Getting Into Face(s)

By Emily Ornberg

Psychedelic Hindu gods, glittery nuns, decadent astronauts—the roles change from frame to frame, but subjects JoJo Baby and Sal-E of Bernard Colbert’s photo book “Getting Into Face” have maintained the same routine for five years.

Every Monday night, JoJo Baby with friend Sal-E have gone to work as hosts of Chicago’s largest and longest running house-music dance party, the Boom Boom Room, which is currently on hiatus from its usual location at Green Dolphin St., 2220 N. Ashland Ave., while the building undergoes renovation. It took the duo hours to prepare, and Colbert was there every week to capture the endlessly entertaining process. He said he usually only had 10 to 15 minutes to photograph them before they went on stage.

As hosts, JoJo Baby and Sal-E acted as eye candy and were usually strategically placed by the door of the club.

“If they entice you to come inside, that’s good for everyone,” Colbert said. “If they make you want to leave, that’s best too.”

They sometimes danced, emceed and lip-synched performances, but they never stopped entertaining. The two created their own hair, makeup and costumes, using their bodies as canvases. Colbert’s job was to chronicle their artistry by setting up the lighting and backdrops for the photos, a task made more difficult by the pair’s unpredictable costumes.

“Sometimes they would show up and I would look at what they were wearing and try and quickly comprehend what they were up to, because sometimes it’s high concept and it’s not obvious right away,” Colbert said. “It’s interesting right away, but it’s like, ‘What the heck is going on?’ So I scramble and try and make it happen.”

Colbert, who took courses in commercial photography at Columbia from 1989–1991, said he loves portrait photography and has been drawn to performers such as models, musicians and athletes—people who are both interesting and like being photographed.

“They know how to move and play to the camera, and it’s really fun for the photographer because it’s easy to create a symbiotic relationship,” Colbert said. “I do so much fashion, hair and beauty photography, and that’s exactly what [JoJo Baby and Sal-E] are doing. Their idea of what’s beautiful and what’s fashionable is a little different and maybe a little [more] forward than what we’re used to.”

Colbert said the duo is constantly putting on a show that creates “plenty of magic” when they’re in front of a mirror or camera.

Where the magic stems from, specifically, is hard for JoJo Baby to define.

“Sometimes it’s dreams, and sometimes Sal and I would throw suggestions at one another,” JoJo Baby said. “We wouldn’t even be getting ready in the same room, and it was funny how we almost looked identical by the end of the night. It was just by throwing out suggestions like, ‘nun,’ ‘sugar,’ stuff like that. ‘Planet of the Apes.’”

The combination of unplanned imagination and spontaneity kept Colbert continually inspired. He said the most successful images captured an indescribable magic that would often occur.

“It was something that would elevate it from an interesting time to really high art, and it’s something that fascinates me,” Colbert said. “It feels elusive, but when you find that you can do it time and time again, it’s really fun to keep trying to do it.”

The photos in the book were originally distributed as prints before Colbert decided to combine them into a series. Colbert said he was initially drawn to the pair because he was a fan and was fascinated by their talent and hard work. But working with them for so long has opened his eyes to the niche world they live in—a segment of the LGBT community in Chicago that is noted for its colorful people.

“I think it’s an exciting time, [and] I think we’re fortunate to be doing [this book] right now,” Colbert explained. “I think a lot of people’s opinions are evolving on what to make of [this] culture.”

Matt Kane, associate director of entertainment media for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, explained that it’s important for such LGBT art to be accepted, and that art has both the power to reveal truths about a subject and allow the viewer to see things from another point of view.

“The ability of art and media to do just this through images and stories of LGBT people has been key to greater public understanding and acceptance of the LGBT community,” Kane said.

Colbert said he expected such “forward” work to have mixed reactions, but so far he has received overwhelmingly positive reactions. His biggest fans, he said, are actually people with no insight into [this] world whatsoever.

“People I know to be kind of closeted or homophobic or not really in the art scene or exposed to too many things—not very worldly—see my work and go, ‘Well, that’s really cool,’” Colbert said. “I think that’s a really good start.”

“Getting Into Face” is available for purchase through Oct. 1 at Eyeporium Gallery, 1431 N. Milwaukee Ave., Monday – Friday from 12 – 7 p.m.. and Saturday 12 – 5 p.m. The book will also be available at local bookstores and Amazon.com. For more information, visit EyeWantEyewear.com/eyeporium.

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