Tessa Boffin: 1989–1993
May 11–June 17, 2023
Scattered at the entrance to a heavily wooded cemetery, five photographs lay strewn in the brush. They all have something in common: these are historical portraits of known and lesser-known lesbians. One is an image of Gertrude Stein by Cecil Beaton, two more, by Berenice Abbott, show Janet Flanner and Sylvia Beach, and the final pair are self-portraits by Alice Austen. This photograph of photographs—a somewhat haunting scene—serves as the overture to a re-imagining of lesbian history. It is part of “The Knight’s Move” (1990), a fantasy in which the past contains visibly lesbian idols, one of three series by Tessa Boffin (1960–1993) that are currently on view at Hales New York. The largest exhibition of Boffin’s work to date, Tessa Boffin: 1989–1993 is also the first solo presentation of the London-based artist’s work in New York.
“The Knight’s Move” epitomizes Boffin’s photographic practice in both style and aim. Surrealism and fantasy were central to her work, and she most commonly worked in carefully staged fictive sequences. Boffin chose to focus on studio photography when most photographers had abandoned it for the street because she valued the generative potential of fantasy, rather than documentary or realism. An outspoken advocate for lesbian visibility, Boffin saw the opportunity to actualize lesbian identity, both past and present, through imagined scenes. This approach is most clearly elaborated in a book she co-edited with Jean Fraser, Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs (1991). Emphasizing the subversive potential of photography, Boffin and Fraser selected work that acknowledged the conscious forging of lesbian identity within a visual culture that had long denied them representation. Created in response to this dilemma, “The Knight’s Move” considers the construction of identity through icons from an imagined past. Because lesbians have largely been deprived of their history, Boffin took it upon herself to reimagine past representations of queer women. Without reality as an option, fantasy becomes necessary as a form of identity affirmation. Because, as Boffin writes in the text accompanying the photographs of her reimagined Knight, Knave, Angel, Casanova, and Lady-in-Waiting: “If we persist in prioritising [sic] reality—actual historical role models at the expense of fantasy figures—we leave our sense of selves and our imagery wanting, and certain questions unasked.”1 The final photograph of the series revisits the shadowy cemetery, but instead of scattered photographs, the reconceived icons themselves assemble. The Angel, portrayed by Boffin herself, stands at the center with a raised, victorious fist.
One year earlier, Boffin created “Angelic Rebels: Lesbians and Safer Sex” (1989), a series that explicitly addressed the exclusion of lesbians from the discourse on safe sex during the HIV/AIDS crisis. The first photograph in the five-part fantasy sequence shows a crestfallen winged female figure, an echo of Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514). There was a clear reason for her sadness: during the first five years of increased attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, spurred by Lawrence K. Altman’s 1981 New York Times article, women were not seen as a risk group for the virus. Because of this, the mainstream media ignored a scenario in which women could contract HIV/AIDS at all—in fact, the CDC’s definition of AIDS did not include opportunistic infections uniquely affecting women, such as cervical cancer and pelvic inflammatory disease, until 1993. Boffin belonged to a group of female artists and activists who strove to counter this ignorant view, which left women without any resources to educate them on their potential risks. The first two photographs in Angelic Rebels feature headlines on the front pages of two newspapers: “AIDS: Good Samaritan Victim” from the Daily Mail and “Heartsick: Fear and Loving in the Gay Community,” featuring Peter Hujar’s photograph of David Wojnarowicz for the Village Voice. Neither acknowledges the lesbian experience. However, at the angel’s feet are pamphlets and other information circulated by gay and lesbian activist groups and presses. Once she begins to read these materials, a “safer sex angel” wrapped in clingfilm appears, and the angel is liberated from her melancholy through ecstatic fantasy. “Angelic Rebels” again demonstrates Boffin’s commitment to creating alternative worlds through fictive photographic sequences, and this is what ultimately anchors her work as explicitly political. In both Angelic Rebels and The Knight’s Move, Boffin identifies a significant lack of lesbian visibility and not only challenges it, but imagines her own idealized alternative.
The final series on view at Hales was made in 1993, the same year Boffin died, and was commissioned for Positive Lives: The Response to HIV at the Photographers Gallery in London. In America, this was the year that the CDC revised their exclusionary definition of AIDS, and HIV-positive women were at last granted access to benefits such as housing subsidies, Social Security Disability Insurance, and Medicaid. With some progress made, The Sailor and the Showgirl (1993/2023) has a more lighthearted bent. The four-frame photo comic strip features Boffin as a showgirl and her girlfriend at the time, Nerina Ferguson, as a sailor. The pithy narrative promotes safe sex practices, an ongoing concern despite heightened awareness of the epidemic. While perhaps less soulful than the two series it shares the gallery with, The Sailor and the Showgirl better highlights the dynamism and humor of Boffin’s oeuvre.
Having only seen Boffin’s photographs in the pages of books before viewing this exhibition, it was breathtaking to see them in person. The photographs in the exhibition were exquisitely printed this year by Sunil Gupta—a friend and collaborator of Boffin’s—and Charan Singh, who now jointly manage her estate. Walking from one photographic sequence to the next, I found myself contemplating Boffin’s own approach to the real and the imagined, a relationship which, I think, is beautifully summed up by her own words: “Somewhere within this tension, this gap between reality and fantasy, we model ourselves on old tattered photographs and hazy daydreams.”2
- Tessa Boffin and Jean Fraser, eds. Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs (London: Pandora Press, 1991), 50.