Photoshopping Lesbians into the Great Depression, In the Name of Art

Artist Debbie Grossman has created a queer photo project called “My Pie Town” — albeit without taking any of the photos in it. It features Depression-era photographs of American families, photoshopped to include only women. She altered the facial structure of men in some photos to have more stereotypically feminine features, and removed them completely in others. The show will be at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York until May 21, but you can check out the full gallery of images at the above link.

Grossman told The Morning News about the purpose of her project:

“I thought it would be fun to remake the whole town in a way that reflected my own family, and I imagined a Pie Town filled with women. The main reason for doing so was to give us the unusual experience of getting to see a contemporary idea of family (female married couples as parents, for example) as if it were historical. But I am also very interested in using Photoshop to create imaginary or impossible images — this is something I have done in other work as well.”

I first read about the Pie Town project on The Hairpin. The comments on their article started to convince me that maybe this was weird; if maybe editing the historical record of real people in the name of art and representation was an interesting investigation or an overstepping of boundaries. Of course, there’s the ever-present discussion of whether Photoshopping historical photographs is “art” at all (more on that later). Beyond that, retroactively changing someone’s gender identity without their permission seems a little, well, appropriation-y, for lack of a better word.

But the more I look at this stuff, the more I like it. It’s an interesting thesis, using modern technology to make a revisionist version of history that reflects a queer reality. Grossman has won me over, as it turns out.

My first problem with The Hairpin comments is that I am sick and tired of people asking, “Is this art?” That question is more destructive than useful. People have used it for centuries to cut “othered” expression out of the conversation because of gender, race, sexuality, class, whatever. The Western, masculinized conception of the artist as a tortured male who cuts his own ear off has excluded a lot of awesome people. Maybe I have a broader definition than most people, but if someone says a thing is art, then it is. That’s all it takes, one person who finds artistic value in something. That something does not have to be a painting, it does not have to be an example of some well-developed skill, it does not have to be created by some tortured soul. If Carolee Schneeman wants to stand naked in a room full of people and read from a scroll she’s pulling from her vagina and call it art, then it IS.

In my (relatively informed via my undergraduate degree) opinion, Grossman doctoring old photos to reflect a new idea of family is definitely art. She is trying to express a very specific message; she’s addressing a genuine gap in our collective memory, a lack of any kind of record of queer families (which have always existed, regardless of time period). She wants to invoke (and provoke, for some people) a certain feeling in her audience. There was once a time when people did not consider any photography at all to be art because it was a technical process. That is happening all over again with Photoshop, but it’s no different than the collage works that have been part of the Postmodern movement for decades.

And I don’t have much of a problem with her taking old photos and making the people into someone new. We should really be over the sanctity of the photograph at this point, shouldn’t we? If the fashion industry is going to use Photoshop to destroy our notions of normal women, then I don’t have a problem with Grossman using it to highlight a new conception of what family means.

What do you think? Is this an interesting look at a faux queer 1930s, or does this make you feel weird?

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Sarah lives in Chicago with her partner and her big white Great Dane. She is a lawyer by day and a beer brewer/bread baker/knitter by night. She & her partner are currently learning how to grow their own food, and eventually they hope to move to a small farm outside the city. In 2009-2010, before jetting off to law school, Sarah was Autostraddle's Managing Editor.

Sarah has written 130 articles for us.

42 Comments

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    I don’t want to start a pile-on or flame war, but this makes me very uncomfortable on a number of counts (ignoring actual queer history, using photos of real people). I can see where the artist is going with this, and naturally I support her right to keep creating it.

    Am I totally off base?

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      No, you’re totally on base. I had those feelings, and then I didn’t, so I wanna hear what you guys have to say.

      As far as using real photos of people, shouldn’t we be over the sanctity of the photograph at this point? Images get used and reused all the time. And it isn’t like she’s using family photos and doctoring them, these were taken by a documentary photographer from the government. I think that makes it a little less weird.

      And yeah she’s ignoring actual queer history. But that’s kind of her point. She’s trying to imagine what queer history would have been like if homophobia had not been a thing.

