Celebrated Montreal photographer JJ Levine is on the cusp of art-world stardom. The trans artist has exhibited his acclaimed photographs in the United States, Mexico and Europe, and has been published in magazines, newspapers and artist books internationally. But, fittingly, Levine’s career moves to the next level in his hometown as the McCord Museum presents the retrospective exhibition Queer Photographs, featuring a selection from his major photo projects Queer Portraits, Alone Time, and Switch.
Levine’s work questions the representation of traditional binary gender roles through staged photographs of queer subjects in intimate, domestic settings. His practice balances a radical queer agenda with a strong formal aesthetic.
“I think of my work as being about queer community and chosen family,” Levine says. “I’m not trying to represent any broader “queer community” – just my specific queer community of friends.”
The nonbinary, transmasculine photographer recently sat down for a candid Q&A about his extraordinary journey, career and new exhibition at the McCord.
Congrats on your new exhibition! You must be super-excited. How did this exhibition come about?
I was initially contacted by Helene Sampson at the McCord Museum in 2019 about the possibility of doing an artist residency with them. After a couple years and a few different exhibition ideas, finally in 2021 we settled on a solo show. But until last summer, because of COVID, I wasn’t sure if it would happen.
The McCord has been amazing to work with. They have a really great curatorial team and I’m so grateful to have been able to work so closely with them on the final selection. There are more than 50 pieces in the exhibition, mostly photographs and a few short films. We focused on the newer work, but also include older projects. Within my Queer Portraits, I would say it’s 70 percent work that I made in the last five years.
How does your work question the representation of traditional binary gender roles?
In my Switch and Alone Time projects I’m directly engaging with the viewer about assumptions regarding bodies, anatomy, identity and gender. That message and idea comes across really strongly and it’s pretty straightforward in those two projects: I’m using one body to portray two characters, one character as a man, one as a woman, and by convincingly portraying those gendered characters, I am sort of forcing the audience to question their own assumptions about gender, bodies and sexuality – hopefully even their own identity.
It’s amazing to be able to fuse one’s activism with their work. What motivated you?
My own identity, for sure. You know, as a queer person and as a trans person, just kind of grappling with these identities in a broader context where they aren’t – or haven’t always been – completely culturally sanctioned. I think finding ways of expressing and exploring my own experience through this visual medium has been completely and inextricably linked with my own evolving identity.
You have a partner and a child.
There are several new images of my child and my boyfriend in the exhibition. My current partner, who identifies as a gender nonconforming cis man, is not who I had my child with. We have been together for three years and my child is six. I have joint custody of my kid with my ex who identifies as a trans male. There are also many photographs of my ex in my body of work, including one of him pregnant with our child.
What has your personal journey and transition been like?
I started using a neutral pronoun in my early-to-mid-twenties, then began taking hormones. It was not scary or confusing, that trope was not my experience. I didn’t spend my childhood or adolescence hating myself or feeling like I was in the wrong body. Even when I started my transition, it wasn’t about rejecting one kind of identity so much as it was an embracing of, at first, a fluidity, and then later, a different way of being read. My trajectory was pretty different from that mainstream narrative or understanding of transitioning.
Also, my being white, I think there’s a lot of layers of privilege that I want to acknowledge. I also think that it’s important to look at, think about and talk about the ways in which transitioning can be really beautiful, positive, amazing and affirming.
You are blessed to have a supportive family.
I am. Many of my siblings are queer and one is nonbinary. I am also fortunate to be the youngest of my siblings. I think that my journey has been extremely different from my elder siblings. I watched them struggle with that coming out process and it wasn’t always easy. By the time I was coming of age, my parents were acclimatized. In my life I’ve always been surrounded by queer and trans people, I’ve always dated queer and trans people, and lived with queer and trans people.
At your alma mater, Concordia University’s Centre for Gender Advocacy won a landmark constitutional challenge for the civil rights of trans, nonbinary and intersex people when Quebec Superior Court Justice Gregory Moore in January 2021 ruled several pieces of Quebec’s Civil Code were unconstitutional.
I followed that case for years. I sat in the courtroom to support my friends who brought forth that case with the Centre for Gender Advocacy. It was heartbreaking to watch how difficult it was for them. They waited years to get a judgment. When the verdict finally came out, it was a cause for celebration. And then in recent months when the transphobic proposals for Bill 2 were announced, it was devastating for so many of us. If passed, it would have required trans people to be sterilized if they wanted their ID to match their identity. Some of the worst parts of this proposed law have since been removed, however we have yet to see the final draft.
I believe trans civil rights are the new barometer of human rights.
I think more specifically intersectional human rights. Not all trans people experience the same kinds of oppression. In North America, trans women of colour experience oppression in a completely different way than white trans men.
What do you think about transphobia in the queer community?
I had an interesting experience after my breakup with my ex, when I started dating cis gay men. That was really eye-opening for me. It’s a very different culture and atmosphere. I had a massive culture shock entering the world of hookup apps for gay men. It’s a pretty cutthroat world in terms of body fascism and white supremacy. However, some aspects were definitely incredible, like having access to hookups that exist in a completely different way than they do in a more politicized, queer context. I think there are really beautiful things about the immediacy of being able to access sex and connect with people without having to endlessly communicate online first. While it worked for me in many ways – it’s actually how my partner and I first connected – as a trans person I definitely hit a lot of walls.
I think your work and new exhibition at the McCord are helping transform mainstream society.
Well, because my work is so personal, sometimes it’s hard for me to have that kind of perspective. The people that I photograph are really important to me, so I really do hope my work will broaden our image culture and open minds.