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Exploring The World Of New York's Drag Queens


Greenwich photographer Kit Kittle, an award-winning artist whose studio is in Port Chester, is running a Kickstarter campaign to fund his latest book that would document New York’s cross-dressing subculture in the 1980s.

The book, Drag Queens: Eighties Street Theater, would be a hardcover photo book composed of pictures captured by Kittle in New York City from 1983-1987.

Kittle published his first book, Roughnecks: Oil Patch USA, in 1985. That book was a photographic story about the lives of oilmen and the aggressive pride shown in their masculinity. While shooting images of the roughnecks for his book, Kittle concurrently photographed drag queens to explore the other extreme of masculinity, which he said was an interesting contrast to the oilmen.

“That’s quite an interesting crew, they’re very aggressive in the way they assert their manliness. After roughnecks, it just seemed too obvious to me that the next book would be drag queens, ’cause they are exactly the opposite of roughnecks,” says Kittle.

However, unbeknownst to Kittle, he was also capturing the end of an era. By the end of his shooting in 1987, Kittle said the AIDS epidemic had taken its toll on New York’s drag community and many of the men he had photographed had died.

“There was no way on Earth I was publishing a book like the one I had in mind. There was nothing funny; it was just a very sad time. So I put the pictures in my file cabinet, and didn’t think about them again,” says Kittle.

Recently, while reviewing some of his older work for a show at the ArtNowNY gallery in Chelsea, Kittle and his curator, Mateo Mize, came across the photos. Mize came up with the idea to bring the roughnecks and the drag queens together in one exhibit.

Kittle had forgotten how many pictures of the drag queens he had shot, and felt that he had unfinished business with the photos.

“Its really strong stuff, the drag queens that I was photographing were really amazing people,” Kittle says. “They would manifest a kind of theatricality in the street, right in front of you and it was amazing.” 

Kittle began to again consider the book he had started almost 30 years ago. He got the idea to fund it through Kickstarter from his son, and set up a fund on June 22, which has accumulated over $13,000 to date. Kittle’s goal is to raise $18,500 by July 22.

“There’s an element of historical interest in that time-period in the West Village among guys who were dressed up as women. It was really a unique time for that. I think it’s important for people to remember what it once was like,” says Kittle, on the importance of his project.

Kittle says he believes he has an obligation to both the subjects he photographed and the era of the drag queens. And he  said he hopes his book will help others understand what New York City was like in the 1980s.

“Our attitude towards being a man has changed. And that’s why I think it’s important. It shows you a different world,” Kittle says. “It’s not that long ago and it’s not that far away. It was New York in the 80s, it was a very different place.”

You can check out the project or become a backer on Kittle’s Kickstarter.com page.