CMU Professor uses old photographs to create an imagined history of gay and lesbian relationships

On display at the 10th annual GETXOPHOTO festival in Getxo, Spain

On display at the 10th annual GETXOPHOTO festival in Getxo, Spain

A Central Michigan University Professor has traveled the world exhibiting her art.

Her exhibit Through the Lens of Desire was displayed in New York City and just finished displaying in Getxo, Spain.

The exhibit takes old photographs of people and re-imagines them as photographs of gay and lesbian relationships.

CMU Public Radio’s Ben Thorp sat down with Kris Sanford to talk about her work.

Ben: Talk to me a little bit about ‘Through the Lens of Desire’ and some of the ideas behind it.

Kris: Through the Lens of Desire is a series of photographs and it’s based on appropriated snapshots from the approximately the 1930’s to the 1950’s. I collect old photographs from antique stores, I buy some off of ebay, I’m given photographs by friends. I take those photographs and I crop them and re-contextualize them to imply gay and lesbian relationships between the figures pictured.

The original inspiration for this series years ago was a collection of photographs I got from my grandmother. She used to host these kind of wild looking parties, judging from the pictures, and so there were women dancing together. There’s one photograph where my grandmother is dressed as a flapper and she’s dancing with another women dressed as a flapper and so it was those photographs and looking at those as a young lesbian women that I saw those pictures in a different way than they were probably taken and intended. So that’s where that re-reading of photographs, that’s originally what kind of inspired me to look back at these photographs in a different way.

Ben: Talk to me about the focus of some of those photographs. It seems like sometimes a head is cropped out, the focus will be on a hand, why?

Kris: I crop out the identities of the people because I’m not making suggestions of the actual people in those photographs. What I’m trying to do is to create an imagined visual history for gay and lesbian couples. Because a history, a visual history, barely existed at that time period. So a gay and lesbian couple of the 1950’s would not have been photographed in an open loving way. Kris-Sanford_CMU-News (1)

So one example might be I have this class picture from, I can’t remember the year, but there is about 30 people in the photograph and there are two girls in the front holding hands. They are the only two people in the picture who are touching. So there is something about that sweet gesture. So I’ve cropped in so that all you see are these two hands and they are sitting next to each other in these folding chairs. That one is titled ‘Folding Chairs.’

Ben: What’s the importance of, why fiction? Because obviously there were relationships like that.

Kris: Well I think we’re all looking for some kind of validation in the images that we consume, or the music, or the entertainment that we consume. A lot of times it’s reflecting our own feelings. So if you grow up in a time where you don’t see that you’re bound to create that for yourself.

Ben: Why is it important to look to history and see your identity, to see pieces of your relationships reflected in history?

Kris: That’s a really good question and part of that is there were no couples in my own family growing up that were like myself. I was pretty much the first person to come out of the closet in my family. Doesn’t mean there weren’t other people who had same sex relationships in my family I just didn’t know about them, they weren’t out. For a long time these relationships were hidden and now we live in this time period where we’re allowed to be open and be celebrated. It’s very interesting to think that that past wasn’t that long ago. It’s also to draw attention to the fact that this recent openness is very recent. So that’s part of what I’m doing.

Hopefully the viewer will question the past and will question everything they look at from the past because we are looking through our own lens when we are looking at pretty much the entire world, right? For me I’m always looking at relationships through my own experience. So that’s where the title ‘though the lens of desire’ comes from. It’s my personal projection onto what I see in front of me. At the same time I do try to be respectful and that’s why I always crop out the identities of the people in the photographs because they are pictures more about me than they are about the actual people in the snapshots. My goal is to transform them into something new.