Los Angeles-based British photographer, Magnus Hastings, has spent the last spent three years shooting images for his latest book, Rainbow Revolution, in London, LA, New York, and San Francisco. Hastings’ elegantly simple concept—each subject was asked to strike a pose in a custom made white box—allowed for a wealth of creativity and individual expression of gender identity and sexuality across the LGBTQ+ spectrum. The follow up to his acclaimed 2016 debut book Why Drag?, continues to explore gender performance and the lived queer experience through a series over 300 celebratory, confrontational, witty, sexy, and political photographs along with intimate and insightful personal essays from a cross-section of those featured. The participants Hastings enlisted are from a diverse range of backgrounds, professions, ages, and ethnicities, with some familiar LGBTQ+ performers and activists including pop icon Boy George, musician Boy Radio, actor Nico Tortorelli, Drag Race stars like Peppermint, Shangela, Eureka O’Hara, and Alaska, author Juno Dawson, UK LGBTQ charity Stonewall co-founder Lisa Power, and actress and writer Shakina Nayfack.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Magnus Hastings about how he built his successful career, why he’s particularly drawn to drag, his commitment to making Rainbow Revolution as diverse as possible, and his love for 90s Madonna.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the book. I’ve looked through it several times now and every time I’ve gone back to it something different has jumped out at me.
Magnus Hastings: “Thank you, and I’m so glad to hear you say that because I wanted it to be a book that people would keep going back to, but I’ve been working on it for three years now and I know these pictures so well that I can’t tell anymore.”
How did you go about deciding which images to include in the book itself as I know it was part of a larger project that was originally entitled #GayFace?
“It was really difficult. I made a shortlist of the pictures and then I spent 10 weeks with them stuck up all over the walls of my apartment. I was like Carrie Mathison in Homeland basically! I was like a crazy person, putting one image next to another and trying to work out what would go best with another image and which pictures should be smaller. Making the decision that some really good ones had to be smaller was hard, because they’re just as important as the larger ones. During that process it would start to look perfect, but then there’d be a great flop where it just didn’t work. It was a hideous thing to do. I’d actually get up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Okay, what about that next to that, and that?!’ But when the final version came together I really felt like the book had a proper through line and that it all worked well.”
How did your interest in photography first emerge and then eventually become your profession?
“My dad was a semi-professional portrait photographer. He shot images of lots of beautiful women and I’d watch him in his darkroom as a child. I was fascinated as the images come into contact with the chemicals. It was all very beautiful and fantastical to me, and I fell in love with it back then. When I was about 15, he hadn’t done any photography for years, so I stole all of his old equipment and turned my bedroom into a darkroom. I didn’t take any lessons and just through trial and error I taught myself. I can remember trying to use my bedside light because I didn’t know any better! I’m sure it would have been easier to have sat down and done a course, but no, I just did it myself! I can remember the day when the first picture came out how I wanted it to which felt amazing. I was a child actor, so although I always enjoyed photography I didn’t initially follow it through as a career. My biggest regret really is that I didn’t just go and study it. My dad tried to help me get into it. He was friends with Terry Donovan and he was trying to get me to be his assistant and I was like, ‘No, I’m not interested in that, I want to be an actor’. Now I’m like, ‘What the fuck was I thinking?!’ That would have been so amazing! While I was doing a show in the West End I decided I never wanted to act again and switched back to photography. Within six months I was earning a living at it and it felt like it was what I should be doing, it just made sense. I became a really successful headshot photographer in London, and one day I was supposed to do a big shoot with the boyband, McFly, who were really popular at the time, but I couldn’t do it because I had headshot sessions booked. That’s when I thought, this is stupid, and stopped doing headshots. Although it was really lucrative it wasn’t something that I could actually build on, whereas now I sell a lot of prints of my work. My biggest seller is actually a picture I took 15 years ago, so thank God I’d switched by then.”
You mentioned recalling the first image that you were really satisfied with when you were teaching yourself photography, what was it?
“It was when I was still at school. I imagine I’d think it was terrible if I saw it now, but I was really happy with it at the time because I’d managed to get really contrasty tones. I’d been using normal lights and I didn’t know that was why I couldn’t get really strong contrasts when I was printing. Then when I used sunlight I had one shot that was amazing. So when I started my career properly as a photographer I only did natural light, but when I was asked to shoot UK girlband Girls Aloud for a magazine cover I went, ‘Oh, I might need to use a light for this!’ So I did a two day course at this place in Brixton to check that my ideas of what I should do with light were right and that my instincts were right. I did one day of it and they set us a project and I thought, I haven’t got time to do their project because I’m shooting Girls Aloud! I thought, I’m not coming back like a arsehole going here’s my photograph of Girls Aloud!”
Having trained and worked as an actor do you think there’s some crossover of skills with photography?
