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The Many Faces of A Queen

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Chris Buxbaum, Time Takes A Cigarette.
Chris Buxbaum with David Richardson, Time Takes A Cigarette.

“The fantasy and mystery that is central to nightlife has a lot of appeal for me,” says drag goddess David Richardson. “You can be a different person every night, even if only in appearance. That was the impetus for the Schizophrenic Photogenic series.”

Georgia Museum of Art

David Richardson, as model and muse for photographer Chris Buxbaum, creates looks of extreme bodily modifications using everyday objects as makeup and accessories. In their collaborative photo show Schizophrenic Photogenic, Richardson presents himself as dozens of creature-characters for the camera. Echoing the legacy of club-kid artist and fashion impresario Leigh Bowery, this body of work celebrates the act of transformation of the male body.

“Changing wigs, adding more makeup, altering lip shape and layering accessories would change me into another persona,” says Richardson. “The tight close-up allowed me to concentrate only on the shoulders up, so in most of the shoots I was wearing cargo shorts and tennis shoes below.”

Chris Buxbaum, People Are Turning To Gold.
Chris Buxbaum with David Richardson, People Are Turning To Gold.

Richardson’s looks for Schizophrenic Photogenic were not expensive couture creations. Look closer at the photos of him and you’ll see duct tape lips, Sharpie marker-drawn eyebrows, and detritus turned into accessories. Richardson first learned to create these everyday opulent looks as an Atlanta club kid, and this project was a way for him to relive his fabulous past as drag queen Babydoll Schultz.

“I’ve been an avid club goer since the early ’80s, when I first discovered the fun of transforming my appearance to fit my mood. In those days I was going out seven nights a week, and each night I aimed for a different look. Being on a limited budget, I became very adept at making something out of nothing. I’ve sported a garbage look on more than one occasion,” says Richardson.

Georgia Museum of Art

Photographer Chris Buxbaum comes from a similar background in his home country of England. “The clubs we went to at the beginning were pretty much exclusively gay because they were the only places you could go dressed like a peacock and not get beaten or attacked. It was really, truly underground – people would arrive dressed quite plainly, then emerge from the bathrooms 30 minutes later as these divinely decadent creatures.”

Chris Buxbaum, Crazy Clown Time.
Chris Buxbaum with David Richardson, Crazy Clown Time.

Buxbaum cites the club scene of both England and Atlanta as his inspiration, and Schizophrenic Photogenic retraces the punk aesthetic he fell in love with three decades ago.

“When I moved to Atlanta in 1983, I expected the scene to be duller and a little bit behind, but luckily I was totally wrong,” says Richardson. “This was a time when you could go to Weekends, dance your ass off, and then see RuPaul perform, cross the street to Illusions for champagne and an upscale drag show then on to the 24/7 Backstreet then finally finish at the Majestic Diner, which would be packed with club goers at 5am and looked something like a Fellini movie being filmed inside an Edward Hopper painting.”

Although the two of them partied in overlapping circles, they never met until the Atlanta scene died down. Schizophrenic Photogenic was a way for them to recreate and honor their respective underground past—the photos evoke the extravagant fashion and peacock makeup that captivated both of them. Every Tuesday evening for two years, Buxbaum would show up at Richardson’s home for a photo shoot, never knowing what strange look Richardson had come up with.

“It’s my favorite moment, when I open his door and see what he has cooked up for me this time,” says Buxbaum. “Then we shoot two or three looks in a session. Then I go home and edit for hours on end. I always go for extreme close-ups with the color punched up high. David is a walking work of art – the rest is just point and shoot.”

Chris Buxbaum, Victor/Victorian.
Chris Buxbaum with David Richardson, Victor/Victorian.

This is the third show the duo has collaborated on; previously Richardson modeled in drag for a show called “Transformers” and for a photo installation for the MODA Design Challenge in 2012. Buxbaum, along with designer Caryn Grossman, created a punk-Victorian living room—featuring chrome-tinted early portraits from the Schizophrenic Photogenic series. The astounding installation, complete with Richardson as Babydoll Schultz in a birdcage headdress, won Buxbaum and Grossman first place.

Schizophrenic Photogenic at Luckie Street Gallery marks the end of this current project. The two are planning their next collaboration, which will push them both to their creative extremes.

“In ‘Deities – Gods Real and Imagined,’ David will portray Shiva, Ganesha etc.,” says Buxbaum. “Half the deities will be from real religions, half of them will be straight from David’s slightly twisted imagination. This new show will put Richardson’s transformative abilities to the test; his punk, DIY aesthetic will be vamped up to create these heavenly creatures.

Richardson says, “The new project will likely involve the use of prosthetics, possibly some set construction and my sewing skills will be put to the test.”

“Schizophrenic Photogenic” is on view at Luckie Street Gallery through August 7; the closing reception, which will be a part of the Downtown Art Walk, begins at 4pm and will feature an artist talk.

Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues. He is a cofounding member of Legendary Children, Atlanta’s premier queer art collective. Terrell received an Idea Capital Grant in 2014 for his project “Sweet Tea: The Story of the Queer South.” In 2014, he found a forgotten fragment of a Keith Haring mural at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta—it was his most proud achievement. Terrell received his BFA and MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design; he also has an MA in communications from Georgia State University.