Magnus Hastings grew up in London, he says, a “child of drag,” prone to putting on his sister’s clothes and dancing around his childhood home. But he didn’t truly discover the drag world until much later, long after he himself had stopped dressing across gender lines.
In 2003, on a visit to Sydney, Hastings walked into the Arq nightclub and saw the drag queen Vanity Faire lip-syncing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz in a flawless Dorothy outfit. The experience changed his life.
“I started shooting drag because it’s my home and my world and it feels like my family,” Hastings said.
Watching that performance connected Hastings to a part of himself that he’d abandoned due to social pressures as a child but that he still longed to explore. With Vanity’s guidance, Hastings began photographing the city’s vibrant drag scene and developing a polished, dynamic style of portraiture reflecting his subjects’ creativity and humor. As he traveled the world, he continued capturing local queens with a focus on those who best represented the art’s diversity and daring, from the bearded to the “fishy,” or ultrafeminine. His images attracted a larger audience when he started posting his photos to his Facebook group, “Dragged Around the World,” and in 2014, a large exhibition at the Out NYC Hotel helped solidify his reputation as the globe’s leading drag photographer. Now, his photographs are collected in a book, Why Drag?, which Chronicle Books will publish in May.
As a photographer, Hastings is drawn to drag queens for their remarkable aesthetics. Still, he’s interested not just in their looks but also in their thoughts and experiences. Alongside each queen’s portrait in the book he’s included her response when asked why she chooses to dress in drag. The explanations are as varied as the personas and accompanying ensembles.
“Drag queens come in all shapes and sizes, and there is no one reason why they ‘tuck, pluck, and preen,’ ” singer-songwriter Boy George wrote in the book’s introduction.
Hastings’ photos may look masterfully and carefully composed, but he doesn’t always get hours to try different outfits and environments with his subjects. In fact, his shoots are frequently more harried than one might expect. His greatest challenge, he said, is often getting his subjects to keep their appointments with him.
“There was one queen who canceled the shoot four times in three weeks. Sometimes the shoots are like guerrilla photography. With one queen, Sharon Needles, I got 20 minutes in her hotel room. But there was nowhere to shoot in the room, so I ended up popping up a background I had in the hallway,” he said.
In addition to his commissions and personal projects in the drag community, Hastings also works on commercial assignments and shoots with nondrag celebrities. Even though photographing drag queens can sometimes be difficult, they’re still by far his favorite subjects.
“They risk things. When you do normal shoots, they have publicists and managers who go, ‘No no no,’ and here everyone goes, ‘Why not?’ ” he said.