Vaughan Larsen Talks Milwaukee, Queerness, and "Rites": An Interview With The Artist
This week, PHEMME interviewed Vaughan Larsen, a Wisconsin-based photographer, about his ongoing photo series called "Rites." By re-staging old family photos and placing himself at the center, Larsen situates his queer identity and experience at the forefront of his art.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
PHEMME: Give us a bit of background—about your art career, your undergraduate experience.
VAUGHAN: So I started out in the theater program. I didn’t have an emphasis in visual art yet. I liked theater in high school, but [in college] I really had no idea what I was doing. So I dropped out of school for three years, and during that break I had my first photography show.
P: How did that happen?
V: I just randomly got this urge to start a new series. This was back in 2015. I was working on a project, and then I went back to school for photography. So that’s how that all started.
P: Sounds like you’ve done a lot over the past few years.
V: I’ve been actively showing my work since then, which is pretty cool. I feel pretty nice about saying that. I started [Rites] this past summer, the summer of 2018, for my senior thesis project. I’d had it in mind for a few years, but I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go with it. So being in the [University of Wisconsin Milwaukee] program really helped me figure that out.
P: So: how did "Rites" come to be?
V: I was at my grandparents’ 50th anniversary party, and [my grandmother] had her wedding photo out. It was an 11x14, pretty good-sized image, and it was printed on card stock, or cardboard—you know, how back in the 60’s they would print photos on mat-board—so it was really sturdy, almost more of an object than an image.
P: It sounds beautiful.
V: I was so enamored by it. Just the way that she had it displayed. It was a lone photo of her in the dress, in the lighting studio, looking over her shoulder, holding a bouquet of flowers. It just was really breathtaking, and I thought it was lovely.
P: Did you do anything with that particular photo?
V: I asked her if I could borrow it so I could scan it, and she said no, which kind of upped the intrigue. And then I REALLY wanted to recreate it. I just was like, “I don’t know why, but I really need to recreate this image.” So I recreated her wedding photo, and it was kind of a one-off self-portrait. But a lot of people were really into it.
P: How so?
V: Well, I had a slight mustache in that wedding photo, and someone pointed out, “Oh, that’s interesting, you’re kind of playing with gender, with the dress.” And I thought, “Oh, I didn’t even think about that at all!” (laughs) I think that’s when art is most interesting: when people do something that they’re subconsciously thinking about.
P: Identity seems like a recurring theme in your art.
V: This isn’t my first project where I’ve tried to show my experience within society, being non-binary and gay. I guess queer. Whatever. I feel like labels are exhausting. (laughs) But this project has been the most successful, where [cis] people are have said to me, “Wow, I’ve never thought of that.” I’m like, yeah, this is how people like [me] think of our lives. It’s fascinating because I’m actually getting across what I was aiming to get across.
P: That’s great.
V: Yeah. In general, people—especially non-queer people—have been very receptive to it. Which is pretty heartwarming.
P: We noticed that you use several different models in this series. Any particular reason?
V: I really am trying to make a point of using people who are close to me in the photos. A lot of them are couple photos, so I’m really trying to [include] men that I treasure in my life.
P: So, in shooting these photos, what does your process look like?
V: I have a photographer—blah, taboo (laughs)—but I do still maintain that I’m the photographer, since the person taking the photos is really just a stand-in to help me. Anyway, I’ll have the photographer hold the original image on their phone—the one that we’re re-creating—and then I’ll have them hold it up to the camera [for reference], and then I’ll go back behind the camera and [make adjustments.] I’m really, really picky. But I’m also trying to let go of recreating the exact image, cause I think that’s really limiting to me. But thus far, [Rites] has generally been about recreating the images to a T.
P: Tell us a bit about your influences.
V: Yeah. So, Gillian Wearing is one—she does self-portraits where she makes silicone masks to make herself look like another family member, or like herself at a different age. Each of her self-portraits is an exact replica of an original photo. Side-by-side, it’ll look exactly the same. But then you notice in her photo, there’s the line around her eyes where the mask ends, and it’s [her] actual eyes coming through.
P: Spooky. Why do you think you like her work?
V: It questions identity: how much of the actual person do you need to have their identity there, how much of yourself do you need to have there to call it a self-portrait. She’s just playing with her relationship to that person as she looks through them. Which I think is really fascinating.
P: You live in Milwaukee. What is that like for your art?
V: I often wonder if I would be making the same type of work if I lived in a bigger city. If I lived in LA, maybe I wouldn’t feel as much like—as much like an outsider. Maybe that’s not the right word. Excluded, maybe. I don’t know.
P: Big cities are definitely art hubs.
V: But maybe it’s benefitting me that I live in Wisconsin. Milwaukee is pretty big, and there’s a good art community here. I have a queer group of friends. There’s a queer community, so I feel comfortable. I think that community is necessary for my work to be understood.
P: So, what’s next?
V: I’m about to finish my undergrad, so I’m thinking about where I might want to live. I finish in May. Right now, I’m applying to residencies and internships, so hopefully I’ll have something like that lined up for this summer. We’ll see. I’m thinking I’ll stay in Milwaukee until next summer. By then, I want to have enough money saved up to backpack through Asia. Woo! I think that would be really cool. Some people I know have been doing that kind of thing, like long term, six to twelve months, and I just am enamored by the idea of that.
P: Any upcoming art plans?
V: I’m not really thinking too much about a big thing for my art, other than residencies and internships. But I do want to backpack before I have a big commitment.
P: What’s your advice for other artists?
V: Maybe a tip: I think everyone should reach out to each other. Don’t be afraid to send an email to someone. Or reach out to another artist. [They] aren’t out of reach. So, hint hint, anyone who reads this—feel free to reach out to me! (laughs) I feel like people are too afraid to do that. But I don’t know. Who knows. The world is crazy. •
Larsen's project statement for "Rites" is as follows:
"In the self-portraits within my body of work Rites, I reenact ceremonies from heteronormative, cis-gendered culture. These photographs are direct parodies of experiences my family members lived through, but by altering details that are more aligned with my queer identity and experience. By over-emphasizing the already performative nature of these events, my work provides the opportunity to participate in celebrations, ceremonies, and rites of passage that are historically not as accessible to me as a queer-identifying person. Through these performances, my work questions the societal expectations and roles played by those engaged with these age old rituals, while showing the viewer the perspective of not feeling as welcomed to participate in life milestones."
You can find more of Larsen's work at vaughanlarsen.com, or follow him on Instagram @the.vaughan.show. If you know an artist that we should feature (or if you would like to write features for PHEMME), send an email to email@example.com.