A Unifying Split: A review of Leland Bobbé’s latest photographic exhibit

Caroline Ludeman
All photos courtesy of Leland Bobbé

Sitting against a grey background, half a man’s bearded face juxtaposes the unexpected: half a face clad in overdone eyeliner, lip liner, false eyelashes, costume jewelry and topped with voluminous hair. These two halves, upon closer examination, both belong to one man—half his face natural, the other half dragged out.

This depiction recurs throughout award-winning New York photographer Leland Bobbé’s most recent collection “Half-Drag,” which is currently showcasing at the phd (Philip Hitchcock Designs) gallery off of Cherokee Street.

The exhibit wholly consists of portraits split right down the middle—one side depicts a man’s face with no embellishments and the other side shows the same man’s face in full drag. The images have made quite a statement within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community and have already been featured in more than 20 countries and on over 100 websites, blogs and online magazines including Vogue Italia, Huffington Post, ABC News, MSN and The Sundance Channel.

The people photographed in “Half-Drag” are none other than the stars of the New York drag scene, giving viewers a realistic and even vulnerable look into the “men behind the illusion” and the transformation that occurs both on the exterior, aesthetically, and on the interior, emotionally. Rather than splicing two images together, Bobbé’s images are created entirely within one camera shot, no digital processing or editing involved. Through this exhibit, Bobbé offers the viewer a chance to blur the lines between genders and even between preconceived notions of identity.

Bobbé’s inspiration for “Half-Drag” began in the spring of 2011. After completing a series of portraits of neo-burlesque performers, one shot stood out in his mind.

“I saw a shot of one of the male burlesque performers on Facebook dressed as half male and half female, and asked him to come in for a studio portrait of that,” Bobbé explained. “The results were great. I later met a drag queen at a photography industry party and thought it would be great to do a very tight beauty portrait using the same concept.”

He further explained his vision behind “Half-Drag” in an interview with Vogue Italia: “With this series my intention is to capture both the male and the alter-ego female side of these subjects in one image. Through the power of hair and makeup, these men are able to completely transform themselves and find their female side while simultaneously showing their male side. These are composed in camera and are not two separate images joined together.”

Bobbé, originally from New York, has worked as a professional photographer for more than 30 years, and told Student Life he “first picked up a camera because [he] started to see things that [he] wanted to capture.” His work strives to shock its audience, to fearlessly tackle social issues head on and to urge a change in perspective.

Visualizing diverse social issues, his other portrait exhibits have included “The Women of Fifth Avenue,” featuring women with cosmetic surgery who embody society’s pressures for physical alteration, and “Neo-Burlesque,” in which the performers’ creativity and lavishness were put on display in New York’s Museum of Sex.

“A boldness and simplicity runs through my work,” Bobbé states on his website. “In all of my portraits, although the subjects vary greatly, I always direct them in a similar way; which I think reflects my personality. I find that the photos that might make me a bit nervous and uncomfortable to shoot are often my best.”

His influences include photographers such as Steve Pyke and Richard Avedon, and painters like Mark Rothko and Edward Hopper. However, Bobbé often claims in interviews to find more power and motivation in the works of Miles Davis, rock ‘n’ roll and great films, rather than fellow photographers.

“[They] create a state of mind that influences my overall being and makes me the person that I am,” Bobbé said about his inspirational influences outside the photographic sphere. “This in turn influences what and how I choose to photograph.”

Although a number of esteemed networks such as Bravo and The History Channel have commented on Bobbé’s artistic pieces in the past, Bobbé claims his “biggest break” was his “Half-Drag” exhibit. “I’ve been at this for a long time and have had many ups and downs along the way,” he told Student Life. “I have to say that my ‘Half-Drag’ series, because it went viral, has gotten me more recognition than anything else that I’ve done.”

“Half-Drag” will be on display from Oct. 20 through Nov. 24 at the phd gallery, which is open from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.