As legendary New York drag queen and Downtown drag documentarian Linda Simpson writes in her debut photographic publication Pages, describing her friend and subject of the book, the provocative transgender performer Page, “I first laid eyes on Page in the spring of 1990, when my friend Tabboo! rented a video of the documentary What Sex Am I? We squealed with delight at this incredible, mysterious creature, with a platinum blond flattop and cat-eye sunglasses, hopping around the dancefloor of a ‘she-male’ nightclub. She was space-alien beautiful, like a white Grace Jones.”
Meeting Page in person a few months later, Simpson and Page became fast friends, cavorting around the height of the New York drag scene in the 1990s, which she captured in her gorgeous and informal point-and-shoot photographs.
Like Simpson and Tabboo!, we too are squealing with delight, flipping through page after page of Simpson’s photographs of the outlandishly, subversively and tackily dressed Page.
Just a side note, we were also squealing when we first heard about Pages after receiving an invitation to the book release party at…wait for it…The Cock. Let me repeat that: book release at The Cock. Wheeew kweens…what a fantastic idea: go-go boys and literature!
Now, where was I? Oh yes, in the middle of some overenthusiastic gushing…
Originating from her recent slideshow/performance The Drag Explosion, which we naturally covered in its beginning stages at Dixon Place, Pages follows Page from the dressing room of The Pyramid Club to Simpson’s 13th Street apartment to the Central Park Zoo, wearing a striking shade of sea-green lipstick.
Whether decked out in cat-eye sunglasses or completely naked in colorful body paint, Page, born Page Potter Reynolds from Vermont, cuts a fantastically beautiful if terrifying figure. Page’s bold sense of style pervades Simpson’s photographs, a mix between vintage kitsch and otherworldly futuristic.
Highlighting her transgender identity through her fashionable clothes or lack of them, Pages reveals Page’s unwavering, in-your-face attitude about her gender identity and performance in an early period of gender nonconformity. As Simpson remembers, “Back then our drag lingo was pretty blunt, nobody used the term ‘transgender.’ Page was considered a pre-op–a transsexual who hadn’t yet got The Operation (a.k.a. the chop).”
Not only was Page’s everyday gender performance radical and revolutionary, her performances also transcended the boundaries of gender and even good taste, a line-crossing we, here at Filthy Dreams, adore over pretty much everything else. Testing the limits of her audience, Simpson recalls a performance, which resembles one of my favorite moments in John Waters’ film Desperate Living and the wild acts of transgender burlesque terrorist Rose Wood at The Box.
“For one memorable performance,” Simpson explains, “she pulled out a butcher knife and hacked off her strap-on dildo. Lots of gasps, lots of laughs. Her cult following loved it.”
I’ll admit that I also gasped, laughed and heartily applauded just reading that description. Imagine being there in person–I might start speaking in tongues!
Not only do Simpson’s photographs document Page’s aesthetics and performances, but they also depict a significant and creatively inspirational friendship between two queer performers in an unfortunately short-lived but essential period in New York City’s drag history. Meeting when Simpson was hosting the Channel 69 party at The Pyramid Club, Page and Simpson’s friendship lasted through the height of drag in the 1990s with the mainstream emergence of queens like RuPaul, as well as the club kids performing their own K-hole version of drag.
Sadly, Simpson’s photographs begin to wane during the late 1990s and early 2000s as the two drifted apart due to Page’s addictions and self-destruction. The last photograph in the book is dated 2001, a year before Page’s passing in July 2002.
Reaching the end of the publication, the space left by Page, as well as the entire 1990s NYC queer scene, is palpable. As New York becomes more gentrified and as the vibrantly colored, outrageously costumed heyday of the club kids disappears, we seem to only get more nostalgic for these bygone days of New York underground history. While many find nostalgia to be a limiting perspective, I think nostalgia can certainly be useful in aiding the discovering and remembering of individuals who provide an important link to the contemporary queer scene today.
In Susan Sontag’s iconic publication On Photography, Sontag discusses the role of photography as a tool for nostalgia and remembrance, as well as a record of mortality. As Sontag states, “It is a nostalgic time right now and photographs actively promote nostalgia. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art” (11).
By focusing on one individual performer, Pages undoubtedly presents an elegiac record of Page’s life from her performances to her friendships to her quiet backstage moments. Looking through Pages, Page’s absence in today’s queer scene cannot be ignored. For those who knew her, they mourn the loss of a friend and fantastic performer and for those, like me, who did not, we mourn not being able to see her jarring performances.
As Simpson observes at the end of her essay, “As I assembled my photos, memories came flooding back of how I had looked to lovely Page for excitement and mystique and a brand-new style of journeying through life. Our world was all a stage for her transgressive ways. Then when there were no more photos to look for, it hit me—she’s gone forever. And I cried and cried. It’s difficult paying tribute to a dead friend.”
Continuing in On Photography, Sontag explains, “All photographs are memento moi. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (11). Capturing a slice of time that can never be repeated again but can be grasped through photography, “A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence” (12).
Even though this all sounds like a sad ending to this review (blame Sontag, that downer), Pages is a not-to-be-missed celebratory tribute to this transgressive figure who may hopefully find her place in the history of transgender performance and art through Simpson’s photographs.
While most photographic books often attempt to portray the ultimate history of a particular scene, subculture or historical period, Pages exceeds these narratives by asserting the importance of one figure and her undeniable mark on the history of transgender performance. Like Sontag’s discussion of presence, Page comes alive in these photographs, as do her performances and aesthetics.
Similar to our unbridled excitement for Participant Inc.’s Greer Lankton retrospective (only 11 more months to go!), Page emerges through Pages as an essential if overlooked link in the genealogy of transgender performers, artists and individuals.
Pages is available at selected bookstores and online here