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‘Why Drag?’ Photographer Magnus Hastings Discusses His Favorite Subject

By Charles Purdy

British photographer Magnus Hastings is a go-to shooter in the world of drag—name a well-known drag performer, and chances are very good that Hastings has photographed them. His 2016 book Why Drag? features not only stars made famous by the television show Ru Paul’s Drag Race, but also legendary drag icons, pageant queens, and underground drag legends. 

So, to quote the title of his captivating coffee-table book, “Why drag?”

“Drag has always been my world,” says Hastings. “I see drag queens as incredible creatures; I don’t see men or women, really—I just see these incredible, gorgeous creatures. It’s a world I understand and immediately felt a part of, because—underneath the exterior I have now—I’m really a screaming girly queen. I just happen to have grown into this six-foot-four burly man.... Though I do have the best drag legs you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Star drag performers Adore Delano, Manila Luzon, and Grace Towers are featured in Hastings’s book Why Drag?—Hastings enjoys shooting on city streets and being inspired by his surroundings. 

Hastings describes his photography as aggressive, sexual, and “in your face.” His work—whether he’s photographing drag queens or another of his celebrity subjects, such as the cabaret performance artist Meow Meow—has a sense of freedom and theatricality, which is perhaps no surprise, given his background in theater.

DISCOVERING HIS MUSES

With a father who is a semi-professional photographer, Hastings grew up around photography and taught himself to use a camera; when he was a teenager, he turned his bedroom into a usable dark room. He was also a child actor, and as a young man, he dedicated himself to acting—he attended the Chelsea Art School and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It was at drama school that he started doing headshots—first as a favor for an acquaintance (who’d paid for a set that didn’t turn out well), and then then as a sideline, under a pseudonym. “I didn’t want to be known as the actor who did headshots,” he explains.

Beloved San Francisco drag entertainer Dulce de Leche.

Hastings continues, “Then I woke up one day and said, ‘I’m over acting. I hate being poor, I hate waiting for other people to decide when I work, and also I’m too gay and too tall.’ Then I threw myself into photography, and it just worked. Within six months I was earning a living.”

Australian drag superstar Courtney Act is one of Hastings’s muses and frequent subjects—she appears on the cover of Why Drag? 

It wasn’t long before Hastings was one of the top headshot photographers in England, while also working for Britain’s top glossy gay magazines. His passion for drag performance took him to Australia and into that country’s vibrant drag scene in 2005. He says that arriving in Australia felt like “coming home,” and it was there that his reputation as a drag photographer began to solidify. He relocated to Los Angeles in 2011 (and still makes the city his home), and there he found himself increasingly drawn to drag as an art form, being inspired by drag performers’ willingness to take risks. This led him to Why Drag?a project that started as a gallery show and eventually became a book (as well as a series of larger-than-life shower curtains, among other printed material).

HOW ‘FLAWS’ REVEAL ARTISTRY

Hastings works both in and out of studios, letting the subject dictate the environment to some degree, though he says he enjoys working on city streets. 

“I do what works the best for the subject,” he says. “I try different approaches.... When you have no money, you can create something that looks really expensive and turn the streets into your studio—if you know how to mix the light properly. It might look like you’ve got a whole rig out there, but in reality you’re just using natural light and a fill.”

He takes care during his postproduction work to optimize his images without distorting or obscuring the artistry of his drag queen subjects. He explains, “For instance, I have a photo in the book of Bianca Del Rio in which, if you go in closely, you can see Bianca’s wig line. And that’s because I want you to see the wig line—it demonstrates the amazing craft of drag. If you just zap all of those things out, then what’s the point?... Bianca walks into a room in drag, and she’s flawless—but then she sits next to you, and you can see her bits of wig and so on, and that’s the artistry. To take all that out I think negates the artistry. I want to show all that—beautifully and subtly, so it still looks amazing—to give the viewer this moment of ‘Oh!’”

American drag superstar Bianca Del Rio—Hastings prefers not to retouch “flaws” such as a visible wig line—as he believes that doing so obscures the artistry of drag. 

#GAYFACE

Although he does a bit of client work (choosing it carefully, as giving up artistic control can be a challenge), Hastings prefers to focus on his own projects. A new series, started in January 2018, is meant to express concepts of unity and pride and to “celebrate the LGBTQIA community at a time when our rights are yet again being challenged.” It’s called #GAYFACE, and 50 percent of proceeds from print sales are being donated to the True Colors Fund.

Hastings’s #GAYFACE series celebrates the diversity of people in LGBTQIA communities. Subjects are given a white box in which to express themselves; Hastings is currently traveling with his box and camera to LGBTQIA gatherings.

“The drag thing was in some ways very specific,” says Hastings, and he wanted his next project to showcase diversity and be a cross-section of all the different types of people that make up the LGBTQIA community. For its name, he took a phrase that has historically been used to insult and demean people, and he “flipped it.” He says, “I love the name, understanding that many of the people shown of course don’t identify as gay, but it’s a slur that’s broadly used. So I’m taking it and saying that actually a ‘gay face’ is phenomenal.”

The white box used for all the subjects in the series is meant to be a representation of equality. The fun part, Hastings says, is seeing what people bring to it—what they create in the space.

In the near future, he’ll be traveling with his #GAYFACE white box, to photograph people at events like San Francisco’s legendary Folsom Street Fair (in September 2018), photographing his beloved drag queens (for instance, he’s recently worked on album covers and more for drag performers), and—well, even he isn’t quite sure.

He says, “These days, I just like thinking of new things and changing things up, and I’m always trying new things out. There’s always new stuff to be doing.”

Keep track of Magnus Hastings via his portfolio site, and follow him on Instagram to watch #GAYFACE take shape (and to enjoy his photos of spectacular drag performers).

American drag superstar Bob the Drag Queen.