This has been a banner year for the Toronto ballroom scene, with more houses formed, more audiences reached, more trophies won and more dips landed on beat than ever before. The underground subculture, which has given birth to much of the now commonplace vernacular found not just in LGBT culture, but also on mainstream pop-culture sites and Gaga tours, has never had such a bright light shone upon it. Ever since Jennie Livingston’s seminal work Paris Is Burning, and especially since its recent resurgence (thank Netflix and YouTube), a select few artists have documented the unique art form that blends gender, artifice, glamour, fashion, dance and shade, spinning it all out onto a runway.
Gerard H Gaskin, a New York City photographer, has just published Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene through Duke University Press. This beautifully designed coffee-table book features black-and-white and colour photos from as early as 1995 up to the present day, picking up where Livingston left off. Gaskin, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, is a freelance photographer who got into the ballroom scene more than 20 years ago through a clothing designer and makeup artist friend. He attended all the balls, including many of the most iconic events hosted by the Houses of Evisu, Mugler and Xtravaganza, to name a few, and the Latex Ball — arguably the crown jewel in the scene. The photos range from the posed to moments of energy perfectly captured, with all the costumes, bodies, expressions, movements and venues represented. The back cover features "Kelli, Legends Ball, NJ 1995." She’s wearing a black tuxedo jacket and bra, her hair in finger waves, a lit cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, as she stands in a living room and looks directly at you. Her expression somehow conveys everything — the intrigue and the honesty, the glamour and the grit, the actual and the imagined.
What’s interesting about this work is that it captures a scene that existed primarily in secrecy; the balls were private events attended by house members and their guests. Like Livingston, Gaskin was an outsider who had to find his role as a documentarian and ultimately an adjunct member of the community. While ballroom is increasingly reaching a wider, more mainstream audience, it’s inevitable that its trend in culture will slow and drop out of focus, only to return years later reborn (see: RuPaul’s career), as fresh as it was the first time you attended a ball. Work like Legendary can sashay down the runway directly into the canon of ballroom. A great collectible, Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene is a work both Gaskin and the community can be proud of. Perhaps a suitable new year’s resolution for 2014 will be to attend your first ball to live the experience firsthand.