Casa Susanna photographs from America’s first trans network on display at the AGO until April 14, 2024
Casa Susanna is an exhibition of snapshots taken by members of the earliest known American crossdressing network, which operated in upstate New York from the mid-1950s through the end of the 1960s Now on display at the AGO in Toronto, it’s the first standalone exhibition that showcases more than 350 candid and often playful snapshots, highlighting the role that photography played in affirming identity and building community
Co-curated by Sophie Hackett, the AGO’s curator of photography and Dr. Isabelle Bonnet, a photography historian and independent curator, this is the first museum exhibition dedicated to what are collectively known as the Casa Susanna photographs, and features previously unseen images.
From the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, a network of crossdressers found refuge in the Catskills region of New York State. Susanna with her wife Marie created safe spaces at two modest resorts for guests to freely crossdress en femme at a time of strictly defined gender roles. Guests used photography to build their femme identities and their network. These snapshots – candid, playful, and at times staged, blending family and fashion photography conventions – have since come to be known collectively as the Casa Susanna photographs.
Casa Susanna brings together for the first time three collections of photographs created by this network of crossdressers: from the AGO’s holdings, from the personal collection of artist Cindy Sherman, and from the collection of Betsy Wollheim. Seen together, these 250 images, provide insight into this historically significant crossdressing scene, allowing us to develop an understanding of this world and its connection to the lives of trans and crossdressing people today. These affirming photographs circulated among crossdressers by mail, as well as in the pages of Transvestia, a community magazine, copies of which will also be on view
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated publication that brings together recent research, an expansive selection of photographs, and pages of Transvestia, adding another important account of the ways photographs have served to build queer communities. Co-published by Editions Textuel, it includes essays by co-curators French photo historian, Isabelle Bonnet and AGO Curator of Photography, Sophie Hackett, as well as noted American scholar of trans history Susan Stryker.
“These joyful snapshots provide insight into a historically significant crossdressing scene, allowing us to develop an understanding of this world and its connection to the lives of trans and crossdressing people today,” says Sophie Hackett, AGO Curator of Photography. “Looking at these snapshots, I am not only touched by their familial atmosphere and conviviality, but also reminded of the ways photography has been – and continues to be – used as a powerful tool for affirming personal identity and forging community.”
“At a time when trans people – and more broadly, 2SLGBTQ+ people – are attacked from many sides, I think that this exhibition and this book serve a public purpose: the story of the members of Casa Susanna, which is that of thousands of people across the world throughout the centuries, call for respect and tolerance,” says Dr. Isabelle Bonnet. “The personalities that gradually emerged during my research, notably those of Gloria, Kate, Vicky, Felicity, Gail, Susanna and Marie, filled me with admiration and I hope to pass it on to those who come to see the exhibition.”
Bringing together three collections of amateur photographs for the first time — from the AGO’s holdings, from the personal collection of artist Cindy Sherman, and from the collection of Betsy Wollheim, the exhibition tells the story of a community of men, including Wollheim’s own father, who regularly met at two upstate New York retreats organized by Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie, where they were free to safely dress as women and express their feminine identities. Organized thematically, the exhibition shines a spotlight on many of the community’s leading figures and describes how and where they came gathered and the feminine ideals they celebrated.
Snapshots of and by the community – all White, upper middle-class professionals – reveal days spent dressing up, swimming, playing cards, and generally enjoying life as women. The photographs bring to light the type of femininity they aspired to, drawn from images in their visual culture, for instance widely seen in magazines like Ladies Home Journal: traditional and appropriate, even as the crossdressers defied the strict gender prescriptions of their time. The exhibition includes copies of Transvestia magazine, a clandestine publication founded by Virginia Prince in 1960 that provided a vital forum for connection, information, and images to crossdressers across the United States and beyond. It also highlights the radical nature of this community, and the role photographs played in affirming and sustaining trans identities.
A leader in the presentation and research of vernacular photography, the AGO has acquired numerous collections showcasing historically underrepresented photographers, makers, and subjects, among them the Casa Susanna Collection. First discovered at the 26th Street flea market in New York City by furniture dealers Michel Hurst and Robert Swope in 2004, the AGO’s collection of 340 Casa Susanna photographs (acquired in 2015) originally belonged to Susanna Valenti.
Accompanying the exhibition is a 480-page illustrated publication, edited by co-curators Sophie Hackett and Isabelle Bonnet. Bringing together recent research, an expansive selection of photographs, and pages of Transvestia, Casa Susanna was shortlisted for the Paris Photo – Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards 2023. Published by Editions Textuel in both English and French, Casa Susanna is available at shopAGO for $73.
Admission to Casa Susanna is free for all Indigenous Peoples, AGO Members, Annual Passholders and visitors aged 25 and under. Same day tickets can be booked in person and online. For more details on how to book your tickets or to become a Member or Annual Passholder, visit AGOca.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.