In 1994, when dinosaurs still roamed the Cretaceous earth, I was but a budding trans woman. I was still largely trying to find where I fit in this thing called “transgender,” and fighting through a mountain full of shame and guilt over who I was.
In the midst of it all, I had the opportunity to meet a dear friend and confidant, Kate Bornstein, who was performing at the Highways performance space in Santa Monica, California. While I have very dear memories of her show, I want to focus instead, this one time, on the photography exhibit in the lobby.
The photos presented in a small, perhaps even claustrophobic gallery were all black and white portraits, with a large number of them featuring the photographer himself. Every shot was unapologetic, strong, and intense.
In one, the photographer — a trans man — is shown nude, with bold, striped tattoos across his chest, arms, and legs. In one hand is the squeeze bulb for his camera’s shutter — and in the other hand, a syringe of testosterone, which he is injecting into the side of his buttock. Surrounding this image is one of him contemplating a scalpel, while another shows him hefting a barbell.
Another triptych featured three images of his face, looking frustrated and distressed. Encircling all three images, in a bold sans-serif font, are statements belittling his transition. The words give depth and meaning to his expressions, and deeply resonated with my own struggles at the time.
His work was deeply personal, soul bearing, and touched my very soul.
The exhibit was called “Our Vision, Our Voices: Transsexual Portraits and Nudes.” The photographer was Loren Cameron.
Fast forward a few years. By the late 1990s I had moved from Southern to Northern California. I had transitioned, and was working for an LGBTQ site on America Online, later to be a website during the tumultuous “Web 1.0” boom. I had the great good fortune during this time to get to interview a great many community celebrities on the service, many of which had books out via Cleis Press.
One such book was “Body Alchemy” by Loren Cameron.
The book compiles many of the photos that were in that show I witnessed in 1994, which I would later learn was one of his first exhibitions. It included much more, too, including close up photos presenting the results of female to male surgical procedures, and portraits of many other trans men.
His book is a groundbreaking work, and one that I have heard from countless trans masculine friends and acquaintances about. Deeper than the jolt I got from his show in Santa Monica and the unapologetic nature of his work, his was a book that showed them the possibilities in very tangible ways for a whole generation of trans men.
He won two Lambda Literary Awards for the book. They are well-deserved.
In 1998, Loren asked me to distribute a flier for a model search he was conducting, for works featuring both trans masculine and trans feminine models. I offered myself as a possible participant, and we made arrangements for a setting. I would eventually sit for him four or five times.
Around this same time, I began to create websites, and Loren was one of my first clients. I created his online companion for his book, called Online Alchemy. The site is now gone — the URL now inexplicably redirects to a Malaysian eSports tournament, but can still be found via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
Later, we worked on a second website which, for the time, was a bit more daunting. On it was his second book, provided only as an eBook that one had to purchase access to. It was a pretty uncommon beast for the era. It was called MAN TOOL: The Nuts and Bolts of Female-to-Male Surgery, and expanded on the post-surgical photography of his first book.
There were other projects later, as he began to work under the tutelage of master photographer, Roberto Edwards of Santiago, Chile, eventually releasing three more books of his photographs in South America, and touring his work within a group exhibit with Edwards and others.
Outside of his photography, he did fitness training and was a certified massage instructor. He loved his dog, a chihuahua, and would often walk the streets of Berkeley with them. He also loved his Toyota Land Cruiser, and had hopes of one day getting it fully restored.
In the mid 2000s, however, we lost touch. The web hosting company that was serving his and many other sites went under, and neither of us were in a position to keep things running. We drifted apart, wrapped up in our own lives. From what I gather from others, he became reclusive, not returning messages and otherwise being hard to reach.
Last month, word spread through the community: Loren Cameron passed away on the 18th of November, 2022.
In the wake of his passing, one acquaintance said to me that he hoped Loren knew how many lives he touched. I know he knew his work was important, though I’m not quite sure he knew fully just how much of an impact he had.
He was, in his own way, a titan of the trans community, and unlocked possibilities for countless trans men in his wake. His loss is our loss.
Gwen Smith thanks Jenni Olsen for pointing out the archived webpage. You’ll find her at www.gwensmith.com/.