An Ethics of Attentiveness: Photographic Portraits and Deviant Dwelling in German Queer and Trans Archives

Birgit Lang and Katie Sutton


Photographic portraits of queer subjects from the early 20th century—shaped by early medical-scientific and legal practices—have often been identified with hegemonic ways of seeing, even when they re restaged in the present. In this article we argue that bringing an ethics of attentiveness to the analysis of such photographs reveals not only how embodied subjectivities were captured by the photographer’s lens, but also how our own feelings and sense of self shape our investments in “touching” the queer past. Attending to such “quiet frequencies” (Campt) of the queer photographic archive llows us to embrace a wide range of emotions, from shame, desire, and grief to desire, exhibitionism, and self-assurance. We argue that through their portraits, the queer subjects examined in our article ay claim to a form of “deviant dwelling” that incorporates a tension between pragmatism, conformity, and refusal. This tension resonates into the present, as curators and artists recirculate and cite archival genres of queer portraiture. In doing so, they create moments of transtemporal queer touch between today’s audiences and historical subjects, albeit in ways that do not always sit comfortably with contemporary attempts at queer world-making. (BL/KS)

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