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BEST OF 2013, Leland Bobbe
New York, NY
Project: Portrait series of drag queens showing two aspects of their identities in front on headshots, created in-camera.

© Leland Bobbé

© Leland Bobbé

Leland Bobbé met his first subject for “Half Drag” at a photo industry party. Through the power of hair and makeup, his tightly cropped portraits depict a transformation from male to female in a single frame — simultaneously questioning ideas about gender and gender fluidity.

“I got great feedback on the first image, so I decided to reach out to other drag queens using Facebook as a means of communication,” Bobbé explains. “The series went viral and has since received accolades from the LGBT community, mainstream news and arts and culture publications and has been embraced globally by people of all sexual orientations.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Leland Bobbé: Since 1980.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

LB: Since 1984.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

LB: Portraits and fine art.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

LB: My eye.

ASMP: What is unique about your approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

LB: I’m often told that my photos are emotional in their content. I really try to direct my subjects to deal with the camera in a very real and direct way that reveals something about who they are, while reflecting my own aesthetic sensibilities.

ASMP: Your Half-Drag project started with a single subject whom you met at a photo industry party. How did meeting this subject spark your idea for this project?

LB: I had previously shot a half-male/half-female portrait of a male burlesque performer. After I met the drag queen, I decided to take this a step further based on my original portrait.

ASMP: To whom did you show that first image, and what was the feedback that encouraged you to turn this into a full-blown project?

LB: The image was posted to Facebook and the feedback was so strong that I decided to pursue this as a project.

ASMP: Please compare and contrast Half-Drag with your previous Neo-Burlesque series. What, if any, influence did Neo-Burlesque have on your interest in producing the Half-Drag series? Did that earlier project help you with conceptualizing or producing this new series?

LB: The projects were actually pretty similar, in that in both we were photographing a sub-set of the New York City nightlife scene often looked at by mainstream society as somewhat taboo. I remember one of the burlesque performers I photographed said that she learned how to become a burlesque performer by going to drag shows. Producing the two series was also similar, in that I was faced with finding and approaching a whole group of people within a tightly knit community and gaining their trust.

ASMP: You reached out to other drag queens on Face book. What methods did you use to identify and reach out to individual subjects on this platform? How did you present the project?

LB: I identified people I wanted to shoot by looking at tagged photos and sending friend requests and messages to those contacts I was interested in shooting. I simply presented the project as shooting tight beauty portraits of drag queens as half-male and half female and referred potential subjects to the first shot that was already posted to Facebook. Once they saw the quality of that image, it was an easy sell.

ASMP: In addition to Facebook, did you use other methods to find interested subjects, either through social media or other means? What role did referrals play in this process?

LB: I primarily used Facebook, and referrals played a huge part in finding people. Once the images went viral I started to have people contacting me directly.

ASMP: How did potential subjects react initially to your idea? How many people did you approach and how many subjects did you eventually photograph?

LB: Potential subjects loved the idea. It gave them an opportunity to reveal both sides of themselves in one image. I probably approached about 75 to 80 queens and photographed about 65.

ASMP: What criteria did you use to select your subjects? How important a consideration was how subjects looked both in drag and without makeup to your selection process?

LB: The main criterion I used was whether I liked their style as a drag queen. It didn’t matter to me what they looked like as a male. I always met with subjects before we scheduled a shoot and looked at their drag photos on Facebook. Since I had seen most of these guys only in drag before we met, it was always fun to see the difference upon first meeting them as themselves.

ASMP: How many of your subjects regularly perform in drag? Was that an important consideration for you?

LB: Many of the queens were performers and many just go out to the clubs in drag. This was not important to me at all.

ASMP: Where did you photograph your subjects? What equipment did you use?

