This month, Magnus Hastings, a pioneer in drag photography, presents a remarkable installation of photographs that capture some of the world’s most celebrated drag superstars and asks them the question, “Why Drag?”. Photos represent a wide spectrum of drag ranging from mainstream icons, underground drag royalty and the new breed of reality television stars. Included notables are Bianca Del Rio, Courtney Act, Sharon Needles, Lady Bunny, DWV, Jackie Beat and an introduction by Boy George. The exhibition will take place at New York’s Out Hotel Monday May, 26th through August 31st, during New York City’s Pride month. It will then move on to other North American cities. A coffee table book featuring many of the images from the “Why Drag?” exhibition is also in the works.
“I have been shooting drag queens for the past ten years,” explains Magnus Hastings from his home in Los Angeles. “Drag is the creative love of my life. I view it as both a magical fantasy world and as an art form. In art, you can have a Picasso or a Matisse. You can also have a painting of velvet dogs playing poker. I like to think that my show is presenting a room full of Picassos.”
Hastings describes himself as a child of drag. As a youth, he would raid his mother’s closet and play with old hairpieces and accessories he found. He particularly loved her white ostrich feather fan. He would run up and down the street, naked, wearing only the fan and a pair of his sister’s silver clogs. He also regularly put on shows for his parents, usually opting for the female lead and relegating his sister to the supporting roles.
Then ten years ago, while visiting Sydney, Hastings came across an extraordinary group of drag queens. Among them was Vanity Faire, upon whom Hastings found himself transfixed by. “I thought I had left drag behind in my childhood, but it felt like I found my way home,” he says.
Vanity Faire was the first queen he shot and would become his first muse. His portrait of her dressed as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz is included in the exhibition. The piece is so special to him that its original hangs in his living room.
Magnus Hastings’ love of drag was reignited once again, only this time, instead of dressing in it, he was seizing the pageantry in beautiful photographs. He continued shooting drag personalities, quickly becoming the go-to photographer for drag portraits. The queens appreciated the fun he brought to a shoot, his skill in lighting and his willingness to do just about anything to get the perfect shot.
To capture the image of Courtney Act featured in the Why Drag? exhibition, Hastings photographed her in a filthy dumpster behind her apartment. For the Sharon Needles photo, he flew to New York armed with a straight jacket. He intended to photograph Needles in her hotel room but it was so tiny, they ended up shooting in the hotel lobby instead. “I was panicking that the security would stop me because we were causing a fire hazard. I just clicked like crazy, without checking what the hell I was getting, and then sorted it out afterwards.”
Thinking on his toes is how Hasting’s captures many of his most popular images. “Some see it as chaos but I see it as mixing it up,” he says. “Shooting superb photos is about being able to come up with an idea instantly, trying it, and hoping it works. I did a great shoot with Adore Delano running around the streets of West Hollywood simply grabbing anything that caught my attention as background.
“I find using a tripod very difficult because it makes everything static, which is fine if that’s what you want, but it’s not me. My way makes for some, umm, interesting contact sheets.”
The “Why Drag?” photo exhibition will be the first time Magnus Hastings’ work is on public display in New York. In addition to the portraits, each queen featured answers the question, “Why Drag?”.
It’s a simple enough question, but it’s interesting to see the girls that take it as an honest inquiry and those who view the question as an attack. Some mistake the question to mean, ‘What the fuck are you dressing up for?’
“My intention was to learn what lead them to their love of drag,” explains Hastings. “To uncover what drag means in their life.
Alaska Thunderfuck arguably answers the question best, saying, “Drag is like being a nun or a priest. Once you get the divine calling, you have no choice in the matter and you belong to drag for life.”
Through the process of shooting them, Magnus Hastings has developed his own thoughts on the question. “The queens do it because it’s in their blood. Some enjoy the attention and the infamy, but it is more than that. They are artists and their canvas is their face and body.”
The “Why Drag” photo exhibition takes place at New York’s Out Hotel beginning Monday, May 26th through Tuesday, August 26. For more information, visit http://magnushastingsphotography.com.