For four consecutive years (1992-1995), Pierre Dalpé documented Wigstock, capturing the fabulousness of drag and disguise, in all its glorious forms. The period he photographed coincides with the height of Wigstock’s popularity. Wigstock included drag performances on stage, as well as musical acts, but the most exciting spectacle for Pierre was the audience itself. Thousands of people converged upon the site in all manner of cross-dressing and gender-bending outfits. 

Pierre’s images capture an iconic queer zeitgeist which transformed a city. 

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Pierre Dalpé

What first brought you to photography?   

I would have to say my father was my biggest influence, and the person who drew me to photography. From the age of fourteen, I started to take photography seriously. I am the youngest of five siblings, and as we were growing up, my father was always documenting our lives with a still camera as well as an 8mm movie camera. My siblings and I feel lucky that my father did this; so much of our life is preserved on celluloid. My father and mother would take pride in showing our home movies and slide shows to friends and relatives; trips they took together, trips with the family. So, in the same way … I began doing the same in terms of documenting the world around me, and then also putting together slide shows for my friends and family. Like my father, I began to use photography as my way to relate with, understand and interact with the world around me, and this continues to this day. 

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Pierre Dalpé

Photography has become an essential tool for the queer community as a means of self-representation and exploration. Why do you think this is?   

I think it’s the immediacy of photography, especially in this digital, social-media age that we live in. Photography has always been a mirror of the world, a mirror to reflect ourselves and our communities to each other. This mirror aspect was somewhat simpler up until the end of the last century – but since the early 2000’s I would say that this mirror effect has become more of a kaleidoscope – as photography (and video) has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. 

In terms of my personal relationship with photography: I found it easier to come out of the closet to my family, and to society, through photography. Photography can be used as a medium through which to project things that we would like to either hide or reveal. Sometimes it can be easier to create a photo that says “This is what’s happening in my life and in my world, these are my friends and my community, this is the person I am.” A photograph can represent a once-removed level whereby it’s easier to communicate ideas that might sometimes be hard to verbalize. I think this idea can be applied to how the LGBQIA+ community continues to explore and represent itself as well. 

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Pierre Dalpé

While Wigstock is known for its amazing performances on-stage, you turned your attention to the audience. Why is that? 

When I first heard about the festival and took the decision to travel to NYC to document it, I knew that if I spent time down in the audience, pointing my camera at the onstage performers, I would end up getting typical ‘show images’; images whereby I don’t get close to people. Seeing as how I’m more interested in getting close-up portraits, I pretty much knew that this is the approach I wanted to take in terms of photographing and interacting with the people at this event. I love the happenstance of wondering through the crowd and discovering interesting people to photograph. I get an adrenaline rush as I move through the crowd, trying to capture what I consider to be an interesting photograph; hoping for the right light, the right look, the right attitude, the right reciprocity, and for all of these elements to come together to produce the ‘perfect’ photograph. 

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Pierre Dalpé

While you were never in front of the lens in this series, your presence is felt. Being a constant visitor of the festival and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community yourself, each snapshot seems to show a comradery between you and your subject, a trust that you will represent them honestly and meaningfully. Could you speak about your experience at Wigstock and what you remember of the people and moments you caught on camera? 

I think this trusting comradery may come from my demeanour as a photographer; I like to think I’m not pretentious and I’m grateful when people pose for me, and so I think this is sensed by people. I always approach people with a friendly smile, look them in the eyes and ask them if I can take their portrait. Back then cameras were usually manual-focused: so, in the couple of seconds in which I’m focusing, my subjects have time to fall into whatever pose they want to project. In many cases, I will ask if I can take a second (or third) shot. And so, even though this is all happening quite fast, the fact that I’m spending this extra bit of time to get a good shot will often cause the subject to be flattered and feel more comfortable with me – and it encourages them to give me more in terms of poses and attitude, etc. 

At an event like this, people are there to be seen, to be photographed, so on the one hand it can sometimes be ‘easy’ to get a good photo. However, having said that, there is definitely a lot a photographer can bring to the photograph, of course. Although I can be generally shy, the camera breaks down barriers for me, it allows me to lose this sense of shyness, and so I find myself not being afraid to get up close to people; and my use of a wide-angle lens allows me to capture things that are happening in the fringes of the frame, to capture things whereby people are not aware they are in the frame – and I think this adds an extra element to many of the photographs. Often times I myself am only seeing these peripheral things after the fact. 

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Pierre Dalpé

You describe this series as a “time capsule that shines a light on an important time in LGBTQ history”. Can you speak to the importance of creating visual histories and archives of queer history? 

We humans tend to have short memories, so I think it’s important to document our history and community not just for the generation(s) that experienced it, but also for the younger generations. I think it’s the only way that we, as a community, can put all the pieces together and understand the bigger picture of who we are today, and how it is that we got here. 

Who is a big inspiration of yours?   

This question is hard for me to answer since so many people and so many things inspire me. Some early photographic influences for me were photographers such as Brassaï, Lisette Model, André Kertész and Diane Arbus. A more contemporary influence and ongoing inspiration for me is the work of Cindy Sherman; I really admire how she has maintained a consistent trajectory, in terms of dealing with identity, but within her exploration, she continues to reinvent herself and her approach to her subject matter. 

See the Wigstock exhibition here 

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Image detail: Gary Ramage