This Trans* Couple Photographed Their Changing Relationship — & Gender Expressions (NSFW)

This story was originally published on May 15, 2014.

Update:
Since we originally published this story on May 15, artists Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker have expanded on their photographic project, Relationship, which chronicled the pair's romantic relationship as Ernst transitioned from feminine to masculine expression and Drucker transitioned from masculine to feminine expression. Whereas Relationship was a "celebratory and sentimental" look at the opposite-oriented trans* couple's shared life, the new photos in Post / Relationship / X reflect Ernst and Drucker's romantic separation: The two remain creative partners, but are no longer lovers. Click through to see 10 photographs from Relationship, followed by 19 from Post / Relationship / X.
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Original Post: Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker didn't intend to turn their lives into a public photography exhibition. They began documenting their relationship through photographs in 2008, and over the next five and a half years, they amassed hundreds of images. The snapshots — taken by them and for them — chronicle Ernst and Drucker's time spent together as lovers and partners. Encouraged by a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Ernst and Drucker selected the 46 photographs featured in Relationship, now on view at the Whitney Biennial. Raw and arrestingly intimate, Relationship chronicles Ernst and Drucker’s private moments as an opposite-oriented transgender couple — over the time period in which the photos were taken, Ernst was transitioning from feminine to masculine expression, while Drucker was transitioning from masculine to feminine expression.
The series presents tender scenes of the pair along with signals of their transitions: a shot of Drucker’s developing chest; the pair standing side-by-side with bandages on their behinds from their latest hormone shots; and other everyday moments from their lives. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I spoke with the artists about their work, their relationship, and their takes on what it means to be trans* today.
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
What roles did you take on in the creation of Relationship? Was there a conscious negotiation of who was going to do what, or did it all happen naturally?

ZD: "Rhys’s background is in filmmaking, and my background is more in photography and performance art. We made the images together, usually around the house or on vacation."

RE: "The photos are laid out in the Whitney show as being a narrative arc, because drawing from my background in filmmaking and in editing, I really took an editor’s approach to the way it’s hung. I think about it as editing a film; there’s no 'fat' in there at all."
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
It does seem as though your work is in dialogue with politicized issues such as how to live in the world and how to harness one’s identity. Do you see it as having a message, or does it exist in its own separate space?

RE: "We were so inside of it. It was coming, for me, from a natural impulse of art-making. We weren’t really thinking about an audience so much...that natural impulse of creating work alone in this room for ourselves — that was where it came from, for me. Just the pleasure of creating images. I’ve always created work just for myself. I dropped out of high school at 14 and basically spent all my time creating things."
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
RE, continued: "So when we actually did exhibit this work, it was such a shift from how we’d been thinking about it for so long. Because, all of a sudden, it was a dialogue with the outside world instead of just with ourselves...which had been the way the work had been created for so many years. And, I think that that’s why people have responded to it...because it does feel like such an intimate exchange, the mutual portraiture."
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
I was definitely fascinated by the juxtaposition of mundane activities — like lounging around the house — with images that were very specific to the process of transitioning.

RE: "Well, one thing that’s kind of funny that we haven’t really discussed that much is that when you transition, when you are immersed in that, when you take a hormone shot once a week for six years, it does become mundane. It in itself is mundane. So, maybe it stands out to an audience as exotic and unusual, but to us it’s not that much different than going to the grocery store, because it is a part of our routine."
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
ZD: "Our gender transitions are so embedded in the narrative that we certainly weren’t conscious of it while the images were being taken. And when [we're] looking out into a beautiful field of daisies, let’s say, neither of us is thinking about our gender transitions in that moment. Of the 46 images on display there’s a few select images in which I would say, yeah, maybe that was actually explicitly about a gender transition. [But, it all] becomes about a transition when the audience is primarily cisgendered."

RE: "If there is a nude of a trans person next to a nude of a cisgendered person, one of those photographs is a statement and the other is not — which a strange thing to embody, because us just standing up on a platform is a statement, because we are not the norm...we’re trying to challenge the notion that it has to be a big statement."
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
There was one photo that really jumped out at me as being very audience-focused: one of Zackary, topless, in heels, staring directly into the camera.

