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Another kind of Christmas: Casa Susanna

In 2003 at a flea market in Manhattan, antique collectors Robert Swope and Michel Hurst discovered an innocuous looking cardboard box containing almost 400 photographic prints taken at a retreat in New Jersey for men who chose to dress as women.

Established in the mid-1950s by Tito Valenti – who dressed as a woman called Susanna, and features in many of the photographs – and his wife Marie, the resort operated in two locations in upstate New York: Chevalier d’Eon from around 1955 to 1963 and Casa Susanna from 1964 to 1969. These candid photographs were frequently taken by the subjects and offer an intimate insight into the lives of Casa Susanna’s visitors.

Take a look at these festive photos from the early 60s, which will be on display as part of our photography exhibition Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins (28 Feb–27 May), touching on themes of gender and sexuality, drugs and addiction, youth culture and minorities of all kinds.

 

Attributed to Andrea Susan, [Christmas card from Gloria in a red suit], 1962, chromogenic print, Art Gallery of Ontario. 2014/798 © Art Gallery of Ontario

This card features Gloria posing in front of the Christmas tree dressed in a matching red suit.

Smoking cigarettes, reading fashion magazines and socialising, these images show the guests interacting with each other – with their outfits painstakingly assembled and their hair perfectly coiffed. Men from all over the country gravitated to this safe haven in order to dress as they wished, spending time amongst like-minded individuals and documenting their transformation through the medium of photography.

Smoking cigarettes, reading fashion magazines and socialising, these images show the guests interacting with each other

‘We’ve proven … that to take TV (transvestite) pictures it isn’t always necessary to stand in front of the camera making believe we are some sort of Rita Hayworth or Elizabeth Taylor… we decided to register on film the healthy expression of fun and joy that pervades a TV gathering…’

Susanna, Transvestia Magazine, Issue p.69

Attributed to Andrea Susan, [Christmas card from Gloria in a black dress], 1965, chromogenic print, Art Gallery of Ontario. 2014/799, © Art Gallery of Ontario

This card features Gloria posing in front of the Christmas tree dressed in a glamorous sequinned evening gown with satin gloves.

Men from all over the country gravitated to this safe haven in order to dress as they wished

These unique vernacular prints that recall a family album vary in subject between every day, almost banal scenes to more carefully constructed presentations such as the festive attire donned for a number of photographic Christmas cards.

These cards would likely have been circulated between different visitors to Casa Susanna with the subjects wearing seasonal party outfits and posing in domestic environments decorated for the festive season. Little is known about these cards, but each feature different visitors to Casa Susanna in an assortment of glamorous outfits, reflecting the fashions of the day.

Unknown American, Photograph, [Christmas card from Vicki], 1962, chromogenic print, Art Gallery of Ontario. 2014/801 © Art Gallery of Ontario

Many of the photographs when taken in a domestic setting have the curtains drawn, allowing for a safe environment for the subjects to dress and assume their female identity.

The nature of these cards made them easy to circulate, demonstrating the dissemination of the images amongst a trusted circle of friends.

Unknown American, Photograph, [Christmas card from Jody], 1965, chromogenic print, Art Gallery of Ontario. 2014/800, © Art Gallery of Ontario

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins takes place from 28 Feb–27 May 2018 in our Art Gallery.

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