January 2008

Betty Rosen: Wishes

C. Grimaldis


Based near Baltimore, Betty Rosen transports viewers to a distant subculture with her photographs of Thailand’s transvestite and transsexual nightclub dancers, decked out in rhinestone tiaras, feather boas, and shaggy wigs. She approaches her subjects without condescension, and she gets close – – close enough to see the mascara smears and chin stubble.

Rosen has clearly won the dancers’ confidence. This trust between photographer and subject recalls Nan Goldin’s early work and becomes one of the themes of the series. In front of Rosen’s camera, the dancers pout and vamp without reservation, and that ease gives her work a good-natured, unhurried feel.

The result, however, is that the majority of these 25 portraits (all 2006) look posed. Rosen is surely presenting the dancers as they want to be seen, as entertainers and coquettes, but in too many images, they are utterly objectified, more like dressed-up mannequins than actual people. The photographer hints at how deeply she could have delved in one image that catches a transvestite in a moment of quiet reflection. Other photos, such as one showing a performer belting out a song, manage to capture a flash of personality behind the thickets of feathers and makeup.

These images are deft portraits of stage personae but, unfortunately, not much more.

– -Roger Atwood