The Paris based photographer currently hosts a brand new exhibition at the Kunsthal Rotterdam and has also released a wildly successful book documenting her time photographing the Harlem ballroom scene of the 80s and 90s. This year, Chantal Regnault looks back in love at a community who changed her life.
For those unfamiliar with the legacy that is Harlem’s ballroom scene let us debrief. Since the 1920s, these balls were nocturnal spaces for the non-conforming queer community to flourish as a heterosexual society set out to diminish them. New York City was the centre of this underground culture and several documentaries such as The Queen (1968) – available on Netflix – give viewers a glimpse into this underground world of drag. Interestingly The Queen portrays mostly white drag queens and presents an iconic glimpse of African-American queen Crystal Labeija. Labeija essentially calls out the colourism present within the queer scene of 1960s New York with her iconic line “I have a RIGHT to show my color, darling!”
Over twenty years later, after the reigning influences of Disco, Donna Summer and Diana Ross another documentary arises showcasing the underground Harlem ball scene of 1989. This time, Queens of colour are the focus making up 90% of the cast. The documentary is a reference point for most of what mainstream society recognises as queer culture today from the birth of Vogue dancing to Realness Catwalk Categories and the importance of Black and Latinx cultural influences within the queer community. It was Harlem drag queens Crystal LaBeija and Lottie, in 1972, who recognised that the drag queen balls and pageants were no longer satisfying nor appreciating them as Black and/or Latinx queens, and so they divested from the drag balls to create “houses”: kinship networks founded not on blood but on relational aspects of their identity.
As a result, Black and Latinx people created their own world which has now come to light via shows like Pose. The shift from the 60s to the 80s placed more classical “cross-dressing” in feather-boas and pearl necklaces as secondary. What took its place – alongside the economic boom of the 80s and 90s – was ‘realness’, as in the ability to pass for business executives and wealthy women in the most passable way possible.
Despite being a cisgendered hetersexual woman, Chantal was assimilated into queer New York City culture and came across the ballroom scene in an article in The Village Voice, a famous New York-based gay magazine. The more commercial gay clubs were shutting down due to the widespread AIDS crisis of the 80s and early 90s and this left the underground ballroom scene as one of the only places for the queer community to turn to during the era.
Instinctively taking her camera to the first ball she attended, Chantal found herself with tonnes of eager ballroom participants wanting their picture taken by her. Always considerate, Chantal shined a light on the stories of these queer individuals without ever Othering the experience and this is reflected in the authenticity of her portraits.
Her book Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York City 1989-92, hosts Chantal’s work with legendary figures and sits the character of the “femme queen” centre stage. “Femme queen” was a category for the balls which denoted transgender women of the houses who could seemingly “pass” as cisgender. While attitudes towards this have changed within the culture – as in all transgender women should be considered women regardless of how “passable” they are – it was the unfortunate reality of the time and arguably still is today where 45% of LGBTQ reported hate murders being trans women.
By the 90s, Chantal was no longer a spectator with a camera. She was the ballroom community’s honorary photographer-in-residence, a friend, and a loyal asset. The photography had become a way to reaffirm an etched out ballroom fantasy: that each member was a grandiose, modelesque, and wealthy uptown woman.
It is easy, especially from a non queer perspective, to look onto the glamourous world of 80s and 90s ballroom which nostaglia and a craving for glamour whether through documentaries lile Paris is Burning, shows like Pose or the lens of Chantal. However, it is crucial, and Chantal reminds fans of this, not to look back on it with rose-tinted glasses. The glamour was a way of coping with extreme marginalisation and the ongoing pain of not being accepted within society. Modern day queer icon and star of Pose Billie Porter reminds that “it’s easy to be who you are when who you are is popular”. Chantal’s portraits shine a light on those courageous enough to be who they are in a time where tolerance, let alone acceptance, was not a privilege given to them.