An interview with photographer B. Proud
By Gregg Shapiro
Queer portrait and fine art photographer B. Proud (born Barbara Proud) may be based in Delaware, but the world is her home. A career as a commercial photographer has earned her clients ranging from the HRC to the LPGA and from the Girl Scouts to Meals on Wheels, to mention a few. An adjunct professor at Philadelphia’s The University of the Arts, Proud’s photography has been featured as part of the Equality Forum’s LGBT civil rights summit, as well as in both solo and group shows in cities including Washington, D.C. and New York. Proud’s “social documentary” project “First Comes Love”, celebrating “long-term relationships in the LGBTQ community” has brought her immeasurable acclaim and attention, leading to the publication of a coffee-table book of the same name. Not one to rest on her laurels, Proud’s newest exhibition, First Comes Love 2: Transcending Love, opening in time for Transgender Awareness Week, runs from November 15, 2019 through February 16, 2020 at Stonewall National Museum in Wilton Manors, FL. I spoke with B. Proud in advance of the opening.
Gregg Shapiro: Barbara, if memory serves, the last time I saw you was when you were here in Wilton Manors at the opening of your “First Comes Love” exhibition at the Stonewall National Museum gallery. In how many galleries (and countries) did you exhibit the First Comes Love photos?
Barbara Proud: Sixteen solo shows in the US to date, [and we’re] not done yet. Eight group and/or juried shows in the US, one group/juried show in Athens, Greece, and one group/juried show in Berlin, Germany. Three images from “Transcending Love” have already been in group shows selected by prestigious jurors. The Stonewall show will be the inaugural solo exhibition.
GS: What kinds of responses did the exhibit elicit?
BP: The exhibitions have always received a warm welcome and amazingly positive responses in every venue, from a creative arts high school to universities to corporations to galleries and in cities across the country. Several of those venues have already asked to exhibit the new project as well. At the gallery receptions, I have received hugs and tears from students, business executives, parents of LGBTQ children, and community members, all thanking me for the work that I am doing. I’m hoping that the “Transcending Love” exhibitions will make an even greater impact. The images will be color and larger this time.
GS: In 2014, I interviewed you about the First Comes Love book, which consists of photos of LGBTQ couples, some famous, some less so. What was the impetus for creating the book of photos?
BP: I knew from the moment that I started the project that I wanted it to be a book. My entire motivation was to educate and to make a difference. The book helps to reach audiences that the exhibition would never reach. The book has won two gold medals from Independent Publishers organizations. Lesbian brides-to-be have given the book to their parents who were not supportive of the marriage, asking them to read it and try to understand. It has been used to propose marriage. And in 2015, it was used as part of a special invitation to the Philadelphia exhibition “Speaking Out for Equality” in the National Constitution Center. The organizing committee purchased nine books that were signed by me and several Philadelphia dignitaries and then sent with an invitational letter to each of the nine Supreme Court Justices just prior to the Obergefell decision. So, in keeping with my goal of educating, I hope that “Transcending Love” will make it into book form as well.
GS: How long did it take from concept to execution for the First Comes Love book?
BP: I began the project in March of 2009. I sent the book to the printer in May of 2014 and the book launch and exhibition were held in September of 2014. I began “Transcending Love” in May of 2017 and I’m working at an even faster pace because I feel so passionately that the transgender community needs embracing.
GS: One of the most famous faces in the exhibit and book was that of the late Edie Windsor. Please say something about how you came to know her.
BP: As I got further along in the project, I realized that I had quite a collection of figures very prominent in our fight for our rights: Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, Bishop Gene Robinson, the first couple married in Washington, D.C., both of the Proposition 8 couples, and more. I knew that it would be complete and quite the historical document if I could include Edie Windsor. (the Obergefell case had not been decided yet, but I did photograph Jim in front of the Supreme Court as well). Anyway, I tried to contact her first via her attorney, Robbie Kaplan, but was told Edie was way too busy. I tried via email and phone and then through subjects in the project who knew her. Nada. This went on for well over a year. Finally, in the early fall of 2013, I sent her a package with a letter and samples of what I was doing. I put it out into the universe that this needed to happen. I heard nothing, for months, until January 15, 2014, which happened to be my birthday. As I stood in a coffee shop buying myself a decadent treat, my cell phone rang and on the other end the voice said, “Barbara, this is Edie Windsor. I want to be in your project. You’re doing great things.” My heart did cartwheels! We made a date for that March and she welcomed me and my crew into her home, where we spent hours talking, making a portrait, filming. It was magical. She couldn’t make it to the book launch in Philadelphia but arranged for a New York launch at the LGBT Center. That night, she confessed that she had not responded to me for months and months because she thought my name, B. Proud, was fake and I was spamming her. Once on board, Edie was all in. She loved helping me promote the book and we did several talks together. She was also very encouraging for me to do this new project. I miss her desperately and think of her every single day.
GS: Please tell me something about the First Comes Love short film you made for gay theater artists Dan Martin and Michael Biello’s Amazing Queer Songbook project.
BP: Dan and Michael are one of the couples portrayed in First Comes Love. They first approached me about writing a song for that project, which they did, and which we collectively had professionally recorded. And we made a film about that recording. I introduced them to Edie at the New York book launch and they subsequently watched the movie Edie and Thea: A Very Long Engagement. They were so moved and inspired that they wrote a song about Edie and her diamond engagement pin. We played a recording for Edie at her home in NYC and asked her about doing a film with her in it. She was thrilled. So, one December afternoon we went to her apartment with two spectacular, professional Broadway performers to make the film. I served as videographer along with another of Michael and Dan’s colleagues. It was an unforgettable day. Afterwards, Michael, Dan and I worked in my studio on the edit until we were all satisfied. The film has been accepted into 16 film festivals nationally and internationally.
