From Miss Rosen’s article and interview with Mariette Pathy Allen for i-D:
As fate would have it, American photographer Mariette Pathy Allen found her way to Harlem in 1984 to photograph one night at a house ball. Mariette first chanced upon the genderfluid community during New Orleans Mardi Gras in 1978 via a group of crossdressers at her hotel. Captivated by their energy, she began a journey that would take her around the globe, documenting the culture when it was still deeply underground. As a photographer, Mariette recognised the role she could play in people’s lives, creating portraits that uplifted and empowered them, celebrating their beauty and style when gender-bending was still very much taboo.
By 1984, Mariette was married with two children, doing small photography jobs for publications while also documenting the transgender community that would later become the centre of her groundbreaking first book, Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, published in 1989. While studying at Columbia University, her husband became friends with a man named Ivan, who was connected with people in the Harlem House Ballroom scene. Mariette received an invitation and decided to go, creating a collection of magical portraits from one night at the ball now on view in House Ball, Harlem, 1984 at ClampArt in New York.
“The ball officially began at midnight and ran until eight in the morning,” Mariette says. “I arrived around 10 to photograph people getting ready. It began around 12:30, and there was an announcer introducing the categories like Face, Body, and Femme Queen Realness. Everyone looked amazing, so beautiful and young. They worked to put their costumes together, and everything was so precise. Even though it was a competition, there wasn’t any kind of meanness or fighting. It was a supportive environment. This was a happy occasion, where people were proud and presenting themselves at their best.”
The sense of community can be seen in Mariette’s photos, which capture both competitors and audience members at a time when few were documenting the scene. Long before digital technology made camera ubiquitous and affordable, most people trotted out the camera for special occasions and only photographed those they knew. To have a stranger ask to take your photograph was an act of affirmation and admiration, akin to asking for your autograph. “Who me?” Yes, you, indeed.