This British-born, Los Angeles-based former actor originally made his name as a nightlife photographer in Australia. Magnus Hastings’ first collection “Why Drag?” helped usher in today’s drag boom and changed the game regarding how queens would now be portrayed in print media: colorfully and joyfully, with a nod to camp and humor. His new follow-up “Rainbow Revolution” comes from a place of both inclusivity and defiance, launched by a brilliantly curated social media happening. Magnus tells us all about what went into–and down in–those big white boxes he immortalized, and spills some piping hot tea all over today’s drag landscape.
Thotyssey: Magnus, thanks for chatting with us today! So, did you do anything for Thanksgiving?
Magnus Hastings: I did nothing for Thanksgiving; I sat in my bed with my dog. I had a steak, and I don’t think I even went outside. That was around the time of the launch [of my new book]. Ever since the launch, I’ve kind of felt flat. I’ve been in bed; I’ve been trying to make myself go for walks, but failing dismally and just managing to go and buy alcohol instead.
So quarantine has been rough, I take it.
The quarantine has been weird. The first couple of months was fine; it was like a much needed rest. I was just puttering around, doing my thing. I live on my own with my dog, and I was very careful not to go out anywhere. I don’t see the point in sitting outside at a restaurant, where you’re breathing into somebody’s face. I just hunker down and get through it. Yeah, it’s just shit for everyone. But I mean, it could be worse. I’ve got a nice apartment in California, and I’m an isolator. So most of the time, it’s fine. But then, I do go a bit mad and feel lonely.
I imagine there’s been a lot to keep you busy lately, though.
I had to work on building up to my book launch. I was just in quarantine going, “can this hurry up already? I just want to launch the fucking thing!” And I’ve been doing other little bits and pieces of photography. I did my “MaskUp” campaign, which was really fun for a couple of weeks–running around shooting all these famous drag queens. But I was shooting them outside, always. I’ve been doing lots of shooting outside.
I enjoyed that #MaskUp campaign from the past summer, where those famous queens posed out of drag in what appeared to be masks of half their drag face. What inspired that series?
People in other countries–my friends in England–can’t believe that wearing a mask is still fucking headline news in America. It’s so insane. But there we go! I wanted to add a really fun way to put that [mask message] out there. I thought, “how can I give myself a project that’s safe to shoot?” And so basically, I already had shoots of all the queens in drag. So I went to the drag queens and I said “let me just come round and I’ll shoot you as a boy, and then I’m going to take an old shot that we have of you in drag, and then I’m gonna make a mask for the bottom half of your face.” So all the masks are fake. A couple of people did half-face for me, like Heidi, because I hadn’t gotten a shot of them before. [But mostly I was] going through my files and finding a face that’s the right angle that would work.
I also very much wanted [the spread] to be full of people of color, because of what was going on–it was relevant. So it really was a fun idea. It gave me a reason to run around and go and visit people, to slap up that piece of grey background wherever. I went round to Raja’s and I slapped it in her courtyard. But I was kind of annoyed [the spread] wasn’t picked up and made a bigger event, because it had these hugely famous drag queens involved. What the fuck was up with that?
Just a little bit of origin story now! Although you initially studied drama in London (where you were born), you taught yourself photography and ultimately pursued that instead. What drew you to that?
My dad was like a semi-professional photographer. So growing up, I would watch him in the darkroom and watch these images emerge from the chemicals. And that was kind of magical, and also instant. And so I taught myself when I was 15; I had happened to have a sink in my bedroom, so I turned my bedroom into a darkroom (no gag there, please) and I just taught myself. I didn’t study, it just was trial and error… and I just worked it out.
It was a weird thing. I was a child actor, I always said I wanted to be an actor. But once I trained in the West End, I suddenly I decided I didn’t want to act anymore. I love rehearsals for acting, but I didn’t like performance; I get really nervous. I went to a really good drama school–Guildhall–it was the best three years of my life, it was so fun. But I became successful as a photographer really quickly, and it was obviously what I should be doing. I still use that theatricality in my work; I think [my photography] is very influenced by it–it’s very dramatic, you know.
What was London queer nightlife like in those days, when you were living there?
When I hit London nightlife after drama school, I was out every night of the week. It was really fun. I’d go to a sharp club called The Shadow Lounge. I had a friend, and we would go out and we’d just get shitfaced– we’d be out till 5:00 in the morning every time. I was an out-of-work actor then, so you know… what else was there to do? But it was really fun.