ZD: "You’re the first person to catch on to that. That’s a self-portrait, and I think it was probably 2010. I was trying to capture something that was really direct and unflinching. And then when we were putting the series together, it made sense to have something that was a direct engagement of the viewer. That’s something that I’ve always tried to do with my other work, whether video or performance. I like asserting the viewer as, in this case, the third person in the room."

RE: "It’s kind of breaking the fourth wall, as we’d say in film. And, actually, that’s a good point, because it’s one of the few [photographs] that’s looking outside the 'bubble' between Zackary and me."
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
Where do you see yourselves fitting into the conversation on transgender issues? And how do you hope to see that conversation evolve?

RE: "We like to talk about making our work for a future audience. For instance, the way in which the transgender elements are secondary, as I was mentioning before. We’re not sort of pausing to do a 'Transgender 101,' or make a big to-do about that issue in particular; we’re treating it the way we see it, which is pretty normalized. Actually, I hate the word 'normalized,' but — integrated."
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
Why do you hate the word "normalized"?

RE: "Transgender people have been around for — well, as long as time. In terms of modern society, there’s been developed subcultures of trans people for a while now, but our culture has been very, very behind on that particular topic. We’re very, very fortunate to be able to be making art and to be having these kinds of conversations, [whereas] the larger situation for transgendered people is quite dire in terms of extreme violence and extreme economic disenfranchisement."
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
There does seem to be a pretty big fixation on the body and what it physically means to be trans*.

ZD: "Definitely, definitely. We were just talking about that this week, actually. Being trans* at heart: how you self-identify and how you shape your [exterior] to be perceived by the outside world as one thing or another."

How do you react when people seem to be preoccupied with what the transition entails? Is that insulting? Is that irrelevant?
RE: "It does get very tiresome."

ZD: "But, it also is normal — if you want to talk about what’s 'normal.' I think that is the first step in understanding. It’s the lowest common denominator. It’s where the discussion really originated. If you go back to the beginning of sex reassignment surgeries and Christine Jorgensen, the dialogue was about 'I'm trapped in the wrong body and if I don’t get out of this body — if I don’t turn this body into something that matches more closely to how I feel — then I can’t exist in this world.' So, there was some focus on our exterior. I think, culturally, that’s really what the twentieth century was about."
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Photo: Courtesy of Luis De Jesus.
RE: "There is something to that still; the body has an incredible power over our experience in the world. I sometimes think, what if we lived in a genderless society? What if there was an incredible spectrum in the way people presented themselves? Would we still need to transition? Obviously there would be more of a slipperiness to that, but personally I think I probably still would have transitioned, if I was in that position. I think I still would have taken hormones. There’s something powerful and innate about the body and the experience of living in a body that does make the physical aspects of being trans* still a really important part of the conversation."

ZD: "Definitely... And I think that as the procedures become more possible and available and accessible to everybody they might also become more painless. If you think about the future, are we going to experience the same amount of pain after a surgery that we do today? Will we be able to knock ourselves out for a month and not feel it at all? Who knows. In a hundred years, you might be able to change your gender like you change a pair of clothes."
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This photograph is from Post / Relationship / X.

"After the Whitney Biennial opened, Rhys and I went to Ojai for a long weekend. Rhys took this picture of me in the bathroom mirror. It was a rustic mountain retreat and our last vacation together." —ZD
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"This was actually taken years ago when Rhys and I first moved into Ron Athey's house in Silverlake. It's the front office, which is perched high above the street... We lived there together from 2009-2013." —ZD
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"Rhys took this picture of me through the window of a sauna. In some of the outtakes of these pictures, you can see his reflection in the glass, like a double exposure." —ZD
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"Self-portrait as a 27-year-old ghost." —ZD
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"We used to play drowning games for fun on vacation. Kidding! This is actually a hard picture for me to look at." —ZD
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"The bedroom Rhys grew up in — in Chapel Hill, NC, in 2013. We were visiting his parents and doing artist talks at UNC and Duke." —ZD
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"Rhys took this picture of me...at a gay bar in Venice Beach, after doing a freelance gig where he covertly filmed, for posterity, a guy proposing to his girlfriend." —ZD
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"A headache." —ZD
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"Rhys and his cat, Lady Platinum, at home in the blood-red bathroom." —ZD

Click through for more of Ernst and Drucker's intimate photos.
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