“I did three years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and it was the best time ever, I’d never give it up for the world. I don’t want to act now, but my work is theatrical, so yeah, I think it totally influences my work, especially with this project, which I describe as mini theatre pieces. It’s not a retouch project, you can see the strings and the lo-fi effects and that’s the point. When some people go, ‘Well, you could just retouch that’, I’m like, ‘Why would I even build a white box if I was going to retouch it?!’ The whole point is the satisfaction of going in there and creating your own little theatre world and saying what you want to say with it. The only thing I did was occasionally spin the box in post. Like Tito Bonito the burlesque performer dressed as Robin climbing up the wall, because with that the comedy is the reference to the old TV show where you’d see him clearly walking across the floor. Same with Liam Riley as Spider-Man, the images were spun, but not retouched.”
Your first image for this project was Alaska and your last book was Why Drag? What’s the draw for you of photographing drag queens?
“I was a cross-dressing little drag child! I was always lip-syncing and singing and had my mother screaming at me, ‘Will you ever play the boy?!’ when I was putting on plays. It’s my world and I kind of got shamed out of it as a child. So I get drag and I don’t feel like I’m an outsider going, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting subject.’ I feel like I come from inside it. I’d already photographed some drag queens in London and then I flew to Sydney for the first time around 17 years ago. It was such an amazing drag scene over there, so not like London drag. I just felt like I’d arrived home. I saw Vanity Faire perform one night and then I asked to photograph her. She agreed and it all started from there. I became very well-known in the drag community and when I moved to LA, Courtney Act had moved here at the same time as me and we were doing loads of stuff together. She introduced me to Willam and various other queens and I started shooting lots of drag. I thought I should be doing something with it and so I had an exhibition in New York and from the exhibition I got got a literary agent and then a book deal. Drag has always been a complete love of mine and really important to me.”
With Why Drag? you explored that duality of personas, and one image I found striking in the new book is Demetre Daskalakis in his suit and you can see his tattoos and his leather gear underneath.
“Oh, Dr. Demetre Daskalakis is this incredible guy is. He’s an infectious disease specialist and he was on the front line in New York with Covid-19 and he’s now the CDC’s Director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention. He’s got a whole leather world going on, but he’s also this buttoned-up professional so that was the whole thing with his image. Then he came back with his husband and a friend and they did the two pups together.”
With those kind of concepts in the book did the subjects generally bring their own ideas to you?
“That was his idea, but it was very collaborative. With the book in general there was a mixture, some people had definite ideas, but with some of them I’d come up with an idea and then cast it. For instance with the merman, I remembered seeing a picture of a Benjamin Britten opera with these waves that looked like really bad cardboard, so I wanted to do cardboard waves and have a larger, not a ripped obvious gay, but a screaming queen chunky man.”
“Beau Banks came to me and said he wanted to do a shoot, and I said, ‘I don’t want a porn star a jockstrap because I’ve got enough of that!’ I saw pictures of him in army gear and so I suggested, ‘What about we turn you into a campy army pinup flying on an H bomb?’ Then of course I had to have the H bomb made, so there were some big concepty things like that. Other times people would just turn up, like Nico Tortorella who came along with a marker pen and started drawing this design on the back of the box which was amazing and beautiful.”
How conscious a decision was it to make the book really diverse to represent as much of the LGBTQ+ spectrum as possible?
“Majorly, I’ve always been very conscious of making it diverse. Why Drag? was very much about that Clark Kent/Superman fantasy thing and it wasn’t really trans drag, even though some of the girls in it have come out as trans. With this new book I really wanted to do something that was about the entire community. On my last trip to London I was going through the images and I felt like everybody coming and asking to be in it were white men, so on that trip I had to say no cis white men allowed, so it was something that I was very conscious of. I asked Kayza Rose who has a Black Lives Matter sign in her image to help me find people.”
Did the project expand your own perceptions of LGBTQ+ identity to some degree?
“Yeah, I think it’s a journey and that’s why I wanted to include essays from all sorts of people that would actually help people coming to the book to empathise and understand where people were coming from and just relax. For instance, using someone’s correct pronouns is something that is important to them so take the time to make the effort. Funnily enough, #GayFace was the original name of the project, and I was forever explaining that it was supposed to encompass everybody. I loved it because it’s a phrase that’s always used as an insult and so the idea was to ask, ‘What is the face of gay in today’s world?’ The answer is, ‘We’re fucking awesome and incredible and diverse.’ But it was actually Rosalyne Blumenstein who is a trans woman who said she’d fought for trans rights within the gay community and that gay men had always been the most dismissive. So she said, ‘I want to be in your book and I want to be part of this, but I can’t in good faith be in something under the name GayFace. So then it was either going to be Rainbow Revolution or ‘Kaleidoscope’, but actually I think Rainbow Revolution is much more of this moment. Luckily it feels celebratory rather than aggressive because Trump’s going, thank fucking God, because it would be so depressing otherwise.”
