In our last posting on Avery Willard, we spoke with the legendary drag performer Adrian about his friendship with Willard. This week, we turn to Amanda Hammett, one of the members of the hard-working team helping to put together In Search of Avery Willard. In the following post, Amanda gives us a little more background on Willard’s talents as a photographer and how he was seen by the photography community at the time. She also shares four astonishing shots of female impersonators from Willard’s never-before-seen collection. Here’s Amanda…
We were overwhelmed when we attempted to highlight Avery’s photographic work. The New York Public Library has ten boxes of his photos. As we started to examine the work, we noticed that Avery’s reputation as a master of the portrait was well earned – and he earned his income from it – most notably for stars on Broadway. But he didn’t stop there, moving from actors to friends, ad models to female impersonators to animals.
In one of our interviews for the documentary, photographer John Cox, who was Avery’s friend and collaborator, reflected on Avery’s work:
“…Photography magazines actually wrote him up for his lighting and for his skill as a photographer. He was considered a really good photographer. This press agent worked out a deal where if he could get Broadway performers to pose with real jewelry from Emmon’s [Jewelry], they would use that in advertising. And he got stuff out of it…tons of costume jewelry. I found boxes of it in his closet. But that was how he got a lot of these performers to do stuff. They would get expensive jewelry if they would pose for a picture for the advertiser. All he wanted was to go to the movies and plays. He decided to become an actor and did it for a while. I asked him about that and he just said he was a lousy actor. He said that was why he decided to move on. But he was a fantastic photographer.”
The four ethereal shots of female impersonators above and below are ample evidence of that. Each one more impeccably composed, more beguiling and fascinating than the next. You can see the silver screen heroines of the time reflected in gesture, expression, light and shadow. And you can see Avery Willard looking out from behind the camera, striving to make a fantastic document of overlooked individuals.