Transsexual Masculinity, Captured Through Loren Cameron’s Forgotten Lens

By Jude Jones

Jude Jones writes about the often-overlooked career of trans photographer Loren Rex Cameron and the prescient importance of his dignified and honest portraits of himself, and other trans men, in 1990’s San Francisco. 

“I think if he could see me now, he would be proud to call me his son.” A father’s admiration is an archetypal artist’s folly, never quite manifesting twice the same way. For her father – the man who had taught her what “art” meant – Frida Kahlo painted handsome portraits of him in her timeless folk-art style, his stoic face watching, pensive, against a quietly kaleidoscopic backdrop. For his, American illustrator to the stars Norman Rockwell drew quaint domestic moments between father and son, infused with a charismatic Americana charm and a warm, grinning tenderness. But for self-proclaimed transsexual photographer Loren Cameron, it manifested more simply: hard work, brotherhood, and everything else that an Arkansas farmer would say makes a man a man. 

When Loren Cameron was born in Pasadena, California on 28 August 1959, he was assigned the female sex. Raised by his mother, a Sears manager, until she passed away when he was just 10, Cameron was subsequently uprooted to Dover, a small town at the edge of Arkansas’s Ozark Mountains, where he lived with his father, the owner of a small ranch on the town’s outer ridge.  

Growing up, Cameron had always been a tomboy. Pre-teen preoccupations such as playing army and going fishing congealed into soul-callings after the move to Arkansas, where a young Cameron precociously joined his father’s side as the farm’s second-in-command, armed with a child’s bravado and a compelling attraction to the gritty honesty of blue-collar work. His father, for all his Southern machismo, never minded his daughter’s laddish revery, even when it earned him jeers and bullying outside the paternal confines of the farm.  

But what were once the innocent interests of a rough-and-tumble tomboy kid swiftly dovetailed into the growing gender discomfort of a disoriented teen. “The onset of puberty was excruciating to me,” Cameron would write later in life, “it was torture.” By the age of 12, this discomfort had grown so strong that Cameron wrote to the Janus Information Facility, an early transgender information facility named for the Roman god of transition and change, pleading for advice on how to switch his sex. When they replied that he would have to wait until he was older to be given such information, Cameron was ham-handedly advised by a friend that he might just be a lesbian. Blind to any alternative solutions, Cameron took this suggestion and ran with it, turning “baggy shirts, lesbianism, and a butch swagger” into mechanisms of day-to-day survival. 

The restlessness of adolescence – a maelstrom of queerphobic abuse from the insular Dixie community around him and swelling unease with his gendered embodiment – floated Cameron towards uncertain waters. He dropped out of school, travelled the country by bus and picked up odd jobs in construction or picking fruit to make meagre ends meet. Still unable to find himself during this Beatnik odyssey, Cameron followed in Kerouac’s footsteps and headed to San Francisco at the age of 20, enticed by whisperings of a lesbian oasis where he could find people like him hidden amongst the city’s East Coast haze. “The last time I saw [my dad],” he wrote, “he told me that I had a lot of guts to move to California with only a duffel bag and a hundred bucks in my pocket.” But this last-ditch, shot-in-the-mist chance at acceptance was too great a promise for her father’s pragmatism to dislodge. And so, in 1979, Cameron moved to the Golden State’s Golden City.  

Cameron came to San Francisco at a pivotal time in the city’s history. 1979 was just one year after the assassination of Harvey Milk and Gilbert Baker’s creation of the rainbow flag in his honour, the same year of the Peg’s Place raid, in which off-duty cops assaulted the city’s main popular lesbian bar in a post-Stonewall assault on queer visibility, and was on the cusp of the 1980’s, when the AIDS epidemic would change the meaning of queerness indefinitely. However against this blowing change Cameron managed to linger in a formative, push-and-shove limerence for almost a decade, finding fleeting comfort in the city’s butch-dyke community until the gusts of change blew hard against him too. 

By his late 20s, Cameron felt prepared to address his perennial discomfort-at-self. “Maybe it was because I was finally living by myself and didn’t have to contend with any negative peer pressure [that I could begin to transition],” he reflected, “or maybe I was finally old enough to deal with it.” Cameron took up bodybuilding and became enamoured with the new muscles that would adorn his body like armour, quit smoking cigarettes and dope to give himself a new clearness of mind, and tentatively began attending transgender support groups to talk through his feelings with people who felt the same way. By 27, Cameron had committed to transitioning; by 28, he had begun hormones. Photography became a means to track his progress and show his friends and family his body’s evolution, a way to celebrate his new body and both capture and revel in the joy it brought him.  

Some of Cameron’s earliest subjects were other trans men he met in these support groups. His style, mostly self-taught, was exposing and raw, inspired by the work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange that he had seen in coffee-table books bought by his parents growing up. But, more importantly, it was loving and kind. Cameron never photographed somebody without getting to know them and their stories first, stories that would surround their portraits in text when all was finally compiled and published in Body Alchemy, his first book, released in 1996. As Cameron himself proudly stated in the book’s introduction, “Body Alchemy is the first photodocumentation of transsexual men from within our community […] I [want] the world to see us, I mean, really see us.” 

