The Stunning Forgotten 90s Drag Photography of Remsen Wolff

The unseen 200,000-strong archive of American photographer Remsen Wolff is finally being shown publicly, 21 years after his death.

Amanda Lepore. Source: Remsen Wolff Collection

“I insist on having their beauty shown”. 

Remsen Wolff began taking photos at the tender age of ten and continued to do so throughout his life. A loner and a drifter, his art did not bring the fame and recognition that he deserved during his lifetime.

Now, for the first time, part of Wolff’s archive has been shown in honour of Pride at the Open Space Contemporary Art Museum, Amsterdam.

The Exhibition, All American Girls, is a collection of loving portraits of drag queens, transgender people and female impersonators from 1990s New York. The models were found through advertisements in gay newspapers and through connections made in New York night clubs.

Wolff’s assistant Jochem Brouwer told i-D:

“Remsen didn’t photograph everyone, he had to be attracted to someone. It was always about the story: he was genuinely interested in what people were doing.”

Special Girls

Clare Scandelle. Source: The Remsen Wolff Collection

Wolff lived a chaotic existence. Once a father of two daughters, married to a woman, he divorced and travelled alone across the US and Europe, photographing people in public places.

Shockingly, in the late 1980s, he was mistakenly accused of being a serial killer by the State of Texas. The resulting compensation made him a millionaire. He poured this money into his photographic projects.

In the 1990s, Wolff became fascinated by the talent of performers Klaus Nomi and Dolly Bellefleur, and New York drag artist Lypsinka.

Wolff struggled with his sexual and gender identity and developed a love and respect for transgender people. He came out as queer in his forties, and defined himself as a “phony transsexual”. In 1990, Wolff started the photography project Special Girls – a Celebration. It is a large body of work portraying 125 New Yorkers in over 100,000 frames.

Honest Portraits

Kabuki Starshine. Source: The Remsen Wolff Collection

Wolff died in 1998 and bequeathed forty years of archive material to his assistant. The negatives and prints have filled Brouwer’s apartment ever since.

Wolff’s photography beautifully portrays individuals existing outside our culture’s rigid binaries of gender expression. They look back at the viewer, staring down the barrel of the camera lens, astounding us with their radiance. Wolff places these subjects on a pedestal, celebrating their distinctive beauty.

Brouwer said:

“His series covers topics that are still relevant today, and which have been discussed more and more in public in recent years, such as racism and the representation of the LGBT community. How Remsen photographed then is important now. His photography is honest and thoughtful; you see how much time and attention there is in each portrait. I have never doubted the value. I just had to be patient for twenty years before others saw it.”

Wolff’s works are as significant today as when the photographs were taken. They evoke the classical iconography of high Renaissance art, with their elegant posing and baroque sensibilities.

The series is a singular snapshot of lives led, unseen and unappreciated for decades. Wolff styles drag queens and trans women like Manet’s Olympia, caught in scenes of repose on silk sheets. He also captures humanity and fragility in the frames.

We are implored to love them the way that Remsen Wolff did.

Source: Remsen Wolff Collection

Subscribe to FIB’s newsletter for your weekly dose of music, fashion and pop culture news!