In the late 19th century an eccentric named Eadweard Muybridge became world-famous for photographing animals and human beings in motion. Arguably his greatest discovery was proving when horses were at full gallop, there were moments when all four legs were off the ground.
The capturing of fluid movement in a series of snapshots -“ Muybridge’s thousands of images taken within fractions of a second of each other -“ helped scientists better understand our bodies and subsequently ourselves.
But what happens when the human bodies in view are fluid even when stationary?
It’s a question that’s at the heart of a new book of photographic portraits by Rebecca Swan, appropriately titled Assume Nothing. It’s both a warning and an instruction, as Swan’s subjects include transgender and intersex people, as well as fa’afafine and gender illusionists.
The book is firstly inspiring, with images accompanied by the subjects’ own words. Many of the 25 subjects are also familiar faces, and include Norrie May-Welby, Carmen, Georgina Beyer, even New York drag king Dred Gerestant.
Dred writes: I am a woman who likes to describe my selves as many things. Some of those things are multi-spirited, gender-illusioning, Haitian-American, fluid, anti-oppression, self-expressed, ancestor-supported, Goddess, and blessed.
Australian drag queen Mark is quoted saying: People get so afraid of difference that they forget to see the same; that we’re all human beings. Humour cuts across that.
The book is also an intelligent blend of content and form, as Swan is not content with capturing biological evidence of difference with a cool anthropological edge. Bodies are captured in blurred motion, individuals are posed in a variety of dragged genders, and in the case of Swan’s most recognisable image Collision (1997), two forms are pasted together in a startling pan-gendered collage.
Theorist Roland Barthes, who didn’t think photography could be art, suggested the photograph itself was always invisible, and that it is only the subject matter that we remember. The referent adheres, he wrote.
The referent sticks in Assume Nothing, although the photography also brings into beautiful sharp relief genders that may, paradoxically, remain sublimely out of focus.
Assume Nothing by Rebecca Swan is available through the Bookshop Darlinghurst, Ariel Bookshop and through Wakefield Press for $69.95. For more information visit www.wakefieldpress.com.au.