If you’re a RuPaul’s Drag Race superfan, chances are you’re already seen David Ayllon’s work, as the New Jersey-based photographer has snapped the mugs of some of the drag world’s shiniest stars. That work is about to be on display in a new exhibition titled Guise: Narrative Portraits at PO’P Gallery’s new location in Nassau County, Long Island. The exhibit runs from Feb. 3 through March 10, 2018.
David Ayllon is a photographer, graphic designer and superhero aficionado. He discovered his love of larger-than-life characters during his childhood on Long Island, where he found himself preoccupied with fantastical worlds served up by comic books and professional wrestling.
As a queer Latino, Ayllon’s fascination with persona grew from adolescent escapism into a process of examining gender, personal history and self-expression through his photography and design.
“The first drag I remember seeing was Bugs Bunny, but in terms of attitude I think the first time I’ve ever experienced the personality and attitude of a queen was Miss Piggy,” he tells Hornet. “She was just so loud and fabulous. Fast forward 20-something years, and I ended up marrying her! (Just kidding, Pissi. I love you.)”
By collaborating with noted personalities of the drag community, David Ayllon creates dynamic narrative portraits that explore nostalgia and identity through the lens of artifice, urban fantasy and pop culture.
Dealing with such big personalities can also lend itself to some hilarious experiences behind the scenes.
“The first thing that comes to mind was actually during the cover shoot I did for Get Out! magazine featuring the Season 9 New York queens from Drag Race,” he says. “The shoot featured Sasha Velour, Peppermint, Aja and Alexis Michelle. My husband, fellow drag queen Pissi Myles, was on set to help out.”
“While I was shooting Sasha, Pissi helped Peppermint by offering to steam out her skirt. As soon as she turned it on, the steamer literally exploded all over the silk skirt. Peppermint didn’t say anything but shot Pissi a glance that is only funny in hindsight!”
David Ayllon’s photography has been featured in the Harvey Milk Photo Center, as well as in the pages of publications like Paper, Huffington Post, OUT, Next and more.
“I would define the term as portraiture that reinforces a fantasy as opposed to deconstructing reality,” he says. “I’ve always been drawn to larger-than-life characters, real or fictitious, and my goal with this work is to create worlds and situations for these drag personas to embody that are as exaggerated and strange and beautiful as they are.”
PO’P will host a grand opening party, which will include a live performance from some of New York’s top queens, including Drag Race alum Jiggly Caliente and Pissi Myles. The exhibit will feature portraits of Sasha Velour (the Drag Race Season 9 winner), Bob the Drag Queen (winner of Season 8), Alaska, Peaches Christ and more.
“One of the reasons I love drag so much is that as a queer person, you’re very aware of how you’re presenting. All the ways you fit in and all the ways you don’t. You butch it up when you feel you need to and let your guard down when you don’t,” he says.
The drag queens in his photographs, though, are far removed from the insecurity most queer people feel at some point in their lives. Instead, his portraits relay powerful personas.
“The whole idea behind Guise is that these queens are wielding their femininity and masculinity like a sword,” David Ayllon says. “They’ve reinvented themselves as the characters they’ve always seen themselves as. To be able to document and, in my own way, enhance these personas is always an honor, and I hope that the photos help reach other queer kids who need to see them the most.”