And who were your first drag subjects?
I shot a couple of drag queens in London, and then I flew off to Sydney for three months; it was like coming home into Drag World, which was where I thought I belonged. That’s when I met Vanity Faire; I saw her performing in a club, and I showed her some stuff and asked to shoot. No one knew who I was, but she took a chance on me. The shots were amazing, and it’s still one of my favourite pictures–that one of her as Dorothy was the first shoot we ever did, and that opened up the whole of Sydney to me. All the drag queens wanted to be shot by me, and then I got big. There was a magazine called Blue, and they asked me to do a huge spread on it–and it kind of snowballed.
Everyone started to see me as the “drag guy.” I met Courtney Act the next year and shot her. Courtney wrote me a very amazing email (which of course I’ve lost) when I was in England again, saying that I was doing something really amazing for the drag community because no one had photographed them in the way that I did. It was always–you know–somebody looking into a mirror and putting makeup on, looking sad. And I actually recognized that if a queen had spent three hours carefully shading their face, you don’t stick a light to the side of them! You light them and their makeup, so you see the shading how it should be. And also, it was celebrating them–not seeing drag as an oddity, but seeing it as a really cool, amazing, incredible thing.
When you moved to Los Angeles in 2011, was that like arriving on a different planet?
No, I’ve been coming and going to LA for years. When I was 20 I moved here for a year, so I knew it very well. And then for three months the year before [I moved here again] I was in LA doing a bit of under-the-table photography, and I applied for my visa then. And you know, half my family’s American. It’s not a different planet at all.
Have you ever faced any sort of conservative backlash for your work, in its depiction of queer expression or sexuality in general?
Not massively, and I kind of welcome it. I mean, with Why Drag? there was some nasty stuff written about the drag queens: “go back to the cesspool where you belong.” I’d love to have had it all in the back of the book, because it made me laugh; it was just written by such dummies. One of [the comments] was great about my book: “another lefty liberal jamboree,” which I thought was really funny.
When I first started shooting in London and I became successful there, it was like… I brought camp back. At the time everyone was into “straight acting gay men”–and it was all black and white, everyone was trying to be like Herb Ritts. And I came onto the gay scene with my work, and it was very colorful and camp. I was the first person to get drag queens on the covers of various gay magazines. And I remember doing one shot, which I love: I got a very handsome guy for the cover of a magazine, but I had him lying in bananas, eating a banana. And the idea of anyone eating a banana was a very femme thing, obviously. And I remember walking into this butch gay bar, and seeing somebody pick the magazine up and then throw it across the room in disgust… because it was a depiction of a man in a camp way. And I was thrilled!
So, no major backlash. [Response to my work has been] generally really supportive. Occasionally people accuse me of being pornographic, when it’s clearly not pornographic. I just think of them as stupid.
On your Instagram, you recently posted a photo from a sexy Tom of Finland-inspired shoot you did a while back, and you mentioned that one of the models was too shy to actually grab another model’s dick.
It was just annoying in that picture, because I wanted to do a true recreation of the Tom of Finland thing. So it was like, “just grab it, or just have the hand going where it looks like you’re actually grabbing his cock.” I mean, the model being grabbed didn’t give a shit… he was all for it. It was just the other one that was being a bit wet. Funnily enough, someone on Instagram said that [an actual cock grabbing] would have made it tasteless and ruin the shot! It’s like, fuck you, motherfucker. It’s my shot, and I’ll tell you how it would work best. But anyway, I love that shot very much. Just that little bit annoys me.
Do you often run into photo subjects being hesitant to take direction from you, whether it involves nudity or sexual suggestion or otherwise?
I don’t really push people to do anything, and I’ll always make sure that they are comfortable. My work’s got sexual energy, but it’s not that sexual. I mean, it’s not that it’s not pornographic; I’ve shot lots of nude things. But no, people are generally very comfortable because I’m charming. I give them a false sense of security, and get them to do things they’d never normally do [laughs]. That’s my skill.
Does posting your photography on social media, when it would otherwise be in galleries or books, feel like a necessary evil in your line of work today?
Yeah it does, because my work should be seen really huge and big. But with the #GayFace project (now Rainbow Revolution), the whole point was to use social media, which in itself gave me the idea for using a square, which was then a box, and then a white box. And in my head the whole thing was meant to be a social media gallery leading to a book and then leading to a gallery exhibition which I would have on the launch day.
