The subject of Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s new book Relationship is a love story, told by two people in the process of changing their genders, Drucker from male to female and Ernst from female to male. The images debuted in the Whitney Biennial a few years ago, just as trans people were becoming increasingly visible in mainstream culture—the book, out this week from Prestel, collects the images the couple made along with their writing and bits and pieces of their time together—birthday cards, notes and photo booth portraits. Writes Maggie Nelson in an essay in the book, “Drucker and Ernst say that when they were together, they at times found themselves wondering whether there had ever been a relationship like theirs before. It felt that new, that without precedent or company.” The photographs are a record of two people in the process of inventing themselves, and they tell a story that is still groundbreaking—today, Drucker and Ernst are co-producers on the acclaimed Amazon TV show Transparent.
The photos are an intimate record of the six years the couple spent together (they broke up in 2014, the same year as the Whitney show). Shot in the funky Silver Lake house they shared, and in a range of bedrooms, bathrooms and backyards as they traveled and visited family and friends, the photos range from carefully staged portraits to apparently casual snapshots. In some images, the physical transformation of their bodies’ is the focus—matching band-aides cover the couples’ matching hormone injection sites, and pictures document the second puberty the hormones cause. But more often, the images explore the ways that gender is intimately performed through gesture, gaze and posture, through wardrobe and accessories, and through action. Ernst, pictured from the back, performs pitch-perfect masculinity using only the angle of his hat, and his poolside beer and cigarettes.
The pictures’ mix of youth, lust and outlaw glamor brings to mind Nan Goldin’s world, with perhaps a bit less self-destructive behavior. Like Goldin, Drucker and Ernst are making art out of their own lives (although they originally intended the series to be private—curator Stuart Comer, looking at their video collaborations convinced them to let the Whitney include the photos in the Biennial). Writes Nelson, “The photos derive power from being treated as a new installment in the history of visual diary and poetic documentary, a tradition in which, as Goldin put it, the pictures ‘come out of relationships, not observation.'”
Capturing an Elegant Performance of Grief and Strength
Picture Story: Breaking Free of a Gender Box (For PDN Subscribers only; login required).