Illustrating “Photographs as evidence”

18 March 2015

Dr Jana Funke reflects on her experiences discussing sexology and photography with visitors of the Institute of Sexology exhibition in another post. After the event, visitors had the option to have their picture taken by Bret Syfert. Bret turned the shots into gender blurring portraits and now tells us about the process.

Back in January, I attended the “Photographs as evidence” gallery event within the Sexology exhibition at Wellcome Collection. Historian Dr Jana Funke was there presenting late 19th and early 20th century photographs to visitors, and it was my job to produce illustrations which captured both the event itself and the people attending it. The photographs being shown raised questions about gender and identity, and the sessions became a conversation between Jana and the visitors.

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Some of the photographs were of men dressed as women, and I was immediately drawn to their “Victorian Photoshop” techniques, as Jana called them. For example, a man’s waist might be painted out to look narrower, or his foot to have a more feminine shape. Even though the painting is obvious and crude, it is still enough to make the viewer see what’s intended to be seen.

As the talks ended and visitors were leaving, some volunteered to have their portraits taken by me. My idea was to first process the photos to look like the Victorian ones we had been looking at, then I attempted my own Victorian Photoshop technique in order to change the gender of each visitor. To take the technique a bit further I used hair weaves from a local beauty shop as well, scanning them into the computer and placing them on top of the photographs.

The final pieces are meant to look like they are from pages of a Victorian photo album, commemorating the event. Funnily enough, I found the source images for the album on the Wellcome Images website and they are from a 19th century photograph album depicting private and theatrical cross-dressing.

Bret is a freelance illustrator for the Wellcome Trust, specialising in illustration.