The sad news is the passing of photographer Mary Ellen Mark at the age of 75. She had taken JT LeRoy’s portrait to accompany the Tom Waits interview in Vanity Fair magazine, and for a recent exhibition at SF Camerawork, Laura Albert wrote this text to accompany the picture:
“I wrote Sarah and several other works of fiction under the pseudonym JT LeRoy. JT was a persona I created, asbestos gloves for material I couldn't stand to touch. JT was the living expression of that pain. To me, he always wanted a body. It was physical, like contractions in childbirth. But in person, the body had no eyes. Behind the wigs and sunglasses was a stand-in, an avatar, an enactment, a living mask.
“I was 17 years old and living in a group home when I saw Mary Ellen Mark's movie Streetwise with some other teenage girls who were also in exile from their families. When Vanity Fair wanted to photograph JT, I asked that Mary Ellen Mark take the photos. She understands the language of suffering and loss: loss of childhood, loss of a child. I knew she would get JT.”
Chuck Mobley of SF Camerawork has written this recollection of that photograph of JT and of Mary Ellen Mark, “RE: Mary Ellen Mark and Laura Albert”:
In 2009-10 in my role as curator for San Francisco Camerawork, I organized two exhibitions in recognition of the organization’s 35th anniversary (1974-2009). The first was titled “An Autobiography of the San Francisco Bay Area, Part 1: San Francisco Plays Itself.” At the time I was thinking about how the city of San Francisco — and its people — had been portrayed photographically and also about categories in photography and its main themes and subjects; one of which, of course, is portraiture.
Given the timeframe of the exhibition it seemed important to include different kinds of images or “portraits” that were perhaps more conceptual. For example Tseng Kwong Chi’s “self-portraits” in a Mao uniform standing in front of world landmarks (in this case: the Golden Gate Bridge) performing the role of Chinese tourist or Kota Ezawa’s appropriation of the surveillance image of Patty Hearst with a gun in Hibernia Bank performing a bank robbery as “Tania,” the SLA revolutionary. Similarly, Mary Ellen Mark's photograph of JT LeRoy seemed to fit within this realm of “performed identity portraiture” and shine a light on the complicated relationship that photography has to “truth” or “reality.” Many artists have explored issues of identity and representation in their work. Are Tseng Kwong Chi’s photographs “self-portraits” or is he performing for the camera? Did Hearst or “Tania” rob the bank?
I read the photographic rendering of JT as a kind of accidental performance art. I understood the creation of JT as a sometimes essential part of creative practice. How does one find a voice in order to be able to articulate or manifest ideas in the material world? In this case it seemed as if Laura Albert were lucky enough to find a voice, and she not only gave that voice a name but created an identity for it as well. Eventually, as fate would have it, Albert was faced with the choice of giving up the ghost and declaring LeRoy simply a pen name or produce an actual body in the physical world to embody that name. Bizarrely, I found a kind of logic to her creative dilemma that made sense.
At the time there were a lot of moral judgments being made (by educated people who should know better) that were exhausting and simplistic. I saw the conundrum Albert faced as unnecessarily tragic and horrifically hypocritical. Denunciations of being desirous of money and fame from people also desirous of money and fame (show me an artist who isn’t and I’ll show you a corpse) were too easy to dismiss. Whatever money was earned could have very quickly evaporated in one lawsuit (or divorce settlement) and good luck generating income after having lived through a very high profile condemnation by a legion of pious individuals. As for fame, I can only imagine how strange it must have been to stand just outside the spotlight that the physical manifestation of “JT LeRoy” occupied while being feted and celebrated for “his” writing. It seems masochistically voyeuristic or masochistically maternal or both. In either case: not very rewarding. In addition, Albert did not commit any egregious crimes or trespasses. No one was the victim of theft, rape, assault, or murder. The grievances aired seemed petty and obscured a far more fascinating and intellectual stimulating story.
In any event, within the framework of an exhibition, I was able to offer space for Albert’s voice and she enthusiastically accepted. The exhibition was designed to eliminate the middle-man — in this case the curator — and present the voices of the artists and/or subjects of the photographs instead of curatorial didactics on the gallery wall and in the exhibition catalogue. In addition to Albert’s text, Mark also contributed a text that was derived from a phone conversation I had with her. She was lovely and unpretentious. It wasn’t surprising that she also sounded streetwise given both the enormous breadth of her accomplishments and the fact that she was a New Yorker. If anything, she seemed bemused by the JT LeRoy scandal. More important, at a time when many people were clamoring to voice their indignation and outrage, she didn’t pass judgment. Her lack of interest in taking the opportunity to denounce Albert was a clear indication of her admirable character. The following is the text that was published:
“In 2001 I was assigned to shoot JT LeRoy for Vanity Fair. We now know that JT LeRoy was the pen name of author Laura Albert whose public persona was enacted by Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop. The photographs were to accompany a Tom Waits interview of JT in the magazine’s July 2001 issue.
“Over the course of two days in April I photographed JT in Knoop’s house and at various other locations. To me, it was obvious right away that JT was biologically female. She didn’t have an Adam’s apple and she had pretty, beautiful skin. She didn’t look like someone from an impoverished background. She was kind of classy, educated, and smart — not a person who was a victim of real poverty. She was nice and sweet, very cooperative, and incredibly theatrical, so I played along with it.
“I liked the books. They were intriguing. I didn't believe them — they were too grotesque, gothic. I thought it was possible that Knoop wrote them, but I knew it wasn’t really her experience. I was not at all surprised to learn that JT as a boy did not exist.