Academic, historian, traveler, drag queen, activist, guitar player, gold medal Olympian..
I tend to only shoot graduation and headshot portraits in the month of February. While I love shooting any kind of portrait all the time, I really need to produce creative and editorial portraits fairly regularly for my own sense of fulfillment. I always have a short-list of creative portraits I’d like to tackle next, and Chris Frazer had been steadily working his way toward the top of that list.
I first came to know Chris through Facebook. We knew several people in common and with a common interest in social justice issues, were Facebook pals despite not having met in person. When he agreed to be my portrait subject, my research uncovered more information that confirmed Chris was going to be an excellent subject for a character study; and character is exactly what I got.
In portraiture there are all sorts of convention about men and women and how they’re meant to be posed, composed and lit. Photographing Chris and his multi-dimensions necessitated that I have someone else in the studio: C. Leah Cruise. Cruise is Mr. Frazer’s Drag Queen alter-ego. Because it takes two hours (!) for Chris to transform from “drab to drag” it made the most sense for me to both meet and photograph C. Leah Cruise before I met and photographed Chris Frazer. This presented a number of questions about how I was going to approach these images. If I were to photograph a transgendered woman, I’d be composing, lighting and posing a woman. What about a man, dressed as the character of a woman? As it turns out: same thing. Shoot from across or above, soft and long lighting, angular posing with gentle hands, etc.. My portraiture generally depicts people with their lips together, but C. Leah is known for her vivacious smile and warm personality so anything less than a full expression would have been a disservice.
I learned most of what I discovered about Chris during the initial part of the shoot. My research had uncovered a history professor at St. Francis Xavier University who had taught at Harvard University for several years, teaching history with a focus on Mexico and Cuba and an interest in bandits, pirates and gender (how cool is that?!)! On one of those “rate my professor” pages, among the usual comments about marking, textbooks and teaching style one former student had helpfully articulated the Chris Frazer has “the best ankles anywhere by men or women’s standards”. HA! There are a few links out there than touch briefly on Chris’ drag persona and activism but I learned so much more.
Born queer on the Canadian Prairies to a multi-sibling, working-class family, Chris had to be resilient but such a genesis also created a grounded individual. Chris is very Canadian. He says “eh” all the time and has a quintessential Canadian accent. We spoke for a while about what growing up queer in Canada was like. A self-outed lesbian aunt partially paved the way but Canadian identity took a long time to embrace queer culture, helped along by pop-culture heroes “The Kids in the Hall”. That said, Chris isn’t a gay stereotype. He’s tough physically as well. He mentioned with humble brevity that he was a gold-medalist in lacrosse (of all sports) in the Alberta Summer Olympic Games in 1974!
Although Chris never finished his senior year of high school, he went on to complete a PHD from Brown University and taught for a year at Harvard University before being an associate professor at St. Francis Xavier University where he currently works and acts as a Faculty Advisor to LGBTQ Students at StFX.
As if that weren’t several lifetimes in one lifetime, Chris has also photographed in Israeli occupied Palestinian refugee camps, represented communist interests in North Korea (as in he was actually IN North Korea and met Kim Il Sung!) and produces the fantastically popular “Priscilla, Queen of the Highlands“, an annual production.
All told, I’m richer for knowing Chris. I’m happy to know this dynamic story, to have created these portraits and to have a new friend!