But I mean, that was the thing I got frustrated with, actually: one of my press releases described it as something [about social media]. I said, “just don’t talk about Instagram!” The book should stand on itself, and I don’t want it to feel like a book of Kim Kardashian’s greatest moments on Instagram. The pictures are art pieces, and they’re meant to be seen bigger. I don’t enjoy Instagram personally, but I used it. For the first two years I posted only boxes, so when you looked at the feed it would look kind of amazing.
Yes, it’s definitely frustrating. But I mean, it’s so hard to get stuff out there, and [because of Instagram] it worked. I got this whole project very much recognized, and people wanted to do it. So for this it was fine. With my other work, I’d rather not just do it for an Instagram post, but… I guess that’s kind of how it is now, isn’t it?
As mentioned earlier, Why Drag? was your major collection that really gorgeously portrayed drag queens, published as a book in 2016. That’s the first time a lot of the world saw San Francisco drag, for one thing.
I very much showcased San Francisco drag because that wasn’t being showcased, and I really went there. San Francisco drag continued that original drag feeling of punk rock. It’s so expensive to live in San Francisco, and [the queens would] put something together from nothing. It was there for one night, and then it would vanish, and it was real theater: exciting and edgy and dangerous.
The book was published right about the same time that RuPaul’s Drag Race was becoming a global phenomenon, and I’d say I’d least half the queens in Why Drag had either already been on the show by the time of the book’s publication, or would be in these ensuing four years.
I was part of that surge. My feeling about it at the time was I wanted it to be for the layman, to be about Clark Kent and Superman and an alter ego. But yes, there’s a big chunk of Drag Race in there already. And since then it’s turned more and more and more into a Drag Race book, as you say. I don’t think there was anyone [from the book] in the last season. But the season before that, Nina West in there had shot, and Brooke Lynn Hytes. So there were always more people–and now it looks like it’s a Drag Race book, which it definitely isn’t. It’s fine, but it’s not what the intention was. I just wanted to photograph incredible drag queens, and I clearly did because then they ended up on Drag Race. It was what it was.
While you were shooting for that book though, did you have any idea that drag was gonna get as huge as it did?
I knew it was gonna be huge; it was already becoming huge. But it was so funny, actually. When I had my first book signing in a gallery, this woman–the gallerist–said “oh, my friend in New York says drag is over now, and she told me not to do a drag exhibition.” And I was like, “who the fuck is telling you this?” Such nonsense. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger, and even in the last year it just exploded even more. But I definitely felt part of that wave. Other drag books have come out, but they’re not focused on the visual in the same way mine was. Why Drag? is a love letter to drag, and and I came up with the idea of actually asking people [the question “why do you do drag?” as] something to basically fill space [laughs]. I was initially putting it together myself and I thought, “there’s too much space here, so let’s just ask everyone a question.” And then it turned into Why Drag?
You were a guest judge on Dragula, once in the first season and once in the second! Was that a fun experience, and do you have any behind the scenes tea?
It was fun, but it was weird. The first season they had one camera, and basically there was me and the Boulets judging, and they just had this camera locked off onto the three of us in one shot. I was so self-conscious, because when you weren’t speaking… the camera was still on you. So if it wasn’t a closeup of somebody talking, I was sitting there thinking “oh God, don’t fidget, stop swallowing,” you know.
And in the first one, we really deliberated–the three of us, we really deliberated and chose who was to go home. But the second season, we didn’t deliberate–they already knew. They did it all, it was their decision. And that was fine. Then they didn’t ask me back on to the Season 3; I think I was rude to them by mistake, and I got booted off the show [laughs]. Well, anyway, something like that. I was drunk and rude, and they paid the price for it on New Year’s Eve.
Let’s talk more in-depth now about Rainbow Revolution, your newly published collection now available everywhere. This is from a series you’ve been working on for at least two years now, involving a large white box where models pose in and fill the space based on their own expressive concepts. How did this all come about?
The idea came in 2018, and I just wanted to create something on the back of Why Drag? One of the main things I wanted to do with my next project was to include everybody: drag kings, trans man, trans women… everything about our community. So that was already there in my head. Then Trump was already attacking LGBT rights that year, and I wanted to stand up. I wanted to do something where the community would be seen and be loud, and say, “we’re not going anywhere. We’re fucking awesome.”
