In 1984, Allen was invited to attend and photograph a house ball in Harlem. The competitions began after midnight and ran to 8:00 AM. The space was very dark, and there were many, many categories including the Face Competition, Femme Queen Realness, Runway, etc. Contestants competed for trophies, prizes, and bragging rights. While Allen shot images of the action in front of the audience, she also invested much of her time and interest in the preparations backstage, shooting more intimate portraits.
Balls provide both a physical and mental space for the celebration and exploration of gender, race, and a wide range of societal themes. Categories offer moments to bask in the cultural types and personas that influence how individuals see themselves and the wider world. The ball functions as an incubator of self-identification and realization. Many of Mariette Pathy Allen’s images have focused on the public experiences and moments in the lives of transgender individuals. The 1984 house ball in Harlem offered Allen an opportunity to watch a community relish varying projections and expressions of selfhood.