How a CMU professor turned old photographs into an LGBTQ perspective

Kris Sanford takes photos from the 1920-1950s and crops them to depict what queer relationships may have looked like in the time period


"Folding Chairs"

Growing up queer in the 90s, Kris Sanford didn’t have role models to look up to, or a relationship to mirror her own after — so she decided to create one.

The Central Michigan University art professor found a collection of old snapshots of parties her grandmother hosted in the 50s. One features a mock wedding, with her grandmother dressed as the bride and a woman next to her dressed as her sailor husband. It was meant to be playful, but Sanford looked at it differently.

Sanford grew up in a world with little queer visibility and works with a timeline that had none. Now she works to help address LGBTQ issues still present in the world, she said, such as transgender rights, adoption rights and workplace discrimination.She said she hopes to be part of that process by helping people question their assumptions surrounding sexual identity.

“I hope it makes you question on you look at photographs. I’m trying to raise more questions than answer them,” Sanford said. “There can be people who see queer images and think the visibility is too much. But if you flip that coin as a queer person growing up, all the images you’re fed to consume are heterosexual. You’re assumed to be heterosexual. So to me, it’s not too much at all.”

Sanford began to create her own history. She’d take an old snapshot featuring two people displaying affection and intentionally crop it so faces aren't shown. This left the images looking like same-sex relationships through the intimate gestures.

“I look for physical contact — but not just any physical contact, but ones with intimacy. There has to be a delicacy to it,” Sanford said. “There’s a balance in the composition I can create from as well. I want them to be visually engaging. It’s about this intimate and delicate gestures that balance with a striking composition.”

Her photos depict women gently holding hands under their seats and men with their arms interlocked, with the only part of their face showing is their grin.

She said she’s “very intentional” about cropping faces out of photographs because the project is about transforming the people into fictional characters.

“I like the black and white look— I feel like colors wouldn’t be as powerful,” she said. “It doesn't align perfectly with the time before gay visibility and gay rights. That would push it more into the 70s. The aesthetic suggests nostalgia. It speaks to the nature of being in the closet. I hope it helps views think about the change in visibility since then.”

In the beginning of the project, Sanford found photos by sifting through antique shops photo bins. Now a decade into the project, her primary source is eBay.

Despite the delicate intimacy found within the photos, Sanford said it’s likely none of them contain actual queer people. The photos contain an imagined history because it was rare to be openly gay at the time, “it’s impossible to know.”

“I’m not suggesting the people are gay or lesbian. That’s why their identities aren’t included in the pictures. They come to represent all the people not photographed with their lover or partner," Sanford said. "But people can misunderstand that.”

Only in rare moments does she add detailed titles to photos — she prefers to keep the titles vague, allowing the photo to speak for itself.
“I do look for stories within the photos. There’s one picture in the series, titled ‘The Mentor.’ One woman is in a chair, and the other woman is sitting on the arm of the chair,” Sanford said. “There’s this relationship of one woman being physically higher in the frame than the other. I took it as a mentor and mentee relationship. The piece is more interesting with potential narrative.”

Sanford's work is currently being displayed in two locations in Michigan. "Open to Interpretation," which is artist Thomas Allen and Sanford's artwork, is being displayed at GRCC Collins Art Gallery in Grand Rapids until Dec. 2.  Her work is also being displayed as part of "enLIGHTENED" in the CMU University Art Gallery until Nov. 19.