When Jane Hilton first travelled to the United States in the late 1980s, it sparked a fascination with all things Americana – something which became the hallmark of the London photographer's career. In her latest series, Drag Queen Cowboys, we discover stunning black and white portraits of drag queens in Nevada, inspired by a classic Western.
It was just before the pandemic that Hilton collaborated with the vibrant community of drag queen performers in the famous Sin City. She was on assignment in 2019 in New Mexico and afterwards detoured to Las Vegas, on the lookout for new communities for her book on Nevada. It was there that she ended up at "drag queen bingo by accident". After experiencing the girls' redefinition of the American dream one innuendo at a time, she was hooked and decided to make them the focus of her next project.
After gaining their trust, she steered them away from their nocturnal habitat of neon-lit bars and clubs and out into the Nevada plains. Taking cues from The Misfits – John Houston's American Western written by Arthur Miller, and starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable – Hilton used black and white film and a plate camera to shoot each performer, while making the most of "the natural light of the American West," as she explains, far away from any artificial lighting the performers were used to.
For the shoot, the drag queens chose and made their own 'Western' outfits including wigs, accessories and applying their own makeup. Hilton says while shooting the girls, she enjoyed hearing their stories about how drag liberated them.
Miss Alexis Mateo said: "When I am Alexis, it's just freedom to be whoever I am not. I get to be a little bit crazier. I have the personality I want to have at night and don't excuse it. As a boy, I am shyer, more reserved, more traditional. As a girl, it gives me power. I do things in my girl person that I would never do. Literally, drag is freedom for me. I am forty years old on paper. Inside I'm thirty-two. As a girl, I'm twenty-one and a virgin! I'm telling you...waiting for the perfect man. As a boy, well that’s another thing..."
This isn't the first time Hilton has been inspired by Nevada. In 1992, she was on a job shooting the desert landscape and she has continued to road trip her way across to this day. While the vast skies, endless highways and landscapes were the initial draw, it was the hidden or lesser-known worlds that beckoned. Her coffee-table books and portraits have won much acclaim, encompassing a modern folkloric American and featuring communities of cowboys, working girls, burlesque dancers, gun club members and circus folk.
Drag Queen Cowboys will go on show at Photo London 2021, Somerset House, London, from 9 until 12 September. To find out more, visit photolondon.org.