Casa Susanna (on epic finds)

Last Fall I has the good fortune of enrolling in previous Camera Club guest blogger Pradeep Dalal‘s “Expanded Documentary” class as a part of my MFA coursework at Pratt Institute. While I was definitely introduced to several artists who altered my own approach to image making, the work Pradeep exposed us to that I found most hard to walk away from was Casa Susanna. I can count on one hand (possibly three fingers) the number of times in my entire art school-attending life I’ve come home from a class to immediately, intently scour the internet for a book, then spend days wondering when it would show up on my doorstep. This collection of images was discovered quite accidentally in an NYC flea market by Robert Swope and co-edited with his parter Michel Hurst, who seem to have wondered why the owners would have discarded a collection so personal (and frankly expansive). At first glance, the work is rich in its banality – these seem to be simple snapshots or faded holiday greetings depicting, say, typical housewife-types, some less glamorous than others, engaged in silly chores or unremarkable, silly vacation fun with “the girls.” A closer look reveals they are, in fact, men, some more able to pass seamlessly as the (now rather dated) feminine archetypes their poses, clothing, and accessories proudly proclaim. The resort, Casa Susanna, seems to have existed in upstate New York in the 1960s as a safe place for these men to express their feminine personae. What drew me to the work was the urgency to document the normal. As many who have written about Casa Susanna (the book) have stated, transvestites in pop culture are shrouded in a veritable haze of stage lights, glitter, and feathers, but these ladies are, more often than not, altogether domestic and grounded – posed demurely for Christmas cards, in near-matronly cocktail dress, simply living out roles as average women, hardly a Cher or Jayne Mansfield in the bunch. There is something irrefutably real about these images, in spite of the sly subterfuge of makeup, wigs, and costume – perhaps it’s the dichotomy of a casual snapshot of something so carefully crafted and orchestrated.