Have you ever taken an Ambien and fought off the sleep to stare at a lava lamp? If you haven’t, chances are you’ll derive the same psychedelic effect from looking at one of Maggie West’s intensely hued portraits, which make Easter Marshmallow Peeps look like a pair of old sneakers tied to a power line in the rain. If you’ve procured the LA-based photographer’s first book, KISS, or follow her on Instagram, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
In her upcoming book, titled 23, the subjects, coated in her signature dream-like lighting, explore the spectrum of gender and sexuality. Featuring 23 photographs of nude cisgender and transgender men and women, the book also includes essays about contemporary sexuality by former porn star and novelist Christopher Zeischegg (a.k.a Danny Wylde), writer and activist Gaby Dunn, trans model Arisce Wanzer, and MTV's Darcie Wilder. And, if you’re Los Angeles on April 26, you should head downtown to The Standard for a launch party on the rooftop that will feature a special performance by RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars season two winner, Alaska Thunderfuck.
I sit down with my friend and creative colleague to discuss her next book, her message and mission, and propose the idea of becoming a throuple with her and her easy-on-the-eye boyfriend, among other inappropriate things Christiane Amanpour would never say during an interview.
Greg Mania: Hello, my dearest. Congratulations on your new book! How are you feeling?
Maggie West: Thank you! I’m pretty great at the moment—super excited about the book launch!
Your first book, KISS, featured 20 couples lip-locking while surrounded by your signature prismatic light display. 23 also features this dreamy motif, but explores a different theme—tell me more about that.
With 23, I wanted to create a nude photography book that had a more contemporary outlook on gender and sex. While looking at a lot of existing nude photography books, I noticed that most of them dealt with sexuality in a very binary way: masculine men, feminine women... With this book, I wanted to showcase a collection of photos that were more inclusive of all genders and sexual identities.
What drew you to the models featured in your book?
The models in 23 are a mixture of friends of mine, models I knew from other shoots and people I found on the Internet. I also worked with Slay Models, Los Angeles’ first transgender modeling agency, who helped me find several of the trans female models in the book. Overall, it’s a really beautiful, diverse mix of people.
Your ungodly handsome boyfriend, Christopher Zeischegg (a.k.a ex-porn star Danny Wylde), is featured in this book—how do you feel about becoming a throuple?
At the moment Chris and I aren’t accepting applicants, but I’ll be sure to let you know when there’s an opening.
Sorry, was that inappropriate? This is what happens when a comedian tries to be a journalist; it’s like a reality TV star trying to be a president.
That sounds like a disastrous scenario...
Speaking of disastrous scenarios, 23 is coming out during a—how shall I say—politically turbulent time, and what you’re exploring with gender and sexuality is unequivocally a testament to the fight against those in power who threaten to erase those who are marginalized. How is the space 23 is carving in the world different than the one KISS carved?
KISS was more about exploring intimacy between individuals, whereas 23 explores the individual’s place within the spectrum of gender and sexuality. So the first book was more about relationship dynamics and the second one has more to do with individual identity. In both books, the inclusion of queer men and women was essential. It would be completely ridiculous to make a book or series about relationships or identity and leave out such a large part of our population.
Both of your books are intimate, but how is the intimacy in 23 different?
The intimacy in KISS was more between the individuals participating in the series, whereas I feel like I was much more engaged with the subjects in 23. While shooting KISS, most of the models completely forgot I existed once they started kissing. With 23, we had a lot of dialogue about our lives, identities and other subjects. I feel like these exchanges helped make everyone more relaxed and comfortable, and helped capture more genuine portraits.
Will you continue exploring different forms of intimacy in future work?
Totally! Intimacy is such a complex and multifaceted subject, I feel like there are endless ways in which you can explore it visually. I am currently very interested in examining the dynamics of both sleep and physical conflicts and hope to explore both in future work.
Tell me about the essays featured in this book. What’s the juxtaposition with the visual element?
Each essay in the book represents a very different perspective on contemporary sexuality. I wanted to include essays from different writers because I felt like the subjects of sexuality and gender are far too extensive of a subject for me to adequately cover in a typical artist’s statement or forward. I wanted a diverse set of voices and opinions to introduce portraits of such unique individuals.
Arisce, Gaby and Darcie each wrote about contemporary sexuality from their own perspectives. Chris’ essay is a bit different. We met while shooting the book and his essay chronicles both the development of our relationship and my work over the past year. I believe the essays very much complement the overall theme of the book. Both the written and visual elements of 23 represent a variety of sexual and gender identities and go together nicely.
Did I use "juxtaposition" correctly? Sorry, I just write dick jokes all day long.
But they are such eloquent dick jokes!
The models’ poses seem very relaxed and natural. What was the energy like on set?
Super chill. Each of the shoots were relaxed, intimate experiences. I usually shot with the models one-on-one, which allowed both of us the chance to relax and chat between shots. Personally, I feel like shooting 23 was a really amazing experience. I got to know a lot of really fascinating new people and met the love of my life. Who could ask for more?
Can you give me a sneak peek into what’s in store for the not-too-distant future of Maggie West?
This year I really want to branch out into doing more public art exhibitions. While I love galleries, I think making art available in public spaces is vital to our cultural development. I currently have some projects in the works that will be announced later this year.