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Caleb Cole: Alternative Processes & Queer Belonging

We are excited to have Caleb Cole chat with us about their work, and how they use alternative photographic processes to address topics around the LGBTQIA+ experience. Pride Month is about celebrating the queer community, but also to acknowledge the past and present struggles that are still present worldwide. Cole perfectly encapsulates this duality of celebration and activism through their series In Lieu of Flowers, of tragically ongoing anthotype portraits of murdered transpeople. As well as more personal discussions of the queer experience through the use of found imagery, collage, and cyanotype.

Your work In Lieu of Flowers is an ongoing series of anthotype portraits of transpeople murdered due to transphobia, state violence, and neglect in United States and Puerto Rico. You use the anthotype process as a way to create a mournful and powerfully intimate connection to the lives you are depicting, which is really beautifully poignant. Is the process a prominent aspect of this work and how does it fulfil the concept of the work?


Handmade photo is integral to the work. Part of it is about the slowness and ritual nature of anthotypes. I grow the roses myself, tend to them, and then gathering blooms, coating paper, the long exposures—it’s an expansion of time. The process of creating these photographs allows for extended witnessing over the course of the days- to weeks-long exposures and when I move the prints each day to keep them in direct sunlight, I spend time looking into each person’s eyes, connecting with their joy and grieving for their absence. It’s about creating time for mourning, but also time for thinking about who we are to one another, what it means to be in community and what responsibilities come along with belonging.


The other reasons for using anthotypes are explicitly because of the need for the sun and the anthotype’s ephemerality. Each portrait is made from a digital negative of a selfie, a copy of a copy, multiple times removed from these strangers I have never met, but as contact prints the final image is a result of prolonged intimacy between negative and paper, clinging together in the sun as one of them fades away. The sun, the source of life, cannot revive them, but the sunlight that creates each anthotype is the same light that once illuminated each original selfie, connecting us to one another by both light and gesture. There is a stark contrast between the inevitability of the loss of the anthotype, compared with the ultimately preventable and senseless deaths of many transfolk. The use of flowers engages centuries-old traditions of using flowers in burial ceremonies and other rituals honoring the dead, as well as the dual nature of plants as medicine and as poison, as givers or takers of life.


Choosing to memorialize someone is a political act that stakes a claim to their worthiness as a subject of mourning, the implications of their absence from the families and communities that loved them. Those lost to transphobic violence deserve to be remembered, but they also deserved so much more while they were alive.


In Lieu of Flowers


In Blue Boys you print cyanotypes of found images of men from the late 19th to the early 20th century, onto pages from the 1970s gay publication Drummer Magazine. What are the themes connecting these two found depictions of ‘masculinity’, and the process to create this work?


At the time I was making Blue Boys, I was thinking a lot about the ways that time period and environment shape our sense of gender and sexuality. I wondered how men of the past made sense of what it means to be a man, but also how queer people of the past made sense of their own desires and how they found ways to connect with other like-minded folks. I wanted to combine portraits of men from WWII and before with explicitly queer personal ads from the period of time post-Stonewall but pre-AIDS when for a lot of queer men the world felt more open and free (yet the trappings of traditional masculinity still reigned). I was also doing a lot of research about the ways that the military during the two world wars shaped people’s sense of selves as being queer rather than simply engaging in queer actions. One way this happened was through being discharged; queer service men and women were often given blue discharges (which was one of the reasons I used cyanotypes) which labeled them long after their military service was over. I used cyanotypes for all the associations with the color blue (sadness and loneliness, blue discharges, the blue of navy uniforms) as well as the connection to blueprints: the idea of a guide or plan for ways to be a man or to be queer.

Blue Boys


What do you think of a question about how alternative processes can be used to approach and address a broad range of political themes including LGBTIQ+ rights and if they consider them as an expressive and critical enough tool for their practice.


The handmade nature of many processes connects to intimacy and touch, as well as rituals of care and witnessing. The historical nature of many processes also connects us across time, allowing us to reach backward at the same time that we look forward to other possible queer futures. But alternative processes are only processes; it’s what we do with these tools that creates meaning and builds new ways of thinking and being. I’m excited by the variety of processes (often experimental or idiosyncratic, itself a queer way of approaching making) that the artists in this show are using, as well as the stories they are telling with those processes.




Author: Martha Gray

Images by courtesy of the artist.

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