Concept and Photo Ben Fink
Makeup and Hair Vavatenina Imperial Court
Where did the idea for this series come from?
The series Noble Deeds is based on my work following and documenting the various International Imperial Courts of the Americas.The Imperial Court is said to be the oldest LGBTQ+ fundraising and social organization in existence. They first originated in San Francisco in 1965 as gay community social events with a camp Imperial theme. The annual main event featured the coronation of elected monarchs — a King and Queen — who then selected a royal court. Imperial Court events soon assumed a more serious purpose of community oriented fundraising, while retaining their irreverent, festive spirit.
What are some ways the organization has given back?
The Imperial Court System has grown to over 70+ courts throughout the Americas and has been instrumental in many LGBTQ focused endeavors such as spearheading the setting up of college funds for LGBTQ communities, donating funding to The Matthew Shepard Foundation, and setting up the equivalent of Toys For Tots, because early on the Marine Corps would not accept Toys from openly gay organizations. They have also made some major historic accomplishments under there titular leader the Queen Mother 1 of the Americas, San Diego City Commissioner, Nicole Murray Ramirez. Nicole led and organized the successful national campaigns that resulted in the Harvey Milk US postage stamp, The National Wall of Honor in the historic federal landmark The Stonewall Inn in New York City, the commissioning of the USNS Harvey Milk, and the dedication of a public street in San Francisco named after the Courts founder Jose Julio Sarria. This is a group of men and women from the LGBTQ+ community and beyond who come together to raise money for organizations and individuals in need. Noble Deeds is the title that I gave to the project because of the organization’s philanthropic nature.
How did you become involved with the organization?
I first was introduced to the Imperial Court in 2017 when attending one of their yearly Coronations. I was completely mesmerized by the opulent costumes and personalities that I witnessed. As I always do, I had my camera but only snapped a few images as I wanted the full experience of just being there.
What was the process like for this project?
Over the last four years, I’ve been documenting this community, and my vision has evolved from photographing people in the environment of the coronation to creating an environment post-shoot to craft more of a fantasy world. Just like the organization itself, I’m taking on the same role as a photographer/artist changing our perspective and direction towards a brighter and more crafted future, one of our own making, where everyone, no matter how different you are,can still find a place of acceptance love and family.
How does makeup artistry play into the images?
There were so many levels and styles of makeup and wardrobe they were fairly new to me. Makeup played an important role in my interest because my boyfriend Anthony Gordon is a makeup artist in the TV and movie world. The makeup varies tremendously depending on the style and taste of the participant. There are Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence like Anni, a very exaggerated white face with exaggerative lips and eyes, and often in this category men leaving their facial hair.
There is a high drag with big lashes, often exaggerating cheekbones lips, and eyes, very contoured like Bobby Friday. Then there are the more dramatic with extreme angles, over painted lips with dark liners. There are softer makeup looks that are super blended with shimmery highlights, and there are often looks with applied jewels to the face the way Chuchote Sarawut has done.
There is a group of people in the organization that are extremely traditional, and it’s all about looking as beautiful and flawless as possible such as Coco LaChine, Dimas Ramirez-Wells, Jaylene Tyme, and the Queen Mother Nicole. Then there’s an element of makeup that represents what I think of as the performance artist, a fine example of that is Josef, Jesse, and Travis, Clowns, Amber St. James, Jessica D’Nalga Harrington, and Buganvilia Thorns, and finally Kow.
What’s next for Noble Deeds?
We have a lot going on over the next six months with the completion of a short film by Dara Bratt and I about Nicole the Queen Mother, directed by Dara, produced by Sara Eolin and I am executive producer, The film is being submitted to film competitions, the first one being Sundance. And then we have the continuation of the still shoot which will go into production as a book in the spring of 2023. I will be attending 10 to 12 more coronations before going into production mode. In addition to the book in the film we will be setting up exhibitions in galleries and museums around the country to introduce people to the court with large encaustic mixed media works of art that will range in sizes from four to eight feet. Photographing and creating these final pieces in this incredible, creative, generous community has truly been one of the most magical projects of my career. I’m so very grateful to the Imperial Courts for allowing me the access and the privilege of celebrating them through my art.
Check out the full Noble Deeds collection at benfinkart.com