TRIBECA — A single photo could never do a drag queen justice.
That's what photographer Rick Odell thought several years ago when he set out to capture drag queens' dual personalities by showing them both in their flamboyant female getup and in their daily male attire, all in a single frame.
The resulting series, "My Better Half," which is now on display at TriBeCa's Soho Photo Gallery, features portraits that envision drag queens and their male alter egos as a couple, flirting, holding hands and feeding each other morsels of food.
"How would drag queens interact with themselves if they were two separate people?" Odell asked, describing his vision for the project. "They are both people."
In one shot, a drag queen with cascading blond hair and aqua-shadowed eyes haughtily examines her fingernails, while a man in jeans and a T-shirt lounges on the couch nearby, strumming a guitar. The two figures have little in common except that they are the same person, photographed on the same day, digitally edited into the same image.
Odell, 37, a freelance photographer who lives on Long Island, did not start the series with a social message in mind, but he likes the way the photos subvert the idea of a male-female couple, by showing a single man portraying both roles.
The drag queens often dominate the frame, posing sexily on a motorcycle or reaching out a tongue to taste a bite of food, while the men often appear more laid-back, observing their partner.
Many of the shoots were improvised, and the subjects suggested props and poses that they felt conveyed their two distinct characters, Odell said. He shot many of them inside their New York City apartments, or in other places where they felt comfortable.
"It's a definite switch in their personality when they change [clothes]," Odell said. "You almost have to refer to them in their different gender."
Odell started the project more than four years ago as his master's thesis at Long Island University's C.W. Post campus. He was inspired by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, whose portraits of porn stars posed both naked and fully clothed also show two entirely different views of the same person.
Odell found his models, who are all professional drag queens, on Craigslist at first, but soon referrals and volunteers began pouring in. He has crafted 23 double-portraits so far, 19 of which are on display this month in TriBeCa, and he hopes to someday compile them in a book that tells the drag queens' stories.
"My Better Half" is on view at Soho Photo Gallery, 15 White St., through June 30. The gallery is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 1 to 6 p.m. and by appointment.