Chris Panagakis Photography

(View the series.)

A party trick: that’s how the guestbook began. My subjects are my guests photographed on the various occasions of their visits to my home, The Larrabee Treehouse. In giving me an unguarded moment, I return to them the version of themselves we both know as truer than objective reality. 

A move in 2012 brought me the good fortune of an in-home studio, freeing me for the first time to shoot when and how I pleased. Simultaneously, my husband and I had acquired a treasure trove of QVC jewelry and clothing from his mother. Her failing health necessitated a move to a hospice, and good a son turns down neither the bounty of The Joan Rivers Collection nor genuine Orlon fur coats.

Not long after the move, my husband and I were showing off some of the Dianne Hooley Costume Collection to a few dinner guests. If there was ever a gay man who could resist the temptation to don a wig and some choice baubles, I’ve not met him, and this group was no exception. My trusty Miss Desmond, a museum piece Norman 2000D power pack, hummed into service, and I captured each one in his resplendence.

This was the reason I’d wanted a studio at home! I could create a visual guestbook as an ongoing record of the good times had under our extraordinary new roof. No need to restrict the festivities to just tipsy gay men, though, so at our very next gathering, I declared to all: “everyone must sign the guestbook with their face before leaving tonight!” Access to the costume collection was open to all, though some chose to appear without adornment.

As the guestbook filled over the next year, I found the portraits harboring open secrets. The act of putting on a costume had given my subjects a certain permission to expose more than they knew. Like how it’s easier to look someone in the eyes when you’re wearing sunglasses. Or perhaps it’s the regression of being a little kid and playing dress-up that erodes inhibition. Whatever the trigger, the barriers came down when the wigs went up.

Moreover, I found I’d inherited the legacy of classical, painted portraiture. My college mentor and greatest influence, Algis Balsys, would send me on weekly junkets to The Met to study the Impressionists and Modernists. I spent hours in front of Manet’s “Young Lady in 1866,” otherwise known as “Woman with a Parrot,” absorbing the framing and use of objects that told the full story of the subject. Degas’ portraits of dancing girls also strongly influence my approach. From him I learned to be at ease with light and color as it plays across the faces of my subjects. It is also impossible to deny the references to Irving Penn’s “awkward corner” portraits. My modest studio forces a level of intimacy that can be uncomfortable for some. I relieve the tension with the silliness of costumes, reaching a similar level of connection with my subjects as Penn did in that series.

I say to subjects worried that they aren’t “beautiful” enough for the guestbook: “I will render you as you are, not as you appear.” The hyper-accuracy of digital capture can produce raw results that are precise to the point of distortion. To present my subjects in such relentless terms would rob them of an amount of their humanity. I want to create a portrait that is fundamentally true if not wholly accurate. Mine is a process of idealization, though, not fictionalization. I seek merely to allow the frozen moments of these portraits to reproduce the level of perception on which we experience each other, not the explicit detail of a high-res digital sensor.