New York Pride: Through the lens of Andrew Tess
The photographer’s Polaroid portrait project captures the desire for visibility in all corners of the city’s LGBTQIA+ community
Thursday 30 June 2022. By Samantha Panepinto Photography by Andrew Tess
Like most photographers, Andrew Tess prefers being behind the camera to in front of it.
‘I get camera shy,’ he tells me, in a haze of leftover glitter on the Monday after New York City Pride. Despite the shyness, he forced himself to appear on TV recently to promote this year’s Pride Project – a collection of his signature Polaroid photographs centering the queer community, collated annually since 2019.
‘It’s going to bring the project’s level of visibility up,’ he continues. ‘As queer people, whenever we’re doing projects, we have to be mindful of creating work that feels representative and reflective of the community as a whole. My hope is that by doing this work, it’s contributing to that visibility.’
The desire to highlight the less visible corners of queer communities has always been at the core of Tess’s intention. ‘The project was something I started right before COVID-19, in 2019,’ he said. ‘I felt this urge to shoot portraits with people in the community. The people I relate to and connect with often don’t get as much visibility as they should. This Pride weekend that visibility felt especially important.’
I know exactly what he means. In the weeks leading up to this year’s Pride, the city was buzzing with event preparations – back to full scale for the first time in three years. My gay group chat was pinging nonstop (anyone else have to put theirs on ‘do not disturb’?).
And then, Friday happened. The Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, and the shock of that decision and all its implications swept through queer communities. Barbecues became sign-making gatherings, parties became protests.
‘The news from the Supreme Court definitely impacted my idea of how I wanted to engage with the weekend,’ says Tess. ‘With that being said, as queer people, it always feels like we have to push forward, and we’re going to do everything we can to fight back and make things better as much as we can. But also, it’s important for us to have those moments to celebrate and have joy. There was a bittersweetness to the weekend.’
You can read that double edge in Tess’s portraits from the Soho House Pride party. At a glance, the photos show a glitzy party filled with queer celebs. But knowing the context, you start to wonder. Is Drag Race star Jorgeous pouting like that to showcase her impeccable makeup? Or because she’s distracted by the impending dissolution of bodily autonomy? Maybe both?
To add another level to the complex emotional landscape of the weekend, Jorgeous represents a franchise that’s been a source of deep comfort for Tess. RuPaul’s Drag Race was his tether to the community during the pandemic. He recently shot portraits of the queens on the current season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, and lit up when I asked about it.
‘I’m the biggest Drag Race aficionado. During COVID-19, keeping some form of stability and mental health was watching it on repeat. It was a way to feel I was connecting to people.’
This weekend isn’t the first time Tess has used photography to mine moments of queer joy out of heaviness. In the height of the pandemic, he took portraits outside the Javits Center, double-masked and gloved. The Polaroid photos, unsigned to accommodate social distancing measures, captured the uncertainty of the moment; the way everything – including Tess’s artistic process – was different.
During that summer, Tess’s focus shifted to documenting Black Lives Matter actions. Being able to capture these moments, he said, ‘felt like we were connecting to what I hope to connect with in the Pride Project. Especially marching for Black trans and queer lives, it just felt like more of a rootedness to celebrating Pride and more of a reason to celebrate it.’
Pride started as a protest. And that energy is still an integral part of the celebrations – particularly as the most marginalised among us continue to bear the brunt of regressive policies.
‘As a community, we’re always going to be taking two steps forward, one step back. There’s no such thing as perfection, but we’re building towards a better world. The highlight for me this weekend was the artists, the performers that were there. That for me is Pride.’
For Tess, the hope lies in the artists he documents each year with the Pride Project. ‘I loved photographing Neon Calypso, an incredible drag artist, and [fashion designer] Nicola Formichetti. His work, especially in the early 2010s, was something that really influenced me. Seeing him as a queer man creating work was really meaningful to me.’
But even as he regularly interacts with today’s queer icons, he stays true to his original idol. ‘There’s no one who has had more of a profound impact on my life than Madonna. I think I am who I am today because of her, period. People have had opinions of her in every stage of her career, saying she’s doing it wrong. That’s what a trailblazer is. That’s someone who’s avoiding the status quo, shifting the narrative, fighting for freedom.
‘I really admire that a lot. And it really shapes the way I want to live my life, and move forward. I don’t ever want to get stuck to one version of myself or one thing. I want to always reinvent myself, and grow as an artist and a human being.’