LB: I photographed all of them at my studio in New York City. I used Profoto lighting equipment and a Nikon D700 with a 70-300 zoom, usually set to about 250mm. My lighting was very simple. I used one head in a beauty dish with a grid on a boom stand directly over the subject, with a reflector just below the shoulders. Although the backgrounds look dark gray, the paper is actually white. The grid in the beauty dish allowed me to control and feather light on the background so that the paper would go gray by exposing for the subject.

ASMP: Did you work with a dedicated hair and makeup person on these shoots or did the drag queens style themselves? If the former, who was the make up artist and what kind of discussion or interaction did they have with each subject?

LB: Each subject did their own makeup and hair. They all have their own personal style and I wanted that to be reflected in the portraits. Many of them work in the beauty industry doing makeup and hair and they were all very good at preparing themselves.

ASMP: Were there any particular challenges to transforming only half of the subjects’ faces? If so, please describe. How long, on average, did it take for each transformation?

LB: The main challenge was making sure the makeup line between the two sides was straight and once on set keeping all of the female hair just on the female side. Many of these wigs were huge and this was probably the hardest part.

Prep time was different for each subject, usually between one and a half to three hours.

ASMP: Did you work with assistants or other crewmembers on these shoots? Were there any issues of privacy for the subjects during the shoots?

LB: No assistants. The only person present besides the subject was my wife Robin, who helped on set to deal with the endless stray female hairs on the male side and also with opinions on styling.

ASMP: What, if any, discussion did you have with your subjects about their female personae?

LB: One thing I learned is that most queens regard their female personae as a separate character and they often referred to “her” by her drag name only, similar to an actor playing a character.

ASMP: Please talk about why you decided to photograph these portraits as split gender images rather than before and after shots?

LB: I tend to like to do things organically and I saw no reason to shoot two different images. It really never occurred to me not to shoot it as a single image.

ASMP: How long did it take you to photograph all the subjects? How did you know when you had enough images?

LB: I worked on this project for about a year, gradually tapering off during the last few months. I knew I had enough when I started to feel that shooting new photos wasn’t really adding anything new to the project.

ASMP: Please tell us a little about your post-production process and the timeline in which you edited these images.

LB: Since at times I was shooting two to three queens in a week, I tried to get to the editing and post-production as soon as possible. Once captured, I downloaded my images into my computer and edited in Bridge. Once I selected my favorite image, I processed the RAW file in Bridge and began my Photoshop work. I did very little retouching to the male side, maybe just removed skin blemishes. I cleaned up and selectively softened the skin on the female side except for the eyes and lips using masking. I selectively sharpened the female eye and the female sides of the lips, using the high pass filter and masking. I also sharpened the female hair.

ASMP: These images went viral about six months after you began the series. Had you been sharing the images online as they were edited? If so, where did you post them?

LB: I started by posting the images to my blog and posting the blog posts to Facebook. I didn’t put them on my Web site until I had about 25 images, which took about six months. For some reason once they were on my Web site they started to go viral, first appearing on sites in Brazil.

ASMP: To what do you attribute the spread of the images to thousands of Web sites in more than 30 countries, including Vogue Italia, Huffington Post, ABC News, and many other outlets?

LB: I think just the fact that people had never seen images like this before. The images seemed to really fascinate and amaze people. I think being able to see the same person in one shot as a male and female brought out a lot of things in a lot of people. As Vogue Italia said “not male, not female, not biological. Bobbé’s men are colours, they’re flashes of light, reflections. They’re pure thought and emotion.”

ASMP: Is there one particular media outlet that generated the largest response? What methods have you used to track the response of this work?

LB: It’s really hard to say which media outlet elicited the biggest response. I can say that within a two-week period it came out in the Huffington Post, ABC News and Vogue Italia. I do know that it got more than 30,000 Facebook likes related to my appearance on the Huffington Post, where I was the first guest on Huffington Post Live to discuss the project.

