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PHOTOGRAPHY Jan Dee Gordon, photographer of steel
by Julia Hale
2019-09-17

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In July, Los Angeles-based photographer Jan Dee Gordon released the second book in her "of Steel" book series.

The book, LGBTQ of Steel, is a compilation of portraits accompanied by personal profiles that tell the stories of 50 LGBTQ subjects. While the subjects are all based in Los Angeles now, they hail from all over, and the ages of those featured in the book range from early 20s to a 93-year-old man who was at Stonewall.

"Robert Clemont sticks out," said Gordon, who's studied photography in Paris, New York City and UCLA. "[He] was at Stonewall. He was from a Catholic family, he was a minister. Obviously the church wasn't so happy with him, and he moved to New York. When [Stonewall] happened at the bar, he opened his church, for the first time, to all the gays." While there are some celebrities featured in the book—such as Alec Mapa and Margaret Cho—not everyone in the book is famous. "The people in the book, a lot of them are activists for [LGBTQ] rights," Gordon told Windy City Times.

"One woman's name is Calpernia," Gordon added. "She's transgender, and she was in the first Gulf War as a man, on the front lines. After the war she went to stay on an island, kind of isolated, to think. She finally got associated with a group of transgender people so that she could understand better what to do, her choices, and she did transition.

"Then she had a boyfriend on an Army base, I think in Kentucky. Her boyfriend [Barry Winchell] was murdered by people in his unit because he was dating a transgender woman. That became a huge news story; it was in newspapers, TIME Magazine, etc. So, [Calpernia] became a huge activist.

"One [person] is [non-binary]. [They were] neither male nor female, so I asked quite a lot of questions. It was hard to understand, but I got it, and these people were so open. They answered very personal questions," she said.

The process of finding people to interview and shoot for the book was very organic, according to Gordon. "I have a son who has a social life that's very outside of the box, and he had many friends who are gay, in one way or another," she said. "That started it, then they had friends, some of whom are famous, and we networked. Then we asked people who came to the studio for their shoot, and were recommended to other people."

The idea of using bent steel to represent struggles that have been overcome is rooted in Gordon's earlier artwork. "Before I did this book, I did a book called Women of Steel, and that book came about because of the theme of my artwork," said Gordon. "The theme of the artwork is about a woman who can—who has to—use her inner strength to overcome obstacles in her life in order to lead the life she chooses. I chose steel in my photographs to [represent] our reality, our lives, because it's hard but you can bend it. And it's a great graphic image in a photograph, by the way."

Gordon added, "The artwork came first, and it's a long history of artwork. When I look back at the beginning, I painted over women and then I photographed them. Then I used a mannequin [with the steel]. Then I used living things, like flowers and branches, with the steel. Finally a mentor said to me, 'for God's sake, use a woman!' The [final] artwork is actually nude women with steel, rather abstracted." This eventually led to the idea of talking to and photographing real women in the world, and compiling all of these profiles into a book. "I found women who had dealt with different things and come out at the top, successful, leading a life they chose," she said.

While Women of Steel was rooted in Gordon's personal experiences, LGBTQ of Steel is personal to the artist in a different way. "My brother died of complications of AIDS, at 48 years old. He led a double life, married with a child, and [was also] a gay man. He never told anybody until he got sick," Gordon said. The book is dedicated to her brother, Ben Lewis, whose daughter is featured in the book along with her partner.

Gordon plans on compiling more "of Steel" books in the future, although she said she has no idea how many. "The name over all of these 'of Steel' books is Humanity of Steel. I've always believed in individual rights, you can do what you want, you can say what you want, and all these people are just human," said Gordon. "I would hope that young people who don't have any role models, who are struggling with coming out, understanding who they are, that they could get a hold of this book. It has wonderful role models in it."


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