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‘Ken. To be Destroyed’ by Sara Davidmann at The London College of Communication

This remarkable exhibition details a couple’s decision to contain the husband’s transgender identity during the repressive 1950s. It is the project of Reader in Photography Dr Sara Davidmann, who was their niece, and was conceived when she and her siblings came across a cache of letters, photographs and papers belonging to their mother Audrey Davidmann, marked ‘Ken. To be destroyed.’

K at the roadside between Inverness and Culloden Moor. From the series Looking for K/Finding K, 2015. Hand-coloured pigment print, 42 x 28cm.
K at the roadside between Inverness and Culloden Moor. From the series Looking for K/Finding K, 2015. Hand-coloured pigment print, 42 x 28cm.

These poignant letters written by Hazel Houston to her sister Audrey, detail Ken and Hazel Houston’s relationship as they come to terms with Ken’s dual identity. It’s easy to forget in these days of same-sex marriage and a growing acceptance and understanding of gender fluidity that in the fifties such openness was impossible. The exhibition, which is part of the Moose on the Loose Biennale of Research, will run from Wednesday 17th February to Saturday 26th March 2017, and will be accompanied by a series of events, talks and workshops, to coincide with LGBT History Month.

Letters and Papers. From the series Archive, 2016. Collaboration with Graham Goldwater. Pigment print. 25 x 38cm.
Letters and Papers. From the series Archive, 2016. Collaboration with Graham Goldwater. Pigment print. 25 x 38cm.

Davidmann observed how the surface of the photographs had been marked by the passage of time and extended this effect, working further on their surfaces using ink, chalks, magic markers and correction fluid. She created a series of fictional photographs of Ken using digital negatives, hand colouring, darkroom chemicals and bleach, that imagine Ken in his female persona, out of doors – an area that he could never have visited, though Hazel helped him to dress up in women’s clothes in the privacy of their home.

Ken and Hazel. Undated vintage photograph, circa 1950.
Ken and Hazel. Undated vintage photograph, circa 1950.
The Dress II, 2014. Pigment print with ink, 100 x 75cm.
The Dress II, 2014. Pigment print with ink, 100 x 75cm.

What sticks with the viewer is how happy Ken looks as a woman in many of the photographs. The letters reveal a story of love, sacrifice and transgender identity and it is this context that gives the exhibition its innate humanity. Interesting too that the letters never were destroyed. What would Ken and Hazel have made of this level of exposure of their most private life? Surely, they would have been comforted by the level of empathy and understanding provoked by their story. SEEN was profoundly moved by the exhibition; like its subject, there is so much going on below the surface that repeat visits are essential.

www.arts.ac.uk

17th February – 24th March 2017

Upper Gallery
London College of Communication
Elephant and Castle
London
SE1 6SB