Drag queen photographer Holly Revell ‘wanted to show more than just the sparkly personas’

Drag queen David Hoyle with photographer Holly Revell

Drag queen David Hoyle with photographer Holly Revell - Credit: Archant

Photographer Holly Revell is trying to capture something new in a project documenting east London’s drag scene.

David Hoyle 1258, photo by Holly Revell

David Hoyle 1258, photo by Holly Revell - Credit: Archant

The premise was simple. Fine artist Holly Revell took pictures of 22 dolled-up drag queens, well known on the east London scene. Then, leaving the aperture locked open for as long as it took for them to take their make-up off, she captured the slap-free men in the same exposures.

The haunting prints now form a project called Transformations, displayed in Haggerston’s The Glory pub. The venue, in Kingsland Road, is owned by Jonny Woo and John Sizzle, both of whom were photographed by Holly.

Holly told the Gazette: “It’s the whole magic of photography.

“You’re like: ‘Oh, my God, is this going to work?’ And it was always: ‘Oh, my God, it worked.’ There was always an element of surprise.

Ginger Donald 306, photo by Holly Revell

Ginger Donald 306, photo by Holly Revell - Credit: Archant

“They would sometimes say they wished they had posed a bit differently, but to do it again they would have had to put the make up back on, so there was always just one go at it.

“I have a wire that attaches to the camera and you can leave it open for days if there is no light going in. It’s just crazy – God knows how it works.”

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The idea stemmed from her experiences taking photos of London’s live underground cabaret scene, and having backstage access to see the difference between “what’s on stage and what’s not on stage”.

“I was always surprised, at the end of the night, how quickly they took their make-up off,” she mused. “They couldn’t wait to get rid of it. All these wonderful cool eccentric characters are all armed with baby wipes.

Holly Revell's self portrait

Holly Revell's self portrait - Credit: Archant

“I saw how difficult it is and what it takes out of them. There’s a lot of emotion and it’s very tiring. I’ve never worn six-inch heels but it’s a painful thing.”

She added: “When I was just a punter admiring these people all I saw was confidence and bravado, and in a lot of pictures you’ll see just the glossy surface. I want to show beauty but I want to try and pull a bit of that away, and get beneath the surface.

“There are a lot of beautiful images out there but I’m trying to create something that shows not just the bright sparkly persona – I’m hopefully revealing what’s left behind afterwards, the layers of fatigue and emotion.”

Participants became competitive over the time it took them to get changed, with Russella managing to cut the time down to just two minutes, while the longest exposure was a whopping 21 minutes for performance artist David Hoyle.

“David always says it takes a lot longer to take off than to put it on,” said Holly, “which is interesting because a lot of them will lovingly apply it for two hours.”

But Holly said her project was not simply a “before and after”.

“I’m not interested in what they look like out of drag,” she said. “It’s about the process and what’s underneath.

“To be honest, the [photography] process is annoying and there are a lot of imperfections. But none of them had been photographed like that before – that was good, because they had all been photographed a lot.

“It was good to offer them something that was new. I wanted it to be special and exciting for them as well as me.

“I make good pictures if I’m really excited by the subject, and I think a photographer and a drag queen make a good partnership.

“They love the camera and they’re willing subjects. They have a good understanding of how to do it, and for me it’s a visual treat.

“I’ve always been into the avant garde and the queer. I guess I get quite obsessed with whatever I’m into. Now I’m obsessed with drag – I’m making it my life’s work.”