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      I’m ambivalent about this, too. On the one hand, I wish there was more queer visibility in historical contexts, so I like seeing these pictures–even though I know they’re altered. I think it’s easy for (straight) people to write off or ignore LGBTQ people when they don’t *see* them in history, including in the canonically American pictures like those taken by WPA photographers. If it gets people’s attention, I think it’s a good thing.

      On the other hand, it also irks me because there ARE actual historical pictures of queer women out there, and I wish we saw more of those. Plus in Grossman’s interview, when she said “imagine an America in which all-female families survived the Great Depression raising children and farming homesteads in the absence of men “?

      THAT HAPPENED. It wasn’t imaginary. There were plenty of female-headed families (especially in working-class women and Black communities), during the Great Depression and throughout American history. My great-grandmother, a single mom, raised my granddad while working as a seamstress and farm laborer. Her sister, whom I never met, lived with a female “companion” (as the family called her) for many years. I wish I had photos from their very real–and historical–lives.

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      I think that as someone who has sold her soul and worked as a professional retoucher for fashion mags before (i was unemployed! i needed the money! it paid so well! i hated it! don’t hate me!) — I loved the project because it did the OPPOSITE of the terrible, terrible things I was told to do by modelling agencies/magazines — as much as we dislike gender binary people DO categorize specific visual features in photographs or on bodies as “more feminine” or “more masculine” and the number of times I was told to “make her eyes bigger” or “narrow her chin” or “get rid of those man hands” or “make her ears smaller and her nose narrower” or “get rid of the armpit hair” — it was fascinating to me to see those disgusting things applied in a way that was challenging and interesting and dialogue-promoting, and also underlines, for me at least, how much of that sort of retouching actually goes into every image we see every day, and to notice how well and seamlessly it can be done… i think i saw it more as a cheeky appropriation of usually detrimental techniques rather than a serious decontextualized revisionist history — either way i was totally fucking into it even though i can see the potential issues mentioned here.

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    Interesting, I can’t work out how to relate to it. I take your point about culture jamming historical media to create a queer past, or at least deconstruct its heteronormativity. And yet, I think about how I’d feel if I saw all the women erased from the picture to depict an all-male depression. Probably irked.

    I think I disagree with your take on the re-use of the photos, though. Sure, the beauty-industrial complex distorts images of bodies all the time – but I don’t think that really means that it’s ok to go out and do it in other instances, either. Hmm, I think it’s less about the integrity of an image, and more about whether doctoring the photos produces something that is valuable and has artistic merit.

    For me the images aren’t all that powerful, though I need to think a little more about why that is.

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    i think art these days is more about what it’s referencing than aesthetics in general, which is why it’s much trickier to attribute ‘artistic merit’ to things nowadays. i don’t think it’s meant to be moving in the sense that it might redeem or liberate. and, looking to be coherent to our times, photoshopping should be viewed as a procedure, much like any other procedures that we are already familiar with and have therefore naturalized as being “acceptable”.

    media in general, specially advertising, removes objects from its context to convey new meanings. i think Debbie Grossman is doing the same thing but taking it to new extremes and also acts as a commentary on this process of resignification.

    exposing it as the truth and exposing it as art is what makes all the difference in the end. i mean, if it’s being produced as art, it is meant to be seen in critical light. it’s not like she is really trying to reinvent history. i think what can be up for debate is if these ‘photos’ stimulate people to reconsider historical trajectories and the history of representation. i’m betting that it can: i totally enjoyed these!

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    Several years back I started purchasing “lesbian interest” vintage photos from eBay – usually collected from estate sales and old photo albums by folks who collect to sell online.

    There are real historic photos of lesbians out there; a few here and there from this era, and more recently. About the stage where people had cameras of their own and access to darkrooms you start to see snapshot photography of gay couples that were personal and not intended for porn. Quite a few more of men than women, but there are some. I have a large collection of vintage photos of female couples kissing.

    More often there were women playing with gender – Halloween parties where women dressed in drag and women’s schools and colleges staging theatrical productions with some of the cast members as men. I’ve collected lots of those too; they’re quite fun. It’s interesting that dressing in drag just by itself isn’t quite the shocking Halloween gag that it once was.