Body Alchemy combined autobiography, biography, self-portraiture, and portraiture to paint a holistic, exultant picture of transsexual masculinity. Cameron and his peers are photographed as army men, plumbers, and adonises, creating Tom of Finland-esque portraits of hypermasculinity with one central stake: that trans men are men, at least according to those flawed masculinist standards set by the West.  

Yet his images, and the people behind them, are more nuanced than that. One photograph shows Brynne, a lanky surfer, posing in the back of his van and pulling at his wet suit, the paradigmatic image of that easy, sun-kissed masculinity to be found all over California’s beaches. The adjoining text tells another story though, explaining that Brynne, though identifying as a man, still calls himself his daughter’s mother. In another, a post-op penis is shown in defiant yet dignified close-up, a caesarean scar carved into the overhanging belly like a tattooed ode to lives passed. And in yet another, a triptych of Cameron’s self-portraits are framed by violent words and transphobic abuse as Cameron looks thoughtfully at the camera: “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST BE A BUTCH DYKE… YOU DON’T BELONG HERE… YOU MUST BE SOME KIND OF FREAK… DO YOU HAVE A PENIS?!” Cameron celebrates the canonically masculine in hand with the uncanonically masculine – men who are mothers, men who give birth, men who are hurt, men who cry – and therefore rebuilds manhood at the same time he tears its hypocritical standards down, just in the same way he has had to build and rebuild his identity, himself: “I desire to capture the essence of the strength and courage it takes for us, through an act of will, to reconstruct ourselves, to become our real identities.” Hence the title Body Alchemy: alchemy as the medieval science that sought to take base metals and transform them into something precious, that sought to discover a way of forever prolonging life. 

Body Alchemy is still a landmark in transgender and queer photography. It was awarded two Lambda Literary Awards after its release and changed how trans people were photographed forever. Matt Rice, a friend of Cameron’s, would later reflect that “he took photos of a bunch of us in that [support] group that became the Body Alchemy book. Those books, which included a photo of me, were truly transformative for so many gender-diverse people who did not otherwise have access to the peer group we had built in the San Francisco Bay Area.” And Cameron didn’t stop there. He toured the country giving talks at universities and exhibiting his photographs in community centres and small galleries; he released a second book, Man Tool: The Nuts and Bolts of Female-to-Male Surgery, on his open-access online site; he was featured in a National Geographic documentary; and he would later travel around South America under the tutelage of visionary photographer Roberto Edwards. All of that until his untimely death at the age 63 in November 2022: Cameron died via suicide, believed to be caused by his deteriorating physical health following a congestive heart failure. Despite the groundbreaking significance of Cameron’s oeuvre, this news went widely unreported. 

When I see Cameron’s photographs, I hear a voice asking, demanding that both he and his community be seen. Sure, Body Alchemy wasn’t the first time that America saw trans people, but it was the first time that it saw trans people, and particularly trans men, represented with dignity and respect, and represented by one of their own. “Photographs don’t record reality,” once wrote cultural critic Jay Prosser in Wildean terms, “they change the very nature of reality – by representing it,” and nowhere is this more true than Cameron’s work. However, for all he achieved, for all the lives he changed, the name ‘Loren Cameron’ remains mostly a footnote in the history of photography, a tragedy symptomatic of the systemic underrepresentation of trans people in art history. And right now, we’re still moving two steps forward, one step back. Trans people are now more visible than ever – I imagine that Cameron would be overjoyed by the new prominence of trans men like Elliot Page in the media – but the cost of that has been trans peoples’ dignities, trans peoples’ voices, and even trans peoples’ lives as transphobic rhetoric, the same stale rhetoric that Cameron attacked in Body Alchemy, is still churned and vomited by the right-wing press. That is why people like Cameron, works like Body Alchemy, are more important now than ever: to show that trans people have always been here, will always be here; to show trans life with joy, strength, and pride; to show that “we are not going anywhere,” to quote recently crowned RuPaul’s Drag Race winner and trans activist Sasha Colby. Visibility matters, compassion matters, and these are lessons Loren Cameron taught, lessons that are still being learnt. 

(A note on terminology: Loren Cameron identified as a transsexual man, meaning that he did not identify with the sex he was assigned at birth. His subjects largely also identified as transsexual men, which was a popular identification at the time. In this article, I use the more recently coined terms ‘trans’ as an umbrella word for people whose gender identity does not fit within a cis-male/cis-female paradigm. Transsexual people are encompassed under this umbrella, however there are often nuances to individual identification.)  

Jude Jones (@jude_j0nes2002) is the Managing Editor of GAY45 and is an interdisciplinary student journalist, currently completing an undergraduate degree in History & French at the University of Cambridge. Their writing – covering photography, nightlife, fashion, gallery reviews, interest pieces, and political comments – has also been published by Varsity, The Cambridge Language Collective, DISRUPTION, and the Cambridge Review of Books, among others. 

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