Initially it was called “#GayFace”–as in, what is the face of “gay” (meaning, the whole community) in 2018? It’s diverse, it’s incredible, it’s beautiful, it’s colorful, and it’s “fuck you, we’re not going anywhere.” It was meant to be slightly combative; nearly everyone’s eyeballing the camera in the shots. And then that led to the whole concept that I should do social media; I wanted to do something quickly, because of the feeling of of Trumpism. I suddenly thought, “what would happen if everyone [I shot for the series] posted their picture at the same day at the same time, and it was all secret, and it came from nowhere?” So that was the other part of the plan. I built the box [where I shot many of the photos] within three days; I had Alaska come and do a test for me, and it worked; it was amazing.
And then I just started shooting like crazy over three months. I built a box in San Francisco, and a box in New York. I’ve shot 120 people, or well within… and I nearly killed myself doing it. My back went out, I was absolutely exhausted and terrified.
How did you find all your subjects, aside from the ones you already knew personally?
I’d go to a couple friends in New York and I’d say “I want someone like that,” or, “who do you know?” They helped me find people. And I had a couple of friends in San Francisco who helped me find people. One of my friends, Meg, organized everyone. So I went to San Francisco for a week, and she’d literally line up people to run by me, and I’d say yes or no if I thought it was gonna work or not– because it’s visual.
So I did 120 people. And then May 4th at noon, everyone dropped their picture [on Instagram] and it went completely crazy. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, #GayFace trended on Twitter. It was like a real thing. Then that night I had a week-long, pop-up gallery show–I rented Willam’s space in Hollywood–and it was really exciting.
That must have been a very nerve-wracking day, when all your subjects had to post their shots on their Instas at the same time.
I remember going, “Oh my God, what if nobody posts?” I didn’t give anyone their image until 10 minutes before the time they were supposed to post, because I didn’t want them to leak it, or for them to get bored, or forget. I thought this could fall flat on its face, and I can look like a fucking idiot… but it did work. It was amazing. I was driving to the gallery space with my assistant who was going, “Alaska posted! Farrah posted!” Just shouting, because I didn’t have time to check on anything. But it was really an exciting moment.
And then it gained momentum. So then I lived with the box for two years in my home, and would shoot people. When it got to the right time I then pitched it to the Why Drag? publisher (Chronicle) as a book, and they jumped on it, which was great. But then we fought and fought and fought over the size. I pushed to get it up to a decent coffee table size, and they wanted to make it smaller and cheaper. But I was thinking that this needs to be a companion to Why Drag? and feel as expensive as that. I got my way in the end, but it took me three months.
So, the models were very hands on with what they should be doing for their turns in the box?
[It varied.] For instance, Beaux Banks came to me saying he wanted to be in the box, and I was like, “I don’t just want a porn star in a jockstrap. I’ve got enough of those, I don’t need another one.” And so then I came up with this idea of him flying on a bomb in that kind of 40’s wartime pinup, and he loved it. So that was me coming up with an idea specifically for him. Other people would turn up very much knowing what they wanted to do, or somebody would half-know and I’d guide them. It was very collaborative and really fun, like a massive craft project.
Were there any moments during the shoots where you were completely shocked by ideas the models came up with?
Nothing is shocking to me, really. But nobody did, because there’s such a sense of humor to it all. I don’t think there was one. But I did do a shoot in London where I specifically wanted to do a box with proper sex in it. It wouldn’t be in the book, but it was something I thought should be done. And actually, it was really awkward. It was my shoot I did with Ricky Roman and Josh Moore. They were a couple, and they were like “yeah, totally.” We we did proper blowjobs and stuff, and I just actually felt kind of voyeuristic; it felt really intrusive and didn’t feel appropriate at all. So that was the rudest I got. The other idea I had for them, which is in the book, is me using an eggplant over his dick–but a real eggplant. So it’s like, “fuck you, you can’t censor this. It’s already censored.” But in a silly way.
You must’ve had to repaint those boxes many, many times.
