [of these photographs]?”

Such observations are not only at odds with traditional practices in photo collecting and curation (which have featured once-private family photographs in public collections and exhibitions for decades); they also run against the grain of the Instagram-happy tendencies of our contemporary moment.

“We have a right to keep things private in our lives as private citizens,” Thom explains. “We are allowed to have things of our own that do not belong to the public.”

Using an emotionally based “ethics of care” moral principle, Thom says, “there is an ‘ick factor’ when I project myself into the shoes of one of the people in those photographs. I might think, you know, that I might not have consented or realized that my image might be used in that way—to become part of a politicized discussion around trans bodies, or bodies that would be understood as trans today. I might feel that my own secrecy or privacy might have been violated.”

Indeed, research around Casa Susanna indicates that some of its guests have felt irritated in the past at their images being used for contemporary purposes.

As the New York Times reported in 2006, one of the Casa Susanna visitors, Virginia Prince, “became known as the founder of the transgender movement, and wrote copiously on the subject for science and sex research journals and conferences, irritating more than a few Casa Susanna graduates, who aren’t comfortable with the politicizing of their issues, or the strict categories she created.”

That same Times story noted that one of the former Casa Susanna visitors it connected with did not want to be identified, while others did.

How Should Curators Mitigate Privacy Issues?

AGO curator Sophie Hackett brings no small degree of expertise and research to the task of exhibiting the Casa Susanna photographs. She has convened other exhibitions on queer visibility that include family photographs, and says “I am always aware that snapshots like these reflect someone’s life and strive to be sensitive to that.”

One way Hackett attempted to bring sensitivity to this particular exhibition of Casa Susanna photographs was convening an advisory council that met three times as the exhibition was being prepared. This included writer and filmmaker Chase Joynt, Judy Virago and Elspeth Brown, a University of Toronto professor in history, who has been working with similar material at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

As a result of that process, the AGO exhibition of Casa Susanna photographs includes a wall text by Joynt that expresses some of his ambivalence about the display.

“While perusing the photos in the Casa Susanna collection, I am reminded again of the precarious politics of looking,” Joynt writes. “What does it mean for guests of Casa Susanna to be creating photographic images of, for and by themselves, versus gallery publics being offered similar intimate access? The social and political landscape for trans and gender non-confirming people is shifting rapidly in North America, but protections and context are still necessary. How might we protect peoples’ desired anonymity, even historically? And what is the context of this private – now public – archive, in a moment of productively shifting social and political change?”

Hackett and her team also interviewed Michael Gilbert (aka Miqqi Alicia Gilbert) a professor at York University and a life-long cross-dresser, about the photographs, and included a video of this interview in the “Outsiders” exhibition.

Another important decision, Hackett says, was to research guidelines for trans historians and archivists, and to take up recommendations by scholars like Ms. Bob Davis, who has advised that in cross-dressing contexts such as the ones in the Casa Susanna photographs, an individual’s femme name be used, rather than trying to expose or track down their possible male identities.

Last but not least, there is some ancillary programming—a May 11 panel with artist Zackary Drucker, Michael Gilbert, and Elspeth Brown considers the Casa Susanna photos, the relationship of image making to the formation of queer, trans and cross-dressing communities from the 1950s to today.

Given all this mitigating effort, and the possible gains, Hackett feels the privacy risks are worth it.

“In dealing with identities that were once hidden because they were socially unacceptable, there is a balance to be struck between respecting the privacy participants felt they needed at the time (and in many cases certainly did need, for their own safety) and acknowledging that as society changes, the visibility of these hidden identities and communities is both a sign and an instrument of that change,” Hackett states via email.

Joynt seems to feel similarly.

“The inclusion of the Casa Susanna collection at the AGO reflects rapidly growing attention paid to trans and gender non-conforming communities in North America, and indicates the presence of new tensions in and for the mainstream,” Joynt states in an email. “In May 2014, transgender artist and activist Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of TIME magazine underneath the headline ‘The Transgender Tipping Point.’ Reporting in August 2015, the New York Times confirmed that increased visibility has not resulted in decreased rates of violence experienced by transgender people. For a “tipping point” to be reached, violence against trans people must begin to wane and end, and at the time of this writing, those numbers are only increasing. I wonder if the public presentation of the Casa Susanna collection can assist in facilitating some of these necessary and often ignored social and political connections.”