I use Google Analytics to track visits to my Web site. Before this project went viral I was getting about 450 visitors per week to my site. At the height of the viral madness my site received up to 40,000 visitors per week. In addition to the United States, the most hits to my Web site were from Germany, where the project appeared everywhere. German TV filmed and interviewed me in New York doing a Half-Drag shoot. I also received countless personal e-mails from people all over the world telling me how much they loved the project and, in many cases, saying how much it meant to them on a personal level.

ASMP: How did you react when you became aware that your images had attained such a broad audience? What were your subjects’ reactions?

LB: Personally, I never expected anything like this. It really proved to me the power of the Internet. My subjects were so happy and pleased that it went viral and got such a positive response. I think it gave many of them a real sense of satisfaction and validation.

ASMP: You are selling unsigned and signed prints from your Web site. What is your fulfillment model? Are you printing images yourself or outsourcing the printing and fulfillment?

LB: I have a sales site through Zenfolio that’s linked to my Web site. Here I am selling unsigned “poster prints” that I designed myself. These are all printed and shipped through Zenfolio and their lab partners. I’m also selling signed prints directly at a much higher price point. Depending on the size, I either print them myself or have digital lambda prints made that I oversee. I handle all fulfillments on this model.

ASMP: You recently signed on with a literary agent and are preparing a book proposal. At what point, and why, did you decide to pursue a book for your Half-Drag series? How did you find this agent with and how is the publisher search progressing?

LB: Throughout the project I had people asking me if I was going to do a book with this. At one of my openings I met someone who gave me the name of a literary agent here in New York, whom he thought might be interested. We met and she very enthusiastically took on the project. We recently sent out proposals to publishers and are waiting for responses. My agent is certain we will get a deal.

ASMP: Where has Half-Drag been exhibited? To what channels do you post information about upcoming exhibitions and presentations of this work?

LB: I’ve had exhibits in Germany, Dubai and Tokyo, and in St. Louis and Nyack, New York in the U.S. In 2014, I have exhibits scheduled in Paris, Tokyo and Provincetown. I’m still trying to crack the New York galleries, which are a whole different animal.

ASMP: Is the series complete, or do you think you might want or need to add more images for the book?

LB: As far as I know this series is complete. If I do get a publisher that asks for something more or different I’ll do that.

ASMP: Are all of the subjects from the New York area drag community? If so, do you have any plans to continue this project in other areas, either nationally or internationally?

LB: All of my subjects are either from the New York Drag community or come here to perform. As of now, I have no plans to continue this project nationally or internationally.

ASMP: Have you stayed in touch with your subjects? Did you gift them with prints as valuable consideration for their time in sitting, or have they purchased prints of their portrait?

LB: I’ve stayed in touch with some subjects, and others, not. I gave each subject a digital fie of their selected image. A few have asked me for hi-res files to make larger prints, which I’ve provided.

ASMP: Did you ask all subjects to sign a model release and, if so, have you or are you planning to license any of the images commercially?

LB: Yes, all of the subjects signed a release, which I put together myself from other releases and had reviewed by a lawyer. This releases specifies art-related purposes only. If I were to use any of these images commercially, I would require a different release and some financial compensation to the subject.

ASMP: You mentioned that Half-Drag has been embraced by the LGBT community as well as “people of all sexual orientations.” Was this a response that you anticipated?

LB: I really didn’t anticipate anything. As a matter of fact, after about two months of shooting these I wondered if anyone besides me would even care about the images. The response took me totally by surprise.

ASMP: On your Web site, you talk about the “tell” — “a crack in the fa├žade that allows us to delve more deeply into the psychology and inner workings” of your subjects. Is this approach evident in your commercial images as well as your personal projects?

LB: Yes, I take the same approach to my subjects in both my personal projects and commercial images. After a while it all becomes one in the same, and from that a personal style emerges. In the process of asking my subjects to reveal who they are, I need to reveal myself as well. It’s not a one-way street.

ASMP: What’s next for you? Is there any particular subject matter that interests you most for a new project?

LB: I’m trying to figure that out right now.