Mary Amelia Leavelle’s Photographs: Presentations of Self and Sexuality in the Twentieth Century South

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 9:20 AM
Balcony I (New Orleans Marriott)
Laurel Daen, College of William and Mary
My paper focuses on Mary Amelia Leavelle’s photographs themselves.  Drawing on techniques of visual analysis, it asks what these sources can tell us about her pleasures, pastimes, and performances of gender and sexuality in early twentieth-century Eutaw.  In one photograph, Mary Amelia poses, with slicked-back hair and a neatly-pressed suit, next to a woman, who wears high-heeled shoes and heart-shaped locket, and a small baby.  A book, perhaps a bible, lies on the ground near them.  Their physical presentation turns on notions of the “traditional” family, at once mirroring and contradicting expectations of gender and sexuality before the lens of the camera.  In another photograph, Mary Amelia poses with a woman on the steps of the Big House.  She drapes one arm over the woman, uses the other to display a small shotgun, and stares into the camera with a grimace.  The marginalia on the back of this source reads: “Drunk Again.”

Mary Amelia Leavelle’s artwork provides a unique lens through which to consider her life, sexuality, and emerging lesbian identities more generally in the early twentieth-century South.  My paper argues that, perhaps even more than textual sources, her photographs offer insight into her desired self representations.  They illustrate some the ways that she conceptualized her body and sexuality as well as the ways that she deliberately crafted herself for an audience.  Her postures and expressions demonstrate her willingness to play and experiment with gender and sexual markers.  At the same time, they reveal her deeply-rooted sense of self, her assertiveness in her preferred gender presentation and sexual orientation—even if this meant hiding her photographs in her dresser drawers for the remainder of her lifetime.