GVSU student on passion for drag, fine arts photography

GVL / Courtesy -  Rachel Britton
Jack Dup

GVL / Courtesy – Rachel Britton Jack Dup

Anne Marie Smit

When students decide on a career path, looking at what they used to do when they were younger can help them choose which path might be best suited for them. For Grand Valley State University senior and photography major Rachel Britton, finding a career path has been a back-and-forth process, but photography has been pretty constant in their life. 

“(Photography) started in middle school when I had, like, dinky point-and-shoot cameras, and I would take a lot of self-portraits, and then I would do a lot of crazy editing to them,” Britton said. 

Britton said that while they were drawn to photography in their middle school years, their journey to being a photography major wasn’t a steady one. Their choice to be a photography major was a “roller coaster,” going back and forth between math, a subject in which they excelled, and photography, which they really loved to do. 

“I was a band geek for awhile,” Britton said. “I was in marching band in high school, so I really kind of stopped playing around with photography. Then, my senior year of high school, I got back into it because I had some free classes. … Then I came here to do photography, switched out of the major for math and stats for a year, and then came back to photography.”

At the time when Britton was torn between pursuing math or pursuing photography, their sister, Kaylee, started to do drag, which is when Britton realized that photography and performing arts was what they wanted to do.

“I was really torn between the (math and photography), and that’s where drag comes into play,” Britton said. “In my sophomore year, at the end of me being a math and statistics major, I did really poorly in school and I almost dropped out. … That’s when Kaylee and a couple of their friends started doing drag, … and that’s when I picked my camera back up. They would do their makeup and costumes and stuff, and we’d go on campus at midnight and go and take photos and do stupid stuff. 

“Then I started photographing drag shows and stuff, and over that summer before my junior year, I was just like, ‘Yep, I think this is for me.’”

The photos of drag that Britton took started out as portraits, but then they began to photograph Kaylee and their friends’ drag performances. Kaylee and Britton’s work evolved into the “Art Is a Drag” series, a collection of images that catalog their performances and makeup for drag characters. 

“Kaylee at that time had started their ‘Art (Is) a Drag’ series,” Britton said. “I started photographing Kaylee and their friends doing makeup, then I started photographing them performing. Then, after awhile, I was like, ‘I want to start doing this,’ so I started doing drag.”

Britton said given the choice between taking photos at a drag performance and taking portraits of drag queens, they prefer taking formal portraits.

“I definitely prefer photographing queens in a really formal setting,” Britton said. “Not that I don’t like performance shots, but if I’m at a performance, I’d rather be performing or sitting back watching it. I’m not an event photographer.”

“Art Is a Drag” is a series of random images, Britton explained, that catalog their on-a-whim ideas instead of adhering to a specific theme. 

“Most of our ‘Art (Is) a Drag’ pieces have been very random,” Britton said. “One day we’d be like, ‘I want to be a clown,’ and the next day we’d be like, ‘I want to do random geometric shit on my face.’”

The “Art Is a Drag” series has been on pause for a little while so that Kaylee and Britton have the chance to focus on their senior projects.

“Kaylee did a lot of exhibiting on that series last year, and we’re both kind of taking a break from the series this year for the senior show,” Britton said. “I’m exploring body dysmorphic disorder (for my senior show), how it’s present in people’s lives, and doing these intricate body composites, kind of  like human centipede things.”

After they graduate, Britton said they envision themselves having a career in performance over a career in photography. Photography is something they do for themselves, while performances are something they do for other people.

“I probably see myself going more down a route of performing than photography,” Britton said. “Photography is something that I do as a fine arts practice, whereas performing is something that I do to entertain people. We just submitted a proposal to perform at Electric Forest, which we did last year. 

“I still want to be a photographer, and I still am a photographer, but I think photography is more of my own individual practice that I do for building a portfolio and winning awards for my resume, whereas performing is a fun thing that I can see myself doing more.”

The reception for Britton’s photography senior thesis exhibition will take place Thursday, April 19, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Art Gallery in the Haas Center for Performing Arts.