French photographer Frédéric Nauczyciel arrived on an artist’s grant in Baltimore in 2011 eager to point his lens at the culture that inspired the gay stick-up character “Omar” from the famed HBO series “The Wire.” Instead, he stumbled across queer ballroom voguers performing in a parking lot during Baltimore Pride, and decided he had found his muse.
“I was very curious because it was nothing like [what] I thought I knew about voguing,” Nauczyciel said in an email to The Baltimore Sun. Since then, on repeat visits to the city, Nauczyciel, 45, has developed a rapport with the dancers, and in the process created a collection of portraits that capture them in their natural element — the gritty backyards and streets of Baltimore.
“I convinced them to show their flamboyant beauty and fierceness in the middle of the city that made them who they are,” Nauczyciel said.
Other images were captured in the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center in Mount Vernon, which lent Nauczyciel space to work, he said.
The portraits — which along with video, performance components and other photographs taken in Nauczyciel’s native Paris make up a collection titled “The Fire Flies [Baltimore / Paris]” — are now on display through May 18 at the Julie Meneret Contemporary Art gallery in New York City.
Ballroom voguing evolved out of queer black and Latino communities in New York in the 1960s, according to the gallery, “morphing over time due to diverse influences from house, jazz, martial arts, ballet, and break dancing, as well as the dramatic, angular poses of models in Vogue magazine.” The dance form and niche culture have seen some mainstream attention — in Madonna’s song “Vogue” and the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning,” for example –- but remain on the fringes of society.
The Baltimore-based portion of Nauczyciel’s collection is called “It’s all about Omar,” in a nod to the HBO character who Nauczyciel said he sees glimpses of in all the voguers he worked with in Baltimore.
The “Fire Flies” name of the full collection is also based on how Nauczyciel sees the dancers, as a “poetical metaphor of the flamboyance of their fast and furious performance” when the Baltimore dancers compete in ballroom battles, he said. “They burn fast. They change the city they live in by their secret existence. It is very paradoxical. A gray area of understanding that makes the world real,” he said.
Nauczyciel said he wanted to show the particular Baltimore reality of performers he has worked closely with for years, like Dale Blackheart and Marquis Revlon. “I wanted to gather all those layers in photographs that would look like academic portraits,” he said.
The gallery is holding six live performances of voguers from Paris and Baltimore — including Baltimore’s Blackheart. There are 6 and 10 p.m. performances on May 3, 4 and 5, though the 6 p.m. performances on May 3 and 4 are full. Space is limited, and those who would like to attend are asked to RSVP, with the names of the intended guests and the date and time of the show they intend to see, to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “RSVP Nauczyciel’s performances” in the subject line.–Kevin Rector
You can check out Nauczyciel’s website here: http://seeyoutomorrow.free.fr/