Two women posing for a photograph, hands casually intertwined. Two men donning swim trunks and a lei, their arms draped across one another.
These moments, forever immortalized through the snap of a camera, didn't necessarily capture queer life in the early 20th century. In fact, most likely, they did not. But for artist Kris Sanford, these found photos provided a space to carve out a queer visual history where one did not before exist, transforming her own narrative from one of otherness to togetherness.
Sanford came out in the 1990s, and for a long time, felt alone, without any friends or family who also identified as gay. "That left me feeling like the other for a long time," Sanford wrote in an email to Slate.
She considered herself a natural storyteller; in youth she'd constantly conjure imaginary relationships, sometimes based on friends she desired, extracting fictitious assumptions from their gestures and tones. So when Sanford realized the visual history of queerness she longed for did not exist, and neither did the context and community that would accompany it, she resolved to make her own.
Looking through a box of old snapshots Sanford inherited from her grandmother, she found a particular image of two women dressed up as flappers for a party, struck by the fact that something about it seemed so queer. This uncanny image inspired Sanford to search through family albums and other found image troves, searching for that same potential of a spark.
Sanford's "Through the Lens of Desire" became a photography series based on found images from 1920-1950, depicting, in nostalgia-inducing sepia tones, pairs of men and women who, from the look of it, could be in love. In the way a particular way hand rests on a thigh, or two chairs are pushed together so closely the bodies upon them lightly touch, these photos buzz with the electricity of attraction.
Sanford intentionally crops out the faces of her subjects, and frames her snapshots in a retro, circular shape, adding a layer of mystery and universality to the images. Ultimately, whether or not the subjects of these vintage photographs were actually together is, to Sanford, besides the point. "I’m not suggesting that the actual people were gay or lesbian, because in all likelihood they were not," she told Slate. "They become stand-ins as I create an imagined queer history."
The stunning series conjures a remixed history, giving physical form to the desires and romances that surely existed, just kept from view. Meshing categories of past and present, history and imagination, ephemeral and permanent, personal and universal, Sanford creates a dazzling queer history that both does and does not exist.
"Through the Lens of Desire" is on view at Elizabeth Houston Gallery until August 25, 2016.