The Dress IV from the series Ken. To be Destroyed by Sara Davidmann, 2014
“The Ken. To be destroyed project began with an archive and a discovery. Artist/photographer Sara Davidmann and her siblings inherited letters and photographs belonging to her uncle and aunt, Ken and Hazel Houston, from their mother Audrey Davidmann. The letters tell the story of the relationship between Ken and Hazel. Hazel had been a dental secretary. Ken practiced as an optician in Scotland. It emerged soon after they were married that Ken was transgender. In the context of a British marriage in the 1950s, this inevitably profoundly affected both their own relationship and their relationships with the people around them.
The archive contains letters, photographs and papers. Hazel and Audrey wrote to each other frequently in the late 1950s and early 60s,after Hazel discovered that Ken was transgender; these letters tell Ken and Hazel’s very private story. Publicly Ken was a man, but in the privacy of the home he was a woman.
In response to the letters and family photographs, Sara Davidmann has produced a new set of photographs using analogue, alternative and digital processes. Looking at the vintage photographs she became acutely aware of their surfaces. The marks of time and damage had become part of the images. This led her to work on the surfaces of the photographs she produced using ink, chalks, magic markers and correction fluid. Later works, in which Sara Davidmann has tried to visualise how Ken might have looked as a woman, are fictional photographs made with digital negatives, hand colouring, darkroom chemicals and bleach.”
Introductory text taken from Schwules Museum website
Your practice for coming on 20 years has centred around representations of gender, often in the context of family. What first drew you to this area of research and what keeps you there?
I’ve become interested in working with ‘the family’ as I’ve got older. I don’t think I could have looked at my own family when I was younger. It would have been too intense as a subject. But now it feels like the right time.
With respect to engaging with issues of gender and sexuality in my work – this came about because of questioning my own gender and sexuality. My life and my work are intrinsically interconnected.
Within your concentrated practice you have worked in many different ways. From formal portrait sessions dissecting the gaze to alternative and digital processes how do you find the right methodology for each body of work?
I use whatever photographic (or other) process that seems right for what I’m trying to do. Right now I’m very interested in the potential of alternative photography processes and combining digital and analogue photography in new ways.
I began as a painter, moved into making sculpture and then in 1999 I took up photography. I’ve never felt that I had to restrict the ways in which I work. Early on in my career I came across the work of the artist Lucas Samaras. His work had an enormous impact on me, and in particular the fact that Samaras moved freely from one medium to another.
The Dress II from the series Ken. To be Destroyed by Sara Davidmann, 2014
In Ken: To be destroyed you inherited letters and family photographs which held a family secret; your uncle’s experience of identifying as a woman but living in public as a man. Tell us more about this discovery and how you felt at the time.
My mother first told me that my uncle Ken was transgender in 2005 when I was halfway through a practice-based PhD at London College of Communication. My friendships and collaborative photography/oral histories with trans* people began in 1999. But it was only when I came across my mother’s archive that I wanted to make work about this part of my family history.
In 2011, when my mother moved into a nursing home, my brother, sister and I began to clear her house in Oxfordshire. I knew that my mother had kept diaries throughout her life, with the intention of writing them up for publication. But I had no idea of the remarkable detail in which she had documented her life and the lives of those around her. As well as the diaries, my mother wrote notes; these were pinned to clothes and placed in drawers and objects as aide – memoires.
In my mother’s garage we found a chest of drawers. One drawer was full of letters I had written to my mother over the years. In another drawer, we found two large envelopes and a brown bag. On the bag my mother had written, “Letters from Hazel re Ken” and on the envelopes “Ken’s letters to Hazel. To be destroyed” and “Ken. To be destroyed”. Inside were letters and papers which told the story of Ken and Hazel’s relationship through the prism of Ken’s transgenderism.
I began by reading the letters that Hazel wrote to my mother. They are vivid and powerful, and I found them incredibly moving. They brought to light how little was known about transgender people in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the difficulties Hazel faced trying to reconcile the fact that Ken was transgender with society’s (and her own) expectation of marriage. As I read Hazel’s letters I realised that I had no idea they had lived through such a difficult time, that I not really known my aunt and I had known the person I had thought of as “my uncle” even less.
K at Duddington Loch from the series Looking for K / Finding K by Sara Davidmann, 2014
The text to be destroyed was written by your mother on an envelope. Why did you decide to expose this information and not do as the envelope instructed? What did your family think? What have the consequences been of making this delicate piece? Are you glad you did it?
It took me a while to realise that, despite what my mother had written on the envelopes, she had kept the letters and papers that were in them. My mother had kept the letters her sister, Hazel, had written to her about Ken in the 1950s and 60s; there were also carbon copies of her replies to Hazel. In 2003, when Hazel died, she found a collection of letters and cards that Ken had written to Hazel. She also found Ken’s papers from the 1950s and ‘60s, when he was investigating what it meant to be transgender, and notes from the 1970s, recording the effects of taking oestrogen. My mother brought these letters and papers from Edinburgh- where Ken and Hazel had lived and run a business- and stored them with her own collection. This archive then survived two moves as my mother went from Winchmore Hill to Enfield in London and then to Oxfordshire in her old age.
Why did my mother write on the envelopes that the contents were to be destroyed but did not then destroy them? She knew of my work as a photographer working with trans* people and might have realised that the letters and papers would be of interest to me. She intended to write her autobiography and she may have seen the Ken/Hazel material as being useful for this. Perhaps she simply wanted this remarkable material to continue to exist.
In 2005, when my mother first told me about my uncle she asked me to keep it a secret. I talked with my mother about the political importance of speaking out and said I would not keep it a secret. To me, the idea of being silent about the fact that a member of my family was transgender felt like collusion. To destroy the archive would have been a form of agreement that secrecy was necessary. It would have been like saying that I felt that there was something wrong with a member of my family being transgender – which I don’t at all. I have known many trans* people who have gone through incredibly difficult times when they have been the target of abuse just because they looked different. For some people just leaving the house in the morning means that they are putting themselves at risk. If I had been silent about having a transgender member of my family it would have felt like a betrayal of all the remarkably brave trans* people I have come to know.
What concerns you most about the public understanding of binary gender notions and how would you like your practice to contribute?
There are some really significant changes happening right now in terms of greater awareness being generated about gender beyond the polarised female/male categories. It’s really good to see these changes happen – especially all the more positive media cover of trans* people over the past 12-18 months. But there is still a long way to go in terms of gaining equality for people who don’t fit society’s expectations of gender and sexuality. I would hope that my practice would contribute in some way by making people think and question their assumptions. With ‘Ken. To be destroyed’ I would hope that this work might draw attention to the fact that trans* people have always been there even though they may not have been visible in society.
This work is currently receiving a lot of critical attention. The book, recently published by Schilt is available here and the exhibition is currently showing at Schwules Museum in Berlin until 30th June.