25 July 2019

The Many Lives of April Dawn Alison

25 July 2019 - Written by Colin Pantall

Alan Schaefer’s day job was a commercial photographer. When the day job ended, his name changed, his photography changed. He became April Dawn Alison and made polaroid self-portraits: more than 9,000 of them over a period of 30 years. This is a selection.

© Mack Books, spread from the book April Dawn Alison

In 1976, Erving Goffman published his book Gender Advertisements. It’s a book of the gender displays that happen in advertising; stereotypical displays where women’s roles and their position in society are rigidly fixed. Advertisers (like society), Goffman said, “…must transform otherwise opaque goings-on into easily readable forms.”

The easily readable forms Goffman identified come in categories like relative size, where women are shown as smaller than the men in the image, or ritualised subordination, where the women’s role is more menial than the man’s, or licensed withdrawal – where John Berger’s classic idea that men act and women appear is put into direct practice.

The forms that Goffman identified are outrageously stereotyped. Walk down any high street and, for all the talk of gender fluidity, you will still see them today in the photography that adorns our department stores, our clothing shops, our pharmacies. Advertisers still need to “transform opaque goings-on into easily readable forms.”

These easily readable forms are made even more legible through a series of basic gestures and expressions. There are fingers in mouths, distant stares, legs in the air, invitational gazes and chocolate box expressions.

© Mack Books, spread from the book April Dawn Alison

Gender is a performance then, one displayed in gendered advertising and, by extension in society at large. Goffman’s ideas were a precursor to Judith Butler’s hugely influential ideas on the performativity and socialisation of gender and the more fluid (in places) views that are at large now. Judith Butler is very heavy going, though. Erving Goffman is an easier read and comes with pictures but, let’s be honest, they’re not exactly beachside reading.

April Dawn Alison is the digestible visual option of all of these ideas. It’s a series of polaroids of April Dawn Alison performing for the camera in the confines of her small apartment in Oakland, California. The gender displays of Goffman are in place, but then April Dawn Alison goes beyond that. There are other inputs, from cinema, from television, from porn. And mixed in with it all is a definite persona. April might be performing but she’s doing it for her own benefit. There are those ‘easily readable forms’ in there but there is a questioning in there, a humour, a sadness and a personality.

There are basic emotion images (surprised and scared are the big two), pornographic scenes (masturbating, licking big balloons, legs spread), and sequences that come straight out of TV soap operas.

There are backs of heads, mirror shots, and BDSM images where April is left hanging. Most are shot in April’s apartment so a sense of place creeps in from the side; a lived-in space that is not performed but hints at the isolation behind the privacy because these images were private images, these performances were private performances. There was no interaction in them, they were not made for public display.

© Mack Books, spread from the book April Dawn Alison

So who was April Dawn Alison? We get a picture of her from this series of polaroids, but it is only partial. At the back of the book, there is a text by Zackary Drucker which looks at the long history of non-binary representation in photography but also identifies an essential sadness that runs through the images, “Did April Dawn Alison ever tell anyone? Did she hire someone to help tie her up? Did she have a drinking buddy? Did she ever quietly reveal herself to a casual acquaintance such as a grocery clerk?”

We’ll never know. Instead, we have the images, a wonderfully vibrant, eccentric and unfiltered idea of the many ages and many lives of April Dawn Alison. Photography can be a wonderful thing. This book is a beautiful example of that.


April Dawn Alison

Published in June 2019 by Mack Books

With essays by Hilton Als (American writer and theater critic for The New Yorker), Zackary Drucker (American transgender multimedia artist, LGBT activist, actress and producer of smash Amazon series Transparent) and Erin O’Toole (associate curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).

Vinyl covered hardback // 220 pages // 24.5 x 27.5cm // €40



Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

Reading time

4 minutes

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