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Walking into “The Phoenix Project,” a collection of photographs taken by the collaborative team Sherwood True on view at Pyramid Atlantic, the welcoming image is an older man donning sunglasses and a ball cap. His handmade, sequined, and fringed frock covers little of his chest—the rest of his form is contained in a pair of bikini briefs. Seated at a table outdoors, cigarette dangling from his wry grin, a one-hitter and lighter lay next to a pamphlet titled “Rodeo,” the cover of which is graced by a shirtless stud in a cowboy hat. The ambiguity of background and absurdity of elements serve to focus the viewer’s investigation to an American type beyond narrative context. It’s a fitting introduction to an exhibition of largely formal portraits, whose ambivalent architectural backdrops emphasize the outsider status of its closely cropped subjects.
The legacy of photographers known to capture the unusual people of American subculture—Weegee, Diane Arbus, or Danny Lyon—doesn’t go unnoticed in the series of images, taken each February in Phoenix between 2012 and 2015. Viewers also enter into a consideration of the controversy long inherent to the photographic attentiveness toward those who escape mainstream notions of beauty and propriety, tethering as it does between challenging the status quo and exploitation.
Sherwood True, the shared pseudonym of Silver Spring-based photographers James Sherwood and Shirley True, scarcely escape such accusations based on the project’s context. The bravado portraits of drag queens as well as young and skinny/old and plump bodies covered in piercings and tattoos were taken at the Gay Cowboy Rodeo and the Phoenix Body Art Festival, respectively, where participants appear honored to pose.
The resulting images are closely aligned with those of Catherine Opie’s Being and Having series of portraits in the 1990s. As with Opie, Sherwood True’s large scale, high-key color photos are sumptuous and pleasurable to look at, even as their subjects gaze unabashedly into the lens to engage viewers in ways that are alternatively inviting and disconcerting. Shooting outdoors, Sherwood True replaces Opie’s bright studio backgrounds with architectonic backdrops of gaudy greens and bubblegum pinks that brighten their subjects along with their widespread tattoos, thrusting them forward into the space of our uncomfortable curiosity. But Opie was part of the LGBTQ community she photographed. The frankness and opacity of her images challenged binary thinking toward gender and sexuality in the era they were made. “The Phoenix Project” photos not only appear derivative of Opie, it’s unclear whether they simply document, blithely celebrate, or capitalize upon those most committed to their own sense of alterity.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the project is its collaborative nature: The project’s untitled images of anonymous subjects reflects the determined obscurity of Sherwood True, who chose not to individually attribute the works. The consistency of tonal range and compositional effects may attest to an underlying reverence for these arresting subjects, but ultimately pays tribute to the real intimacy found in creative partnership.