Tal Ben Yakir
—American photographer and social activist Remsen Wolff (1940-1998) struggled and experimented with sexuality and gender identity throughout their life. In a time where they /them pronouns were still uncommon and the genderbinary was strictly upheld within mainstream society, Wolff identified with what they themselves called “the third sex”. Gender fluidity, sexual identity and the scene surrounding these topics were very personal to Wolff, and inspired them in their professional work. Now, for the first time ever, Wolff’s intimate photographs of Amsterdam’s transgender scene were on display until December 6th in Fotomuseum Amsterdam (FOAM).
In 1992 Wolff began an ambitious project titled “Special Girls – a Celebration”, wanting to depict transgender people, dragqueens and dragkings from New York and Amsterdam. The Amsterdam photographs were recently featured at FOAM in an exhibit dedicated to Wolff. Over fifty portraits depict both known figures from the Dutch transgender community of that time, such as Vera Springveer, as well as people Wolff met on the streets or in clubs. The photographs range from the seductive and dazzling to the sensitive and vulnerable, yet all of them contain an aspect of intimacy, of confidentiality. Wolff’s personal connection to this world is palpable within the photographs. All of the subjects are depicted in a truly genuine way, each of their personalities clearly present in the photo. You look at a portrait and feel like you’ve met the subject, you’ve sat with them in a room, heard what their laugh sounds like. They are living, breathing people.
As a photographer, there is always a choice to be made in how much of the narrative in a series is decided by the subjects. How much say do they get in how they are depicted, and how much is decided by the photographer? Can they decide how to stand, how to dress? In this series, Wolff did not only pay the models (60 gilden an hour), but also gave them a complete say in how to pose. Wolff would ask them to bring outfits, shoes, props, and ask them how they wanted to be portrayed. The results are exceptional; a real sparkle in the subject’s eyes, a laugh that causes the viewer to mirror it, a confident smirk that cannot be staged.
This is where Wolff’s work truly sets itself apart. A viewer wants to feel some form of connection to a series, and since these are portraits, that means a connection to the people depicted in the photographs. This is especially relevant in a series such as this one, where the subjects in the photographs belong to a marginalised group within society, and in which eccentricity and queerness are the main focus. In these cases, there is a delicate balance between respect and exploitation. The subjects are already misunderstood by society, especially considering the time during which the series was made. An easy way to gain success would have been for Wolff to curate the series as a freakshow— the kind you encounter in carnivals from old Western movies. But this is a cheap tactic; anyone can point a finger and laugh. The photographer’s task here is not to ostracize the subject even further, but to inspire understanding within the audience for something they might not be familiar with.
Wolff executed this task admirably. Due to their personal connection to the topic, they managed to portray the subjects in an authentic and honest way. Wolff’s goal was never to fetishise the exotic, but to create a sense of appreciation for the models. Wolff’s work highlights eccentricity, but in a way that celebrates it, instead of mocking it. By treating their models with such respect, Wolff automatically convinces the viewer of doing the same.
In the 1970’s Amsterdam slowly began to develop a more present transgender scene. The Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam opened the first ever transgender clinic. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s support groups were established and transgender presence grew in the nighlife scene. During the 90’s, for the first time it was made legal to change your gender before the law in the Netherlands. Yet, this does not mean that circumstances were good. Transgender people were still barred from the jobmarket, faced discrimination in the medical world, and had to tackle stigmas from society. The one place they were truly accepted was in the nightlife entertainment scene. In fact, at the time the Special Girls series was made, Wolff did not manage to sell or exhibit the series anywhere; no one was interested.
During the last year of Wolff’s life, they went by the name of Vivianne ‘Viv’ Blum, one of the many aliases she had adopted throughout her life, and referred to herself as “she”. At that time it was discovered she suffered from depression and pancreatic cancer. At the age of 58 she died of a morphine overdose. Her work remained unnoticed, and she left all of it, 200,000 negative prints, to her Dutch assistant, Jochem Brouwer. She left him one task; get this work out there. Show those pictures to the world. Make people see those girls. Through this series, Wolff managed more than to make us see those girls; she made us understand them.