Remsen Wolff, was an American photographer (1940-1998) whose imagery portrayed the sensual and beautiful part of his subjects, the creative element being the focus matter itself; transgenders, drag queens and transvestites. The Foam Museum in Amsterdam has revealed these photographic portraits in an exhibition titled Amsterdam Girls. There are over fifty photographs that showcase his fascination with this mysterious and marvellous community.
Today people are still fighting for self-expression and self-acceptance while being oppressed by their peers and by governments. There is still a long way to go hence making queer photography is such a relevant theme. Transgender and non-binary people are likely more visible in mass media today than ever before in history. As any visual art form, photography exploits vulnerabilities of the human visual perception and can make viewers experience emotions that are perhaps not felt otherwise. Wolff’s conceivably biased interpretation makes his subject matter interesting and unique. The skill in his photographs speak to his viewers inciting a reaction that would not be too different from those evoked by a painting.
Wolff was a photographer and poet from New York. He originated from a privileged and affluent family. His mother was the celebrated painter Isabel Bishop whose chosen subjects were nudes and urban landscapes. His father Harold Wolff was a neurologist and psychiatrist. Remsen Wolff had been photographing since he was ten but never really made it his work. He was a recluse and had constant struggles with his gender identity. He came out in his 40s, after being married to a wife and having two daughters. It was from this struggle that he decided to devote himself fully to portraying transgenders and drag queens. He even attained a fictitious name, Vivienne Blum. In an attempt to solve his personal conflict of being accepted in society for who he was, he started photographing transvestites and transgenders in Amsterdam and New York in the 1990s.
In choosing to capture the gender expansive and transgender community, Wolff accepted the challenge of using a static visual medium, photography. Each image at the Foam Museum portrays the transition and a glimpse into what Wolff visualised; complete humbleness on part of the subject matter. This facilitated his discovery and love of photography and art. His series covers themes that are still relevant today and have finally been discussed more publicly, such as the representation of the LGBT and transgender community, exploring issues of identity gender and sexuality.
Wolff’s photography is honest and thoughtful, one can see how much time and effort goes into each portrait. They evoke the classical iconography of High Renaissance Art with their elegant posing and baroque like sensibilities. Humanity and fragility are seized within the frames. His photos are like paintings with portraits of people, alone or with other people. Wolff in his own way recorded the individualism of the 1990s. In retrospect, one’s first impression of Wolff’s photographic imagery are profound experiences of art. Optimistically Wolff’s photographic legacy will expand and serve as a record of the transgender community in Amsterdam.
Remsen Wolff – Amsterdam Girls is on display at Foam through to 6th December 2020.
All works in the exhibition are on loan from the Remsen Wolff Collection. Courtesy of Jochem Brouwer.