Oakland photographer Meg Allen’s portrait project BUTCH celebrates people who remind us that the term “female masculinity” is not an oxymoron. The series highlights those whose identities exist outside of the gender binary — specifically, butch lesbians. Allen began the series last spring and currently has 39 portraits on view at Cafe Gabriela (988 Broadway, Oakland). Her goal is to publish her first monograph when she has 117 portraits — the same number that appeared in Annie Leibovitz’s 1999 monograph Women.
“The biggest thing was that I just wanted to see people that look like me,” Allen said at the show’s opening. Allen herself sported a haircut with shaved sides, a white T-shirt, baggy jeans, and a confident, cool demeanor. She pointed out that despite the proliferation of image-sharing platforms, the butch aesthetic is still grossly underrepresented. Many people have unrealistic preconceptions of what lesbians look like, and Allen wanted to change that by exploring contemporary butch style in the East Bay.
One of the first questions she asked was whether the words “butch” and “lesbian” were even relevant. Allen said she hopes her photography will help to update the way those labels are interpreted by documenting the queer community’s continuously evolving state. “[‘Lesbian’] represents something that’s not stylish, and activist-y, and it’s totally uncool, and so I just wanted to review all of that,” she said. “What does it look like now? Almost like a rebrand.”
While many of Allen’s portraits feature subjects who are laughing or smiling, the most striking are the ones whose subjects are looking seriously at the camera. Their gaze creates a sense of intimacy, and yet it denies vulnerability through an unflinching conviction of character. Many of the subjects are sitting among their personal belongings, or in environments where they feel comfortable. Allen admitted that many of her subjects — most of whom are her personal friends — were initially reluctant to be photographed, noting that butch lesbians have a long history of being oppressed. But she let them choose their outfits and shoot locations, which helped enable them to relax.
Allen, who has lived in Oakland for decades, is part of a tight-knit community whose members ultimately support her goal of representing them to a broader audience. “That’s been the biggest validation, is people who aren’t even our community, like straight people, they see the shots and they stare at them,” said Allen. “And that’s what I wanted. I wanted them to be seen. I wanted to translate to people who don’t normally look at them, how beautiful they are.”
BUTCH runs through May 30. 510-763-2233 or Facebook.com/MegAllenStudio