Walter Rutter was an in-demand commercial photographer in New York City in the 1960s, regularly shooting for magazines like Cosmopolitan. Rutter made this regal portrait of Susanna Valenti (born Tito Valenti) at Casa Susanna in Upstate New York, a gathering place that Valenti owned and operated which was the site of the earliest known trans network in the United States. Casa Susanna was organized via Valenti’s column “Susanna Says,” which was published in Transvestia magazine. At the time, cross-dressing was outlawed under “masquerade laws,” and Casa Susanna was a place where the circle of gender non-conforming people could safely gather and, importantly, take and develop photos without the risk of prosecution.
In October 2003, Laurence Miller Gallery presented the acclaimed exhibition The Girls of Casa Susanna, the first New York exhibition of the pictures. The history of Casa Susanna’s underground network has taken on new resonance with the wave of anti-trans legislation now sweeping the country, as legislators try to drive trans people and cross-dressers back into the shadows, criminalizing their very existence. A new documentary (you can watch here), as well as a current exhibition with an accompanying book, is bringing the story of Casa Susanna to a new generation. The show, co-produced by The Art Gallery of Ontario, is on view now at Les Rencontres de la Photographie d’Arles in France.