Over a decade ago, a box of photos was found in a Manhattan flea market. These photos were unlike common flea market finds, but a large collection of images of men in drag. The photos are dated between 1950 and 1960 and it has been discovered that these photos took place at a retreat called Casa Susana.
Casa Susana was run by Titi Valenti, a court translator and his wife Marie, a New York wigmaker. There were two locations, the first called Chevalier d’Eon; after the 18th century spy transvestite, and Casa Susana.
With 150 acres of land, a large house and lake, Casa Susana was a perfect reclusive get away for the Manhattan businessmen leading an alternative lifestyle. There they could express their femininity, and be who they truly were without fear or judgement.
Guests at Casa Susana spent their time playing cards, dancing, eating and drinking. This retreat was seen as a sort of finishing school for transgender or cross dressing men. A place to improve make-up skills and have fun with friends. When it came to fashion, some of the women in the photos are dolled up and others take a more of a subtle approach in classic 1950’s American housewife style.
Robert Swope, a regular at the Manhattan flea market, found these photos by chance and knew he wanted to share what he had. In 2005 he published a selection in a book. In 2015 the images were purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario, which viewed them as a rare and early example of photography being used to explore gender identity. The 341 photographs are now part of its permanent collection.
For the upcoming show in London, the exhibit will include works pertaining to the alternative lifestyle theme with a focus on the topic of gender. The pieces will include images of yakuza criminals in Tokyo, child homelessness in Seattle and male sex workers in Chile. The exhibit will run from February 28 to May 27 2018.