Lights, Camera, Flash!

Queer portrait photographer Lola Flash puts faces on communities underrepresented—and misunderstood—by the mainstream

Lola Flash had been called “sir” one too many times. She was tired of constantly being “identified” as something other than who she was, and of society’s fixed stereotypes surrounding gender and appearance. So she decided to do something about it via the medium through which she best filters her world: her camera lens. Thus was born surmise, Flash’s  photographic account of the many ways genderqueer people are perceived and how visual representations of gender affect our psyches and society. 
 
This ongoing online portraiture series features images of “girls who look like boys, straight people who look stereotypically gay, and vice versa,” seeking to highlight the stories and capture the images of people whose personal presentation challenges societal norms. “My models range from a pregnant lesbian to transmen to a 75-year-old woman who led most of her life as a man because her generation had little choice,” says Flash. “Our culture is changing, but not quickly enough for me!”
 
 
Growing up in Montclair, N.J., Lola Flash was an only child who always walked around with a little camera, snapping photos. She wound up falling in love with the darkroom in high school, and decided to pursue photography in college. She earned her bachelor's degree from Maryland Institute and her master’s degree from the London College of Printing, in the U.K., some years later. 
 
College facilitated not only career, but personal revelations: “I came out in college, even though I spent a large part of my teen years traipsing up and down Christopher Street, intrigued by all the men in leather and curious about all the chains, whips and other gear along Bleecker Street,” Flash reveals. “At that point, I did not know any lesbians, and “The L Word” was 40 light-years away! My parents were supportive, luckily, and my family are my biggest cheerleaders. I'm definitely one of the lucky ones!”
 
Flash is all too aware that others in the LGBT community remain far less lucky. Hence, her camera lens stays keenly focused on marginalized members of that community, shirking presumptions made by society about LGBT people and the way they look. Her photos “make viewers observe in a more careful way. They don't just assume someone with short hair is a man,” says Flash. “Gender for me has always been fluid. Since I was a kid, I dressed like a ‘boy,’ and my dad didn't hesitate taking me directly to the boys’ section at clothing stores. This is the kind of girl that I was allowed to be.” 
 
Flash’s photography stands out amid a sea of all-digital images: “Technically speaking, I'm one of the very few people who still shoots with film and uses a large format camera. I believe that it is the truest form of portraiture. It's classic,” she says. “Content-wise, I am committed to including all ages and sizes, and the majority of my models are of color. My quest is to add hue to the white art gallery walls, Internet, scene, you name it.” 
 
All of Flash’s work grapples with issues she feels passionately about. “My surmise series deals with gender issues, my [sur]passing series deals with ‘pigmentocracy’—basically the divide between light-skin and dark-skin folk. When it comes to acceptance, again, I'm definitely one of the lucky ones, in the sense that people smile at me on the way to work and I've never felt in danger, prancing around as a big ol' dyke. Yet, I have not had such a welcome in the art world. With merely 7 percent of MoMA's permanent collection representing women, it's clear there’s still not a lot of space for a woman who is black and gay.”
 
 
Adding to her surmise series, Flash is slated to launch a Pride exhibition called LEGENDS, focusing on entertainers who are both members of and cater to New York City’s LGBT community. On June 24, at Pangea in New York City, the series kicks off with a one-night exhibtion and dedicated cabaret showcasing many of the “legends” photographed for the series, including Sherry Vine, The Maine Attraction, DJ Formika and DJ Lina. (Check out Flash on her Instagram feed, @flash9, for more info and updates). 
 
Flash looks forward to focusing on LEGENDS outside the cabaret world in the future: She hopes to soon work with the likes of comedians Kate Clinton and Wanda Sykes. She’s also excited about her upcoming photographic series called SALT, which portrays older women, who, she asserts, “do not get the recognition they should. These women are so beautiful and smart and talented, but so underrated.” Flash just photographed Ruth Pointer for the collection, and aims to ultimately snap luminaries such as Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis. 
 
No matter who’s on the other side of Lola Flash’s lens, however, her work is carried by the strong current of a craving for social justice evident in each of her photos. “I'm happiest when I'm behind my camera, so when I go to museums and galleries I have to remind myself why I continue to expose these issues. I've been given a talent and I'm driven to help the communities that I come from. Big, beautiful art sells, but the beauty that I search for is not the kind of work that is found on the ‘Top 10 Artists To Look Out For’ list. I feel that my agenda is vital in giving us voices and faces!” 
 
View more of Flash’s work online at lolaflash.com.