Where does a drag performer end and their persona begin?
That’s one of the questions Toronto photographer Blake Morrow is asking with his new photo series. The photos show kings and queens both in and out of drag, and are digitally altered to make it look like they’re interacting with one another.
Morrow is a big fan of drag shows, he told HuffPost Canada, and an avid “Drag Race” viewer. (The series’ title, “Love Yourself,” comes from something RuPaul says at the end of every episode: “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”)
“I enjoy the format of the show, how it shows you both the drag entertainer and the person behind the drag entertainer,” Morrow said.
“I really wanted to focus on taking a drag performer and showcasing their personality, not just their stage character they’ve made up, but the person behind that character,” he said.
The photo concepts largely came from his perception of the various performers’ drag personas, and incorporated a lot of their feedback, Morrow said. He suggested an ’80s movie theatre scene to Selena Vyle, for instance, who immediately responded with pop culture prompts of her own: the giant ponytails in Janet Jackson’s video for “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”
In photographing Tynomi Banks, Morrow was inspired by portraits of power couples like Brad Pitt and Angelia Jolie or Barack and Michelle Obama.
“He’s just such a handsome guy, so I imagined that to look like a Vanity Fair or a Vogue shoot — you know, very just sexy and serious,” he said.
For Hillary Yaas (say it fast and it sounds like “hilarious”), Morrow drew on her kitschy, slapstick humour to create a “Honeymooners”-esque odd couple. “It just made sense to put her back in a time where everything was so elevated and so theatrical,” he said.
The series also includes a drag king, Hugh Mann Trash. The performer identifies as transmasculine non-binary, but performs in male drag. They were excited to play up exaggerated gender norms a James Bond-esque scene, Morrow said, because they felt they had spent 20 years in drag as a woman.
The collection also includes two portraits of “Canada’s Drag Race” winner Priyanka. The Indian wedding photo includes her finale look. And the Aladdin and Jasmine shot was Priyanka’s idea, Morrow said — the nod to a classic kids movie was a good way to bring together the YTV audience who knew her as Mark Suki together with fans of her drag persona.
Morrow will continue to work with drag royalty Priyanka: his next project, throughout the month of October, is called 30 Days of Pri. And he hopes to add more entries to the “Love Yourself” collection, he said.
He hopes what people take away from the project is an understanding of how complex these performers are.
“People who might see this, who don’t know someone who does drag or has never seen a drag show, will see that this is a fully-fledged person,” he said.
“I’m also kind of hoping that it’s subliminally taking things further in terms of gender, and treating treating different people in our lives equally.”