The Gap Between Historical and Contemporary, Image and Reality

While Thom was glad to see that efforts were made to consult with trans people in the organizing of the Casa Susanna exhibition, they also note that that doesn’t completely solve the issue.

“There is a difference between consulting a contemporary transgender person—particularly one who is out, or a media-maker and comfortable with one’s trans identity as a public identity—there is a big difference between that and thinking about about the ethics of informed consent for people living in the time the photograph was taken,” says Thom. “The context was just so different.”

“I could see a real attempt at political sensitivity around marginalization” when looking at the Casa Susanna exhibition website, Thom says. “But the fact is … it’s a possibility that no one asked [all] those people [for their consent]. And if they are dead, then they were certainly not asked.”

The exhibition’s curatorial measures also can’t address the wider problem of having one archive of (it seems mostly) middle-class white people stand in for a very diverse community.

“There are questions [here] too about representations of diversity in the trans community—issues around race and class,” says Juliet Jacques. Jacques says it is more worthwhile trying to present a comprehensive archive “than just releasing anything that can be discovered.”

“The community is very diverse, and there are so many different gender identities,” Jacques argues. “You tend to find that mainstream representations tend to focus on white middle-class transwomen, which is very much the demographic that I fall into. So I think that is something to consider when curating larger archives.”

Is There a Way Forward?

Back at St. Patrick subway station, the trains are still running, and the ladies of Casa Susanna are still standing, sitting, smiling, laughing, thinking, frozen in time in the picture plane, available to our public gazes.

In reflecting on this situation, Joynt wonders if the tensions between public and private at the AGO, reflect, in a way, tensions from the era in which the photographs were made as well.

“At the height of Casa Susanna’s hosting, the house matriarch – and house photographer – Susanna Valenti also authored essays for Transvestia, a zine published in the 1960 to 80s that connected trans, cross-dressing and gender non-conforming communities. Transvestia was responsible for publishing early photos from the Susanna collection, providing a way to link those who might be interested in joining the community. These private encounters and public presentations were happening simultaneously. I find that similar tensions are foregrounded and revealed in the AGO exhibition,” Joynt writes.

“The cover of theorist Michael Warner’s book Public and Counterpublics showcases a picture from the Casa Susanna collection, now re-visited in the AGO’s exhibition,” Joynt continues. “For scholars of the public sphere, counterpublics must always remain in conversation, and therefore in contact, with the larger public, and Warner’s choice signals a knowing crossing of these boundaries. Similarly, the Casa Susanna collection at the AGO becomes an example of image-based counterpublic discourse about gender non-conforming subjects that strategically collides with the artistic industrial mainstream.”

Hackett, for her part, emphasizes that, in her view, bringing the Casa Susanna photographs into the public eye has been a vital part of the process of learning about its guests and trans history.

“Bringing these photographs into broader public view [over the past decade] allows us to learn more about Casa Susanna and the lives of the cross-dressers involved,” Hackett says. “This is an ongoing research project and what we learn may also affect how we choose how we display the photographs in the future.”

And, provided that the gallery is open to removing any photos that its subjects wish to be keep private, Juliet Jacques is hopeful that these types of exhibitions might counter the perception some people—both queer and non-queer—have about trans identities and gender variance being a “new” thing.

“I think many people aren’t aware that trans has been around for more than 100 years—and that cross-dressing and the impulse to challenge gender boundaries has been around a lot longer than that,” Jacques says. “There is a long-term history here, and a lot of these identities have not just emerged with the Internet.”

“Some say we are at a trans tipping point…. But actually there is a very, very long history behind it.”

Ultimately, however, many questions still remain about the ethics of using these images without consent—particularly in a public space such as St. Patrick Station.

“There is a key distinction to be made here between images in public as advertisements for art institutions, and images in public as tools for activating discourse. The gallery space remains a hyper-controlled environment, which often dictates how and when people interact with work,” Joynt writes. “What can we make of the new freedoms and interactive instabilities offered by public space, and how might we, as a collective and/or curatorial team, be accountable to the potential consequences of these interventions?”

The Casa Susanna installation will remain at St. Patrick subway station until the end of the Contact Photography Festival on May 31.

This article was corrected on May 5, 2016. The original identified philanthropist Martha LA McCain as Margaret.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via