The Many Faces of April Dawn Alison: Private Polaroids Discovered in Boxes Reveal the Secret of an LGBTQ Artist

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When April Dawn Alison died aged 67 in San Francisco in 2008, no one knew who she was. Since the 1970s she’d been a recluse, appearing only after work and on weekends to take Polaroid self-portraits in her apartment, dressed up like movie stars, housewives and porn actors. Sometimes she looked goofy, sometimes sad, serious, or sexy, other times hauled-up in bondage gear, but she never strayed from where she lived. For years, April Dawn had harbored a secret: she’d been living a double life. During the day, she was called ‘Alan’, an ex-military commercial photographer. But at night she was someone else.

April Dawn Alison was the private feminine persona of a photographer known to family, friends, and neighbors as a man named Alan (Al) Schaefer (1941–2008). After his death in 2008, an estate liquidator was hired to sell the belongings left in Schaefer’s home, which is where he discovered 9,200 Polaroids made by, and of, Alison. Several years later the images were sold to Andrew Masullo, a local painter who donated the archive to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The undated Polaroids, which span the 1970s to the 1990s (though Alison’s wardrobe sometimes makes them appear decades older), are presented at actual size, making this a quasi-facsimile of a photo album, punctuated with some full-page enlargements. These are private pictures of Alison in different outfits—she’s a career girl in Qiana, a pearl necklace matron, a vacuuming housewife in green eye shadow, fishnet-stockinged seductress, party girl in vinyl hot pants, and a member of the Starship Enterprise clad in a red minidress.

In the continuum of historical views, it’s difficult to know if Alison was trans or, as artist and trans activist Zackary Drucker offers in the book’s most extensive essay, “she seems to exemplify the category of ‘transvestite.’” Alison doesn’t always pass for a woman, but her pictures immediately convey the tropes.

In the accompanying catalog from London publisher Mack, Hilton Als’ essay employs a more fluid use of both pronouns: “April was a maker and so was the guy who made April; these pictures are a record of a double consciousness, the he who wants to be a she and the she who is a model and photographer.”

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