“The whole book project idea came because we’d had a year of Trump, basically. I wanted to do something that was very much standing up as a community and going, ‘fuck you,’ we’re here, we’re queer and we’re gorgeous,” U.K.-born, L.A.-based photographer Magnus Hastings tells L.A. Weekly about the motivation for his latest book Rainbow Revolution. The lensman, best known for his previous book Why Drag?, has basically been celebrating LGBTQA+ creators and entertainers for the entirety of his career, capturing the charismatic essence of his subjects for art galleries, the biggest gay mags across the globe and social media.
The perfect buy for Pride month, Hastings’ new book is a vibrant, defiant and joyful look at queer culture figures who’ve lived outside of the box, which interestingly, seeks to illuminate their personal perspectives and experiences by asking them to pose inside of one. Yes, there are rainbows, but the eye-popping portraits are also as unique as the individuals and groups featured, with a spectrum of sexual identities and backgrounds represented by subjects from all walks of life, each with something different to express in the outfits, backdrops and poses they chose.
“The first image I did was of Alaska [Thunderfuck, Drag Race All-Star winner] so whenever I asked someone to be involved I sent that as an example,” explained Hastings. “I built a white box; it was 6×5 by 6×5 feet deep. And I invited people to come in and they could decorate it, they could be naked in it, they could write on it, bring props, express themselves however they wanted to be seen. I said to people, ‘show me how you’d like to be seen in five year’s time.’ Some people really went for it. Other people would just turn up in an outfit. When it was just the empty box with someone in it, it became about how they or I helped direct them into creating body positions and body shapes that were interesting with the negative space. Or people would come around and paint it completely. Then I’d have to paint it back and hope it’d dry in an hour. This box had so many layers of paint on it by the time I tore it down a year ago in L.A., it was losing its edges.”
Hastings says the main thrust of the project was “no re-touching.” He wanted his subjects to tell their stories and create everything in real life. Not surprising, considering his acting and theater background, which he gave up after taking on photography full time. The self-taught photographer was originally inspired by the British gay nightlife scene, where he started capturing colorful characters and creators, leading to high-profile exhibitions at hotspots like London’s The Box. He’s honed his gift for highlighting the most interesting traits of his subjects, which he says got attention early on due to the bounty of “gay famous people” he was able to shoot.
“I did portraits of them, and it was kind of quite clever because it became like a celebrity portrait thing,” he says. “And I did these huge PVC print blowups, and I didn’t know if anyone would like them. But I put them up and overnight, everyone flipped out over them and I was featured in TIME OUT magazine. Then all the gay press started using me for their covers. So it happened very organically, very quickly once I decided to throw myself properly into photography.”
Hastings’ first book exploring the art of drag was created after a 2005 move to Australia (where queendom was thriving) followed by a relocation to L.A. in 2011. His career was busy, with an emphasis on celebrity and drag work, which led to a popular drag photo show in New York and finally, a Chronicle Books release in 2015. After that book’s success, he appeared as a guest judge on both Rupaul’s Drag Race and Dragula – the horror drag competition from 2019 L.A. Weekly cover subjects The Boulet Brothers. Soon after, he sought to expand his scope and cover all of the queer community with #Gayface, a 2018 photo project that eventually evolved into Rainbow Revolution.
“After Why Drag came out, I was employed to do drag stuff for the next couple of years and I was always thinking, ‘well, what is my next book, what’s my next project?” Hastings shares. “I thought, ‘what I need to do [now] that everyone and everything is on social media… is something that I can launch on social media that can then become a book, something that’s social media-friendly, and what’s the best shape for social media? It’s a square. So I [made] a box and then had each person create their own story within the box or by either using props or fabric or whatever. And I also very much wanted to be inclusive and to move on from drag and do something for the entire community, especially trans people, because there was very little trans drag in my previous book.”
After releasing 150 white box backdropped photos on the internet on the same day in 2018, many of the images went viral. Hastings was even commissioned by the West Hollywood Arts Council to make an in-real-life version of it for Pride in 2019, which manifested with three digital billboards on Sunset Blvd. Turning a social media idea into the Rainbow Revolution book the past three years and shooting almost 1,000 subjects across multiple cities was “exhausting,” Hastings admits, “sometimes I’d be shooting 30 people in a day and that was insane.” But the results are exultant, especially with the added essays from some subjects who talk candidly about their struggles and triumphs as LGBTQ+ people. The book is very much representative of the current cultural shifts on sexual and gender identity and how we express them publicly and proudly today. Not surprisingly, the cover (which also serves as the Weekly’s Pride cover this week) features an array of L.A.-based figures from entertainment and nightlife, where queer culture continues to thrive and inspire.
“It is part of the big wave of change as sexual identities and gender identities have been named and shifted and given importance and visibility,” Hastings adds. “It all happened as my book was coming together; this huge surge of that, and it came out right in the middle of it, so it feels like very much part of that movement and the understanding and acceptance of people’s right to express themselves however they see fit.”
Hastings hopes the book and his work in general will not only amplify queer voices and personalities but lead to more understanding and unity especially in parts of the country that still discriminate. “We live in an L.A. bubble, and we can forget the hell that people go through in less accepting places,” he reminds. “I feel like there’s a younger generation that generally are more accepting of sexual fluidity. I hope for a time when everyone can stop trying to get it right and it’s just a natural thing.”
More about Magnus Hastings, his books and his work at magnushastings.com.