I really liked those personal statements about identity that you include throughout the book.
“I think they elevate it and I tried to chose very different people to write them. Actually, I had dinner with my mother and my uncle, who are all in their seventies, and my stepdad who’s in his eighties, and they’re a little overwhelmed by all of the new definitions and labels, but they want to know about them. So the essays allow you to get an insight from someone who is living their own truth. I figured that I should answer my own questions too, so I wrote my own essay. It was the most insane thing to do. Halfway through writing it I started to cry. I realised I was writing about my mum and it was something aggressive as usual, but then I really saw it from her point of view and I burst into ugly crying tears, almost fetal. So I had a whole cathartic moment while I was writing that because I was so inspired by how honest other people had been. Now I feel like it’s such an important part of the book because it gives a context and it makes it about a moment in time where everything is changing and it allows you in. I think that’s what makes it special.”
The book is very sex positive, was that something that was important to you?
“Yeah, and positive about sex work too. There are a lot of sex workers in there. Porn is a massive part of particularly gay men’s world. As the LGBTQ+ community we’re supposed to be the people who are non-judgmental and actually the whole world has shifted so massively anyway. OnlyFans is like the new student loan basically and there’s a generation of young people that all share nudes with each other. It’s all out there, it’s all online and they deal with sex in a different way. Also, sex work really is just a job and the people I’ve featured in the book who are in sex work all enjoy it and that’s just what they do.”
There’s quite a bit of leather in there too.
“I built a box at Folsom Street Fair so there are quite a few images from there. If I ever see another flaccid penis again it’ll be too soon, it was enough at Folsom! So it goes from porn stars to more fetishy stuff. But yeah, it’s all part of part of our world and as I said we are supposedly the people who are non-judgemental. That’s why drag and porn has always gone hand in hand and the idea is you don’t want people to judge you, and you want to be accepted yourself, so therefore we are ideally a more accepting breed I guess.”
An image I’ve gone back to a few times is the one of Eureka O’Hara, it’s so striking. I imagine it’s probably hard for you to say and it might be something that changes, but is there a photograph in the book that you’re particularly proud of?
“There are so many because they’re all personal and I remember doing them all. It’s like a big a craft project really. But I love that one of Eureka too because they came to me with that idea of writing all sorts of things all over their body and I said, ‘Let’s just stick with one word.’ I had seen too many images where people had writing on them, so at least it felt like a spin on it to have the same word repeated.”
“I also love the House of Avalon picture because they came in and painted the box pink and we had a full on tequila night! If they’re going to do anything they’re going to do it the best! I sealed them in with paper, so I love that one because it really transforms the box. I love Riley Reid on the six foot inflatable penis too! I had that all made, the penis and the nun’s outfit.”
Do you tend to have a set music playlist for when you’re doing a photoshoot or was there a specific one for this project?
“It’s always my own poptastic list on Spotify! I just stick it on and because it’s pop everyone loves it and I’ve got good pop taste!”
With someone like Boy George, and many of your other subjects in the book, who have been photographed so many times over the years, how conscious are you of trying to create something that we haven’t seen before?
“I’ve done loads of stuff with George over the years and he wrote the foreword for my last book. Funnily enough, he happened to be in London when I was and he came in with a proper outfit, then after the shoot he put his hat and coat on, and I went, ‘Get back in the box now!’ I love it because he looks handsome but it’s just kind of a bit incognito too and a bit downplayed, whereas before he was in this very specific George pose and I just felt the image that we ended up with was much more interesting than that.”
What’s your favourite LGBTQ+ culture or person, someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“As a child Some Like It Hot was my favourite film. I remember one day suddenly going, ‘Oh, it’s all about drag!’ It hadn’t ever clicked until that point that that was why I liked it so much! Then I’d have to say Madonna. Like many people I grew up watching what was called Madonna: Truth or Dare here in the US and In Bed with Madonna in the UK. It was just a world which I looked at and thought, that’s where I belong, and I just wanted to be there. So Madonna was a huge influence on me and I actually wrote a thesis on her in drama school. I was initially writing about Stanislavski and the bastardisation of his work into the Method, but I wrote one line and thought, I’m bored of this! Then I wrote ‘Madonna. Is she the greatest actress of our time using the world as her stage?’ She was so amazing to me. I was so obsessed with her and she was so important.”
“Her performing Vogue at the MTV Awards was the person we as queer people fell in love with. She was so unapologetic. She was doing the whole Dangerous Liaisons Restoration thing surrounded by gay men. It was fantastic, and camp and amazing. Then at the end she’s on this chaise and the audience is going ballistic and she gets carried off without even acknowledging them!”
By James Kleinmann
Rainbow Revolution is published by Chronicle Books and available now. ISBN: 9781797207827.