Sara Davidmann

Ken. To be destroyed

Book review by Greg Hobson

The series Ken. To be destroyed is the extraordinary story of Ken and Hazel Houston, retold by their niece, artist Sara Davidmann. Published by Schilt Publishing, the book is edited by Val Williams to accompany the current exhibition at the Schwules Museum Berlin, co-curated by Val Williams and Robin Silas Christian – yet another exciting project to emerge from Photography and the Archive Research Centre (PARC) based at the London College of Communication (LCC). The work weaves together Sara Davidmann’s contemporary responses to a collection of letters unearthed after Ken, Hazel and Davidmann’s mother, Audrey’s deaths, copies of which are included in the book along with various transcripts. Williams and Davidmann have also contributed writing to the publication.

Following Ken and Hazel’s marriage in 1954, it transpired that Ken was transgender. Set against the socially and culturally restrictive 1950s and 60s, this was a traumatic revelation for the pair, in particular as transsexuality was, at the time, largely misunderstood. Gender identity and sexual orientation were conflated and associated with homosexuality. Homosexual acts between men were against the law and men of this orientation were legally persecuted. Ken’s desire to be a woman therefore became a fiercely protected family secret, but one that Ken and Hazel were prepared to live with throughout their lives together.

The couple first corresponded in November 1953 and Hazel had accepted Ken’s proposal of marriage by February 1954. They married later that same year but it wasn’t until 1958 that Ken confided to Hazel that he was transgender.

His early letters to his love were overbearingly affectionate, constantly affirming the strength of his feelings. One from 3 May 1954 attests:

“That’s you my wonderful, darling. I love you, I love you, I love you. How much can I tell you beloved, but just to be with you is to know happiness and contentment I have never known before. How breathtakingly lovely you looked on Tuesday night lovely, dearest, you were the most beautiful female there. I can hardly realise my good fortune in winning your love even now.”

The two of them clearly built up a very strong bond from the outset of their relationship, marrying and settling together quickly, so it was a terrible shock for Hazel when Ken revealed he was transgender four years after their marriage. Despite her difficulty in dealing with this revelation Hazel continued in the relationship, largely through her love for and loyalty to her husband –notwithstanding what she described as intolerable strain. Hazel shared her distress through letters to her sister Audrey. In them she talks at length about her situation, while imploring her sister to keep the her circumstances and the content of the letters secret from everyone – including Ken – except Audrey’s husband, Manfred. There exists a desperate, tangible sadness that emerges from the letters. They articulate the incongruent and conflicted nature of Hazel’s situation, one that Val Williams describes as “asserting the power of love and respect while at the same time exposing the harm done by secrecy and dissimulation.”

The story unfolds through an archive of correspondence and photographs kept by Davidmann’s mother, Audrey and inherited by Sara Davidmann after Audrey’s death in 2013. The collection consists of letters between Hazel and Audrey, various notes and ephemera relating to Ken and Hazel’s life together and material from the 60s and 70s relating to Ken’s investigations into the possibility of treatment to become a woman.

Ken. To be destroyed is not simply the telling of a story through an extant archive however. In this book Davidmann has combined the legacy of letters and photographs with her own practice to explore personal histories and transgender issues. She has responded to the archive by reworking the photographic material, adding paint, developing fluid and marks to radically reinterpret apparently innocuous family photographs. Fascinated by the qualities of surfaces of the photographs; the various handling marks including the tactile engagement of both Ken and Hazel, as well as accretions of dust and grime accumulated over the years, Davidmann bears witness to the history of these remarkable lives.

Sara Davidmann’s work is an on-going investigation into the meanings of the archive and Ken’s condition as well as her own family history. A hybrid of history, archive material, literature, photography and painting, Ken is a complex and challenging project that sits between fact and fiction. The book is organised into a series of chapters or series that specifically delineate the history of Ken and Hazel’s responses to his transgenderism. There is nothing that alludes to their life beyond this, or to Hazel’s life in the considerable years she survived Ken (Ken died in 1979, Hazel in 2003). However, the unusual nature of the story, and Davidmann’s remarkable responses to it are dramatic and compelling.

In each series of new works, Davidmann has taken photographs from what appears to be a scant collection of those featuring Ken and/or Hazel and reworked them into a collection that reflects her personal response to the photographs and her familial connection to them. Davidmann’s explorations are often related to photographic process and the surfaces of the photographs, yet at the same time these new works speak for their subjects. In The Dress, Davidmann investigates the power of an elegant dress that Hazel wears in some of the photographs. In the original image Hazel looks poised and feminine and fashionable, her smile belying the turmoil that will become part of her everyday life. Scored, scratched and dripped on with paint and correction fluid by Davidmann, they take on an unnerving air of violence. Hazel’s face is obliterated and in one particularly powerful and moving image The Dress IV, her face appears to explode from the page. It is as if Davidmann is emancipating Hazel, expressing ire on her behalf, while also reflecting the utter hopelessness of her situation. Davidmann asserts that this was not her intention. However these works are extremely powerful, in particular in the aggressive treatment of the paper surfaces and the destruction of any of Hazel’s recognisable features.

In another series, Looking for K/Finding K, Davidmann has attempted to visualise how Ken might look as a woman, by digitally combining photographs of Hazel with photographs of Ken. These new photographs have then been hand-tinted in a manner that is typical of nineteenth century hand-colouring. These could well be some of the most uncomfortable images in the series. Replacing Hazel’s face with Ken’s in many respects strips away Hazel’s identity as a woman and furthermore, in replacing Hazel’s with Ken as a man (rather than made up as a woman), the photographs become a grotesque caricature of femininity.

Referring back to Hazel’s correspondence with Audrey, it is clear that Ken’s wish to be the woman in their house and his envy of Hazel’s womanliness is a troubling force for Hazel, as evinced in this letter from 10 September, 1959:

“’E’ knew I was beginning to resent this woman who was taking my place as mistress of my own home.
In the role of a woman, his personality changes quite a lot. Enjoys doing housework, washing and ironing, fussy about clothes. I have noticed even as the man he has been jealous of me as a woman.”

The final photographic work in the book is a document of the packages of letters, papers and photograph albums made by Davidmann in collaboration with Graham Goldwater. Stacked and tied with string, they give no indication of the dramas that they contain. The instruction ‘To be destroyed’ crops up more than once. Why they weren’t destroyed by Hazel or Audrey we will never know. That they have now formed the basis of this moving and important work by Davidmann, allows at least a partial understanding of the complex emotional and physical implications of living with transgenderism in the 1950s and 60s. To be a witness to this archive and Davidmann’s considered and intelligent response to it is a privilege.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Sara Davidmann

Greg Hobson is the former Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum, Bradford. Recent exhibition projects include William Henry Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph (2016), Revelations: Experiments in Photography (2015), and Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger than Fiction (2014), all of which showed at Media Space, London and the National Media Museum in Bradford.