GS: In November 2019, you are returning to the Stonewall National Museum in Wilton Manors gallery with your new exhibition Transcending Love. How did the concept for Transcending Love come about?
BP: Once I published the First Comes Love book, everyone asked me when I was going to do a second volume because they wanted to be in it! Honestly, along with a few grants and a fundraiser, I paid for and published that book myself. Consequently, I had no funds left to do another book. Plus, I was busy promoting that book and exhibition. But, then as fate would have it, there was election and a tsunami of bigotry was unleashed against the LGBTQ community, but more specifically, against the transgender community. I was outraged. It quickly became clear that, finances be damned, there was much more work to be done. It was also evident that it was the transgender and gender nonconforming community that needed the understanding, acceptance, compassion and most of all, protection. In keeping with my original theme, I decided that I would focus on couples again. It is one thing for a person to find their truth and decide to transition; it is another to do that and navigate the complexities of a relationship. Highlighting how committed their love is will help all of society understand that it is what’s on the inside that counts. It is the heart and soul of a person that is most important, not the outer shell or their genitalia.
The subjects photographed show an array of relationships and an assortment of combinations, all with the common thread of people being their true selves and falling in love. Whether it’s two transgender men, two transgender women, a formerly heterosexual couple where either the wife or husband has transitioned, a formerly lesbian couple, where one has transitioned or a gay man and a trans man, all will be portrayed with the respect they deserve as human beings.
GS: Are there ways in which the Transcending Love exhibit will resemble First Comes Love?
BP: Like First Comes Love, Transcending Love will include some prominent figures in the transgender community, such as trans icon, Kate Bornstein, author Jenny Boylan, artist/activist/producer, Zackary Drucker, and activist/politician, Sarah McBride. I would love to get Laverne Cox or Janet Mock, but we’ll see how that goes. Maybe your readers can make the connection for me? I’m committed to showing a broad spectrum of relationships, female-female, male-female, male-male as well as many different ethnicities. This is a very beautiful and vibrant community whose struggle continues for protection and inclusion. I have learned so much on this journey and I’m eager to share it with the world. I feel a very strong connection with my transgender siblings. I want to help shed a light on their beauty and their struggle and thankfully, these couples have accepted me and my efforts to give them a platform for their stories to be told.
These are dangerous times for the transgender community, particularly for trans women of color. Since 2016, the number of murders of trans women of color has skyrocketed exponentially. As I travel to photograph my subjects, I also make it a point to research the murders of transgender people in those cities. I visit the locations and make a photograph to commemorate their loss. I’m not sure how I will work this into the project, but I think it’s extremely important to shed a light on the dangers faced by our transgender community.
GS: Are there any subjects from First Comes Love who also appear in the exhibition?
BP: No, not really. Their stories are out there in the first project. I have so many more beautiful subjects to introduce to the world and celebrate. I cannot wait for the new project to be fully out in the world. I’m confident that the exhibition at the Stonewall Museum will be the first of many. The photographs will be printed even larger this time for greater impact. I’m so excited to see these images on the wall together.
GS: Do you know if any of the Transcending Love subjects will be in attendance at the opening reception on November 15?
BP: I’m not sure. I hope so. Some have expressed interest and certainly, having some of the couples there, in person, would be fantastic.
GS: Is there a Transcending Love book in the works, and if so, what do you see as the publication date?
BP: Fingers crossed. Yes. That is my goal, and everyone keeps asking how the new book is coming along. I’ll have to raise some significant funds first. This book will be even more costly because it will be in color and not black & white, 4 inks instead of just two. It became clear to me at the very onset that the transgender community was anything but black and white. There is so much diversity that it just screamed to be in color.
I’ve photographed 60 couples so far, but have a spreadsheet with over 135 couples across the country who would like to participate. That list continues to grow as more and more people become aware of my work. I doubt I will be able to get to them all, but I still have a lot of photography to do in some of the more conservative states like Arkansas, Utah, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas. Sure, I would love to have all 50 states represented. I think the project will be so much stronger if I can represent a broad range of geographic, ethnic, socio-economic and age diversity. I want to show the country that transgender people are their neighbors and colleagues. The big decision will be whether or not I publish myself again or if I can find a publisher this time who will take on the project. But to answer your question, a book is at least a year away. The writing, editing, proofing, printing, and shipping take many months.
GS: Do you think there is a possibility of a First Comes Love 2 book or exhibition in the future?
BP: I don’t think so. I would rather make a film for Transcending Love. A good one. I’ve now got some footage from my portrait sessions, but I would need a full crew to do it well. Right now, it’s just me taking on all the rolls: videographer, sound engineer, interviewer, grip, etc. If I were to sell out of the first book and do a second printing, there are new portraits that I could add. But I think it’s more important to focus on what the new project will do. I’m always looking for sponsors and it’s easy to make a tax-deductible contribution of any amount for anyone wishing to further the cause.
GS: You attended World Pride and Stonewall 50th celebration in NYC in June 2019. Do you think that there might be a photo exhibition or book based on your experience there?
BP: No. I went there for the history of the moment and to honor those who stood up all those years ago. There were thousands of photographers there. I went to do some filming that I might be able to use in a Transcending Love film.