First standalone exhibition showcases more than 350 candid and often playful snapshots, highlight’s role of photography in affirming identity and building community
TORONTO — This winter, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and Rencontres D’Arles present Casa Susanna, an exhibition of snapshots taken by members of the earliest known American crossdressing network, which operated in upstate New York from the mid-1950s through the end of the 1960s. Opening on December 23, 2023, and co-curated by Sophie Hackett, the AGO’s curator of photography and Dr. Isabelle Bonnet, a photography historian and independent curator, this is the first museum exhibition dedicated to what are collectively known as the Casa Susanna photographs and features previously unseen images.
“These joyful snapshots provide insight into a historically significant crossdressing scene, allowing us to develop an understanding of this world and its connection to the lives of trans and crossdressing people today,” says Sophie Hackett, AGO Curator of Photography. “Looking at these snapshots, I am not only touched by their familial atmosphere and conviviality, but also reminded of the ways photography has been – and continues to be – used as a powerful tool for affirming personal identity and forging community.”
“At a time when trans people - and more broadly, 2SLGBTQ+ people - are attacked from many sides, I think that this exhibition and this book serve a public purpose: the story of the members of Casa Susanna, which is that of thousands of people across the world throughout the centuries, call for respect and tolerance,” says Dr. Isabelle Bonnet. “The personalities that gradually emerged during my research, notably those of Gloria, Kate, Vicky, Felicity, Gail, Susanna and Marie, filled me with admiration and I hope to pass it on to those who come to see the exhibition.”
Bringing together three collections of amateur photographs for the first time — from the AGO’s holdings, from the personal collection of artist Cindy Sherman, and from the collection of Betsy Wollheim, the exhibition tells the story of a community of men, including Wollheim’s own father, who regularly met at two upstate New York retreats organized by Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie, where they were free to safely dress as women and express their feminine identities. Organized thematically, the exhibition shines a spotlight on many of the community’s leading figures and describes how and where they came gathered and the feminine ideals they celebrated.
Snapshots of and by the community – all White, upper middle-class professionals – reveal days spent dressing up, swimming, playing cards, and generally enjoying life as women. The photographs bring to light the type of femininity they aspired to, drawn from images in their visual culture, for instance widely seen in magazines like Ladies Home Journal: traditional and appropriate, even as the crossdressers defied the strict gender prescriptions of their time. The exhibition includes copies of Transvestia magazine, a clandestine publication founded by Virginia Prince in 1960 that provided a vital forum for connection, information, and images to crossdressers across the United States and beyond. It also highlights the radical nature of this community, and the role photographs played in affirming and sustaining trans identities.
A leader in the presentation and research of vernacular photography, the AGO has acquired numerous collections showcasing historically underrepresented photographers, makers, and subjects, among them the Casa Susanna Collection. First discovered at the 26th Street flea market in New York City by furniture dealers Michel Hurst and Robert Swope in 2004, the AGO’s collection of 340 Casa Susanna photographs – acquired in 2015 – originally belonged to Susanna Valenti.
Accompanying the exhibition is a 480-page illustrated publication, edited by co-curators Sophie Hackett and Isabelle Bonnet. Bringing together recent research, an expansive selection of photographs, and pages of Transvestia, Casa Susanna was shortlisted for the Paris Photo - Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards 2023. Published by Editions Textuel in both English and French, Casa Susanna is available at shopAGO for $73.
Admission to Casa Susanna is free for all Indigenous Peoples, AGO Members, Annual Passholders and visitors aged 25 and under. Same day tickets can be booked in person and online. For more details on how to book your tickets or to become a Member or Annual Passholder, visit AGO.ca.
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Casa Susanna is coproduced by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Rencontres D’Arles.
Martha LA McCain
ABOUT THE AGO
Located in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the largest art museums in North America, attracting approximately one million visitors annually. The AGO Collection of more than 120,000 works of art ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art to significant works by Indigenous and Canadian artists and European masterpieces. The AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions by diverse and underrepresented artists from around the world. In 2019, the AGO launched a bold new initiative designed to make the museum even more welcoming and accessible with the introduction of free admission for anyone 25 years and under and a $35 annual pass. Visit AGO.ca to learn more.
The AGO is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts, and generous contributions from AGO Members, donors, and private-sector partners.
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