January 16th, 2020
A Secret Cache of Polaroids Reveals a Trans Photographer’s Inner World
April Dawn Alison made thousands of pictures focusing on a single subject—herself. But, who was she?
By Glen Helfand
“April Dawn Alison was the private feminine persona of a photographer known to family, friends, and neighbors as a man named Alan (Al) Schaefer (1941–2008).” So begins curator Erin O’Toole’s carefully worded introduction to a book and exhibition of Polaroids by Alison. It seems straightforward enough, particularly in an era of gender expansion; and the images, costumed self-portraits, aren’t surprising in themselves. They plumb territory explored by numerous artists who’ve worked with the mutability of identity through disguise, persona, and alter egos. But there’s a slow burn of complex implications to Alison’s work.
Details about Schaefer are scant—he’s described as a commercial photographer who learned the craft in the military, and was reclusive later in life. Boxes containing 9,200 Polaroids were found in his home after his death. They were acquired, through an estate dealer, by artist Andrew Masullo, who donated them to the San Francisco Museum of Art. Alison’s pictures were made over the course of decades focusing on a single subject—herself. But who really made them?
As Hilton Als notes in his essay, one of three in the book, “April was a maker, and so was the guy who made April; these pictures are a record of a double consciousness, the he who wants to be a she and the she who is a model and photographer both.” It’s an intersectional double scoop: the range of exploration includes art, gender, fashion, aging, and loneliness. The visual pleasure of performance in utopian solitary space is swirled with a sense of isolation and literal restraints.
The undated Polaroids, which span the 1970s to the 1990s (though Alison’s wardrobe sometimes makes them appear decades older), are presented at actual size, making this a quasi-facsimile of a photo album, punctuated with some full-page enlargements. These are private pictures of Alison in different outfits—she’s a career girl in Qiana, a pearl necklace matron, a vacuuming housewife in green eye shadow, fishnet-stockinged seductress, party girl in vinyl hot pants, and a member of the Starship Enterprise clad in a red minidress. In the continuum of historical views, it’s difficult to know if Alison was trans or, as artist and trans activist Zackary Drucker offers in the book’s most extensive essay, “she seems to exemplify the category of ‘transvestite.’” Alison doesn’t always pass for a woman, but her pictures immediately convey the tropes.
Cindy Sherman comes to mind, naturally, as so many of the photos evoke classic female roles, enacted solo; but as much as she fits into various guises, Alison is a consistent, recognizable individual. She transforms situations, but not her face. The pictures were made in Alison’s nondescript apartment, with its pocket doors, burgundy velour couch, and a balcony where Alison poses salaciously with a phallic pink balloon. Often, she’s seen on the floor, legs spread, revealing her panties—thirsty.
For whom were these photographs made? Polaroids resulted in single images, selfies filed away. Did she spend evenings admiring them or share them with others? How would Alison have taken to Instagram—a venue where contemporary queer photographer Christopher Smith, who creates elaborate setups in his bedroom, shares pictures with thousands of people? Alison didn’t seem to need anyone else, including an audience, to “complete” these photographs. Or did she?
Alison used different formats of the instant film. Some are rectangular, black and white; others, square SX- 70s, elder cousins to Instagram phone-camera templates. As the formats evolve, so do the sexual overtones—the later pictures are kinkier than the more chaste looks presented earlier in the book. She’s gagged, hung by chains from the ceiling, sometimes upside down. (Was there an assistant or lover there to help? Or was Alison able to fake physics?) These images show wholesome Bettie Page– style BDSM, not the extreme brand of surrealistic erotica of Pierre Molinier’s more contorted, manipulated poses.
It’s only a modest conceptual stretch to connect the crimson cover of the Alison volume to Carl Jung’s The Red Book—a compendium of archetypes published in 2009, long after the psychologist’s death. Alison, like Sherman and Smith, worked alone with iconic selves. Drucker writes how Alison’s “solitude manifests an interior space where art and sexuality coincide.” In that way, the contained page is a fitting format to enter Alison’s intimate bubble. Drucker further amplifies the importance of location: “Many trans people never find spaces to express or manifest their true selves, and they let their authentic interior worlds die with their bodies.”
There is a hint of tragedy to the fact that Alison didn’t live to see the reception of her work, or her identity. But the authenticity, the realness, of these photographs is undeniable. They emerge directly from the source.
Glen Helfand is a writer, curator, and educator based in Oakland, California.