Vaughan Larsen is a Los Angeles-based artist whose work is used as a vehicle to explore their personal identity through photographic self-portraiture. Raised in Central Wisconsin, the concept of queer values intertwined with the Midwest American Dream is a constant theme in their work. Influenced by the history and expectations of family, the comparison of LGBTQ+ and heterosexual societies, and the American Landscape, Larsen creates staged moments reflecting on their journey through self-discovery as a trans-feminine nonbinary person.

Vaughan Larsen received their BFA in Photography from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee in May 2019. Later that same year, they earned first place in the Getty Images 2019 International Creative Bursary Award, first prize in the Amsterdam Pride Photo Award, and was named a 2019 Emerging Fellow by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation's Mary L. Nohl Fellowship. Exhibited internationally, their work has been shown throughout Wisconsin, as well as Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Pratt MWP’s campus gallery, Rome, Russia, and with The Reclaim Kollektiv in Cologne, Germany. Larsen’s work has been written about in publications such