Yes! The first person in my New York box was Nico Tortorella, and we had this beautiful, clean, white box… and he came in with a marker pen and did this incredible design all over the back. But he was the first person through the doors, and then I had to try and paint that out before the next person came. You can imagine, black marker showing through every layer of paint! It was torture. So in the end when I was fast-shooting five people in a day, I would have rolls of paper that I could put in the back. Then they could paint or spray on, and then I could just pull the paper out. But yeah, it was painted so many times. And when I actually chucked [the boxes] out, you could actually see a kind of sandwich of different colors.
Oh God, I tell you what, though! Ursula Major kept making herself bleed because she wanted to put her own blood all over the canvases in the box. And it was kind of a lot… she’d get faint trying to bleed. She was kind of piercing her head and then shaking blood onto [the box]. That was a bit shocking, because I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to this kind of piercing. And it didn’t even read because it was, like, little speckles of blood. I actually didn’t like it, so we ended up kind of coming to an agreement to use red paint as well to give it a feel of, like, this crazy red box. But on the canvases, it’s Ursula’s blood. And that was quite a lot.
Ultimately, you could only allow for a small percentage of the images you shot for your book. That paring down process must be agonizing.
Yeah, I shot about a thousand images, and then I chose 300… and it was hard. I had to be really ruthless. I pinned up every image from the shortlist and I was working out what should be full page, what should be quarter page, what should sit next to what. The first 15 pages were great, and then… it was so hard. Then I’d be trying things–some of the shots just couldn’t be in the book because they just didn’t sit next to things right. I finally finished after 10 weeks, and I felt like I placed everything perfectly. And it really does sit beautifully, as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t jar in any place; it all works smoothly and works together, and I’m really proud of it.
How about a second volume featuring the shots you couldn’t fit in this one?
No, I would not do another book. If you want to see more images, you can look at them on my website or on Instagram. I’ve been doing this for nearly three years! It’s time for something new. It will always be super queer though, whatever I do.
I see you also did a few shots of yourself in the box during quarantine, for a separate project.
Basically, I just came up with that idea of giving myself something to do with my dog George. I suddenly saw that idea of putting prison markings down as the days pass. It was really fun for a bit. You know, I’d wake up and go, what can I do today? And then it became more and more pressure. I hate being in front of the camera now; I just have to grin and bear it, and try and go for humor and be silly and not care so much. The thing that makes them is my dog, because he’s such a good model. He’d do whatever I told him to do, with his little sweet face all the time.
But then eventually I’d wake up and go, Oh God, I I’ve got to post something, because people got really into it. They were waiting to see what I’d do every day. My mother and I–yesterday, funnily enough–had an argument because she kept insisting that those images should be a book themselves, and I’m like “Mom shut up. I’ve just released a book of hundreds of fucking boxes. Nobody needs to see something with me in a box. I know you love me, and I know you’re my mother, but let’s let that go. If people want to see it, they can go and see it [on my Instagram].”
So, no more boxes!
No. After I finished [the whole project], I suddenly had enough of those quarantine boxes; they were stressing me out. So I dragged [the one in my home] out and took it apart; it was great. I dragged it in pieces over a few days into the street to be taken away. I didn’t want to put the whole box into the street, because then someone could just rebuild it… it had my signature on it and stuff. But it was funny, when I did a shoot recently with Jaida Essence Hall, she really wanted to do the box! But I destroyed it, so I couldn’t do it.
What else is going on with you?
I’m selling prints of the #GayFace project (which includes the Rainbow Revolution project), and a percentage of those print sales goes to True Colors United in America. Or if it’s one of the shots from Britain, then it’s the Kennedy Trust. Both of these charities are about helping homeless gay youth, or LGBT youth experiencing homelessness. They’re not expensive, as far as prints go.
Finally: What’s your best advice for a new photographer in the queer scene starting out today?
Just go out and meet people, and talk to people. A lot of it is charm. You have to go out and charm people, and get them to want to work with you. The one thing about my shoots is, when I shoot, everyone has fun. It’s a lot of laughter. I think I’m much better in that situation than I am in social situations, actually. I’m really fun as a photographer. And then I’m so tunnel vision with work that I’ve kind of fucked up friendships and relationships, because it’s just focus focus focus on work. But at the time I [meet you and we shoot], I’m your best friend and I’m hilarious. So, learn to be hilarious. That’s my advice.
All included photos by Magnus Hastings, unless otherwise noted. Check Thotyssey’s calendar for any upcoming local appearances for Magnus Hastings, and follow him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and his website. Purchase “Rainbow Revolution” here.