In their debut book ‘Puberty’, Laurence Philomene journals two years of gender transition

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Documenting a ‘second adolescence’, the Montreal artist’s immersive book is intimate and dynamic in equal measure

Leafing through the pages of Puberty by Laurence Philomene is like reading a teenage diary. Bound in a softcover debossed with yellow cursive and gold stars, its pages are filled with colour and scrawled with handwritten notes. The book follows two years of a transition in which Philomene, who is non-binary, undergoes hormonal replacement therapy (HRT). 

Anchored by a series of self-portraits organised chronologically, the project reveals intimate details about Philomene’s lived experience as a chronically ill transgender person. We meet their cat Vashti, and their best-friends Nina, Lucky and Rochelle; we learn about their nighttime rituals and their favourite neighbourhood willow tree. But reading this ‘journal’, as such, doesn’t feel voyeuristic or intrusive. Philomene has invited us into this space. On the first page of the book, decorated with multi-coloured sparkles, they write: “This story is my offering to you. I am so grateful for your love and energy while reading it. I hope it ignites a light of possibility in your heart.” And so it begins. 

The first entries are dated in January 2019, around eight months after Philomene began taking testosterone. “I started making self-portraits as a challenge to myself,” they say. “My goal wasn’t to make a masterpiece everyday, but just take a picture of whatever it is I was doing.” Philomene posted the images – often of “mundane” daily scenes of breakfast, walks or household clutter – to Instagram. Until then, the artist was mostly making studio portraits, but their followers were responding to the new work “in a way I didn’t expect,” they say. 

This was the genesis of what is now published as a two year document of Philomene’s transition. The images are immersive, flowing as organically as the artist’s process, particularly alongside their handwritten notes. However, the photographer reveals that the writing part came at the very end. “The last step was that I took a lot of shrooms, looked at the photos, then wrote all the captions,” they say. Philomene discovered the creative potential of magic mushrooms the first time they took the hallucinogen in the winter of 2018. They told all of their friends before, in order to create a safe environment. “But then all I did was archive all my prints,” they laugh. “For some reason, I just needed to organise it all… That was when I noticed that mushrooms really help me focus on my photography.”

“Colour is like a different language that we all understand. Certain colours have certain codes in our society. At the same time, colours can also have a very intuitive feel to them… a certain energy. I like to use that to communicate what I’m feeling”

Philomene’s images are not ‘psychedelic’ in the strictest definition of the word, but the artist’s approach to aesthetics and colour feels kindred to the philosophies of psychedelia. They are inspired by “beautiful things”, like nature, friends, and colours. “Colour is like a different language that we all understand. Certain colours have certain codes in our society,” they say. “At the same time, colours can also have a very intuitive feel to them… a certain energy. I like to use that to communicate what I’m feeling.” Philomene’s favourite colour is pink: “I know people always think it’s orange – orange is more what I identify with – but I just love pink, like a hot pink.” 

This intuitive approach is present in all facets of Philomene’s practice. For example, the artist has curated a spotify playlist – mostly contemporary pop, but also nostalgic hits from the 00s by artists like Avril Lavigne and Weezer – that they listened to while editing. “[It was a] little ritual just to ground myself and be really present with the work,” they say. These personal interactions are important in nurturing a community around their work, which is an integral part of their development as an artist.

Born and raised in Montreal, the 29-year-old found photography in their early-teens. Back then, Philomene was mostly photographing Blythe dolls (Japanese collectable dolls) and posting the pictures on Flickr. Doing this, they found a community of people with similar interests, and a “subcategory” of photographers who were posting self-portraits. This inspired Philomene to start making portraits too, and they got hooked: “I would do it after school, and be online all night.” Around 2010, the community migrated to Tumblr, staying in touch and “essentially growing up together”. Many of the artists turned out to be Queer and Trans. “In hindsight [it] makes a lot of sense,” says Philomene. “We found each other online and connected even though we didn’t have the words… Now, a lot of these photographers in the group are making work about gender.”

Looking back, Philomene feels that the online community of the early 2010s was more “candid, genuine, and earnest”. Life online wasn’t about chasing likes, optimising reach, or monetising your content. “It felt more insular,” says Philomene. “I didn’t have my entire community following me, it was just a small group of people who were on Flickr or Tumblr… Now, literally everyone is on Instagram.” At the time of writing, Philomene has 54,000 followers on the social media platform. “That’s the main thing that keeps me going,” they say. “I work in Montreal – it’s an artistic city, but it’s not a big city like New York or London – so I do feel kind of isolated here. But I have a really great connection online with people who have been following my work for 10 years or more.” Philomene also has a patreon account, where their more devoted followers can pay a subscription to receive a monthly print and letter.

As a young photographer, Philomene was “obsessed” with artists like Wolfgang Tillmans and Tim Walker, and magazines like Love Magazine, Pop Magazine, Dazed, and I-D. Ten years later, their own work is featured in the very titles they idolised, including Dazed and i-D, but also mainstream publications like The New Yorker, Vogue Italia, and CNN. Now, they have published a photobook, and launched a solo exhibition of the work at Fotografiska New York. Sharing such personal experiences with the public must feel daunting, but Philomene is committed to using photography to humanise the Trans experience. They see their work as “a love letter” to their community. “I was sharing the process as it happened over the last few years. At that point, I felt like it wasn’t just my story. I was always sharing it with others”.

Puberty by Laurence Philomène is published by Yoffy. Their exhibition at Fotografiska New York will be on show until 28 August 2022. 

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.