Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Cozy and confrontational

Montreal photographer JJ Levine's latest show reflects the diversity of his social circle

"I want my images to be aesthetically appealing, but I also want them to be confrontational," Levine says.
Over the past decade, Montreal-based photographer JJ Levine has been gaining international recognition for the brazen and bold quality of his images. His most recent collection of works, titled simply Queer Portraits, features a number of people from his immediate circle of friends and lovers, all of them “queer in their own way.”
“I want my images to be aesthetically appealing, but I also want them to be confrontational,” Levine says. The photographer points out that his subjects are often looking into the camera, as if to directly address their audience. “People have asked me, ‘Why are your models never smiling?’ I want that sense of confrontation in the images. I like the idea that the people I’m photographing are part of a resistance to assimilation, to mainstream ideas of gayness or beauty.”
Levine, who studied in the fine arts program at Concordia University, cites such other gender-busting photographers as Rineke Dijkstra, Catherine Opie and Mark Morrisroe as major influences. Levine’s work feels celebratory, but there are also darker emotions that run through the stills. One senses the strength of each subject, but that is matched by the feeling of pain or loss – evoking the heaviness that can come with being an outsider. “I do try to send a message in my photos,” Levine says. “Not all of the people in my photos identify as trans, but they are all still in some way gender-nonconformists.”
Before gaining a reputation as a photographer, Levine was making a name for himself as a hairdresser in Montreal’s Village. As he was cutting hair several years ago, an older man came in to inquire about getting a haircut from Levine. “He said, ‘Can I get a haircut here or is this just for lesbian haircuts?’ We all thought this was pretty hilarious,” Levine says. “So I posted a sign on the window of the bike shop I work in that said simply ‘Lesbian Haircuts,’ and that ended up attracting a lot of attention.”
After a flurry of stories on the hairdresser who was offering lesbian haircuts in the Village, Levine says he found business picking up. Thus, Levine is now a celebrity artist photographer and a hair stylist all in one. “The lesbian haircut thing led to some confusion, though, because I’m trans, not lesbian, but it didn’t bother me.”

Queer Portraits
Runs till Mon, Nov 5
Rats 9 Gallery
372 St Catherine St W, Suite 530
Levine will be at the vernissage for the exhibit Fri, Oct. 19, 6-11pm