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    On an aesthetic level I like them but I would rather see real images of queer people rather than constructed ones. Knowing that they are photoshopped just makes it feel kind of hollow.
    I love fyeahqueervintage.tumblr.com because it shows old photos that are of queer/queer looking people.

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    Fascinating project.

    The re-gendering of real people is a little troublesome, but I think we have to concede that she’s not assigning a gender to that person so much as imagining a new person who fits in their place.

    Ultimately, that’s a mental process we undergo every time we look at an image of a person we don’t know…we look, and imagine who they are and what they are like. The traits in the image are just a launchpad for our own inventions..

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      in my opinion, there isn’t any regendering of real people since photos are only representations of the “real” person that existed. photography is only an extension of portraiture which is definitely an art. therefore, i would say photographs are art and by this same kinda logic repurposed or photoshopped images are also art.

      it’s about the message. a good chuck of queer history was lost because the mainstream wasn’t saving it and the queers themselves had to hide to exist so they weren’t saving it. this kind of project seems like the kind that is meant to make you reimagine your own place in queer history.

      nothing is being redefined and the canon of history isn’t changing.
      but it is damn interesting.

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    “She altered the facial structure of men in some photos to have more stereotypically feminine features, and removed them completely in others…”

    This makes me pretty uncomfortable in a number of ways, but especially because it seems to be enforcing the binary idea that there are “men’s faces” and there are “women’s faces” and that these categories 1) are distinct/have no overlap 2)span across racial/ethnic/cultural discrepancies and 3)should be used to “determine” the “male-ness” or “female-ness” of the person represented.

    ALSO,
    If she’s photoshopping men out (mostly), does this mean that I can only be a lesbian if I wear male clothes? I thought we were over that a long time ago…

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      YES thanks for bringing up that point about altering men’s faces to make them more “female”, ’cause that DEFINITELY struck me as strange and even a little offensive. Here’s a man’s face, here’s a woman’s face… that’s disturbing.

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    i actually love these altered photographs. i want to hang them up on my walls. but to echo everyone else’s comments, it’s just a little difficult to conceptualize something as literal as a photograph – which is a replica of someone’s very real life in one very real moment.

    i just don’t know how i would feel if someone took a photograph of myself and my wife and altered it so i looked male-gendered.

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    I feel the act of appropriation is completely warranted in this ‘postmodern’ world. I think it allows art to do what it does best, create a limitless world with limitless images. This work speaks to the “what ifs?”

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    Coming in a little late to this discussion as I’ve been hard at work being a photographer by trade. So obviously, I think you can guess what I’m about to say.

    Firstly, I love you Sarah, but I have a big problem with this statement “. We should really be over the sanctity of the photograph at this point, shouldn’t we?” That is basically like saying, aren’t we over the sanctity of a painting or a song or a novel. Its intellectual property so whether we are over it or not, its not right to use something that isn’t yours, ever. Also, these photographs have nothing to do with retouching fashion photos. These are photojournalistic images that serve a specific and important purpose all on their own.

    Secondly, and I hate putting down other people’s expressions, but I think this is cheap, and also too easy. Why not make your own lesbian depression images. THAT I’d like to see. But that would take a lot of work, now wouldn’t it?

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      Oh yay, I was hoping we’d get some input from a real photographer.

      I should clarify my comment about the sanctity of the photograph. I just meant that in an age where Photoshop exists, I think we have less of a knee-jerk reaction against doctoring photos in general. It doesn’t feel as inherently wrong anymore, though it may be different when someone is doing that to photos that aren’t theirs.

      Certainly the point of this project is not about fashion photo touch-ups. But don’t you think there’s an interesting parallel to point out there? People complain that the Photoshopping of images in magazines is hurting women. And here this artist is using the same tricks, adding more stereotypically “feminine” features into a photo, with a completely different aim. She may not have intended that parallel, but I think it’s still interesting.

      Also, I think this stuff definitely falls under the fair use exception for intellectual property. If Jeff Koons can get away with making a collage out of magazine photos, this is probably fine. Obvs I totally agree that intellectual property deserves protection. Still, I think what Grossman did is the kind of thing we don’t want to discourage as a society, regardless of whether she did it well.

      All that said, it does seem a bit easy, you’re right. I wonder how long it even took.

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        I think the difference is fashion photography is purchased with the intent on photoshopping. Never has there ever been a fashion or editorial portrait in the digital age that has not been altered in some way. Men, women, children, dogs..it applies to all images sold for publication for commercial purposes. So when a photographer gives permission by way of legal documents to grant permission to have a photo altered, that is one thing. When someone uses a photograph to document a scene and it is altered to make some sort of political statement, no. I also don’t understand the statement she is making. What exactly does this do, looking at “gay-looking” women in old photographs? Personally, I think it just stereotypes queer women. Photoshop me into one of those images, or Lady Gaga. Its not nearly as interesting.

        It is not that I think repurposing is always a bad thing. But in an age where shock value is more important than making art, it is hard to always recognize a copy.

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        On another note though, obviously art is subjective and I respect all opinions. I just find it tiresome when it is that easy to be called an artist. I very very rarely call myself an artist. I do commercial work, I’m a photographer. I have a gay friend who photoshops his face onto the bodies of female divas and puts them on facebook. Is that art too?

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        These photos were commissioned by the US government. Since the tax payer’s money paid for the commission they are are considered to be in “public domain.” Meaning any American has a right of duplication and copy to these pictures.

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    I have been thinking about this body of work and I think I like it to a good extent. At the risk of becoming too boring and technical I would like to clarify two things first.

    One is the expressed discomfort with modifying historic pictures. We generally follow an intuition that history should be preserved accurately. The answer is that we have to be able to separate the question of appropriation from modification of history. Appropriation in art is a well-settled question. From the 1910’s, the dadaists, the surrealists, and the conceptual artists, as well as numerous new genre artists have used appropriation to make social, and historic commentary, as well as celebrate or criticize other artists. We have to keep in mind that what the artist is doing is not modifying the history, instead making commentary about the history, as we know it. Especially when the images used are some of the most well known in the history of American photography, the question of playing with history is one that a simple Google search resolves. Which brings me to the second point: the issue of an inaccurate portrayal of the queer history in the images. Well, amazingly that is the whole point of the series. Questioning the history. Additionally, and maybe more importantly, recreating the history is actually OK (when done deliberately, and so obviously that there is no question of intention to misguide or deceive). It’s called a work of fiction. We do it all the time. We are OK with “Gone with the Wind,” aren’t we? Isn’t that a form of modification of history in which fictional characters are placed in a historic setting? We tend to hold photography to a higher standard of “truth,” which is quiet old-fashioned. There is no basis for the idea that photographs are supposed to be, or ever are, truthful. Photographers pick a moment of life and present it to us out of context. Critically, nothing out of context is reflective of the truth. We see what we are shown, and no more. The truth of the matter can be, as it has been shown over and over, far from what is portrayed in a photograph, even if the photo is not modified at all. If the artist is not trying to educate us on the historic truth of what queer life looked like during the great depression, we can’t criticize for not being truthful about it. She is not a historian. She is a creative commentator.

    So this is why I like this body of work: I like the commentary. I particularly like the fact that the photoshopping is done so poorly. I don’t believe she actually intended to make the photos very natural. She is playing with a little bit of figurative distortion. I think she is even being tongue in cheek. She might be depicting a wishful-thinking fantasy world in which lesbians are living their lives like normal people and exploring the uneasiness of the idea. There is something odd and awkward in the normalcy of the settings. The commentary might be just that: why does the society find something so normal so strange? Why is replacing a hetero couple with a lesbian couple in a photo taken less than a century ago such an odd idea ? Why is it so alien, so ridiculous, so inaccurate? Why are we so uneasy about something that is really so fine? I think the pictures are sad at one level and goofy at another. They are sad because they hint at a history of injustice and unfairness; and they are goofy because, well, it’s hard to look at them and not go “really?” which is very intentional on her part, IMO.

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    I love this. I think it’s fascinating, from a queer perspective, an artistic perspective, AND as someone who loves alternate realities and science fiction. I want so much to wander through a gallery of these photographs, staring at them avidly and imagining what kind of world these women would belong to (and imagining myself in this world too).

    What a concept. :)

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