MEN DON’T PROTECT YOU ANYMORE.
Adrien Leavitt doesn’t have to read the words aloud to draw attention to the phrase tattooed on the side of a naked back. The photograph it appers in is tightly cropped on that one part of the body, brightly, almost radiantly lit. In its close-up detail, it reveals an intimate topography of skin. It feels vulnerable, defiant, proud.
“This photo is one of my new favorites,” Leavitt says, smiling. He’s standing near the freshly painted white walls of Vermillion Gallery on Capitol Hill, where ladders and light fixtures are being shuffled and adjusted in preparation for the opening of his solo show Queer Feelings. “I love the tattoo, but look at the skin and all its details. It’s almost like a landscape.”
The photo is part of Leavitt’s ongoing photo series of the same title—an exploration of queer bodies, intimacy and agency through various states of undress and a spectrum of body types and gender identities. Leavitt has always loved classic nude photography; less so the way it typically represents bodies in contemporary media, sexualized and driven by stereotyped standards of beauty.
Leavitt didn’t see his own identity—queer, trans—reflected in the medium, so he turned the camera on himself and began taking self-portraits. Since then, Leavitt’s experiments with photography branched out to explore other bodies and identities, including aquaintances and friends, people from his immediate circle. These images eventually spilled over into a queer photo zine (Number 1 Must Have) that Leavitt co-authored as a way to document a gender-nonconforming community in the city.
In the years making the series Queer Feelings, Leavitt’s approach hasn’t changed much. Though he’s open to photographing anyone who contacts him to be included in the series, he centers traditionally marginalized and underrepresented subjects in his work.
“It’s a great experience photographing someone you know really well, but also someone you just met. By choosing to do this with me, they bring some level of intimacy that we create together.”
With such interactions driving the project, Leavitt isn’t interested in turning a profit with the images; he just wants the project to pay for itself to keep the series going and publish books. His second volume of portraits is coming out after the summer.
“There’s a history of white artists profiting off of bodies of people of color, black and brown people,” Leavitt says. “I’ve been inspired by other photographers who are trying to get away from that model where you take someone’s picture, and as a photographer you own it and get to take all of the money. To me it’s different: We share this. This is ours.”
After nearly three years working on the series, Leavitt plans to expand on it by traveling along the West Coast to include an ever-expanding group of subjects. The show at Vermillion includes only a fraction of the entire series, a cross-section of portraits in honor of Pride.
“It’s a big deal Vermillion is doing this,” Leavitt says. “It’s not often I see the places on the Hill make that commitment to queer communities and spaces. Those spaces exist less and less.”
When I probe Leavitt to go on, he sighs. Twice.
“I don’t know,” he finally says. “Capitol Hill has really changed. By which I mean a sense of safety for trans and queer people has changed, through gentrification of trans and queer neighborhoods and black and brown neighborhoods. It changed when Trump was elected.”
Positioning these images in the heart of this high-traffic, quickly shifting neighborhood is a deliberate attempt at reclaiming community.
“I hope people see themselves reflected in the work and in the individuals,” Leavitt says. “That it feels empowering, positive and vulnerable. That it allows people to feel like they and their body and their identity have power and beauty. You know, my father—a lovely, supportive person—asked me once who my zine was for. And what I told him then still is true for Queer Feelings today. It’s for us. While it’s wonderful that other people enjoy it, I hope that queer people are looking at it. It’s not showing something so people can understand us. It’s showing something so that we can see ourselves.”
Queer Feelings opens tonight at Vermillion and runs through July 8. Photos courtesy of the artist
Also don’t miss these events at the Queer Art Walk on Capitol Hill tonight:
In our Space at the Factory. Printmaker Jessica Marie Mercy brings visibility to queer spaces to examine “the physical, emotional, and spiritual spaces we thrive in.” Thursday, June 8 from 6 pm to 11 pm.
Garden of Faggy Delights at Calypte Gallery. Andrew Lamb Schultz paints/prints tableaux of utopic queer daydreams—a brief reprieve from the way things are. Includes collaborations with Schultz’ partner Marcus Wilson. Thursday, June 8 from 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm.
Mom’s Museum: A Queer Life in Retrospect at InArtsNW. Mark “Mom” Finley’s new show Someone Get Me a Chainsaw! features stories and funny songs and a chance to see the one-night exhibit Mom’s Museum: a Queer life in Retrospect. Thursday, June 8 from 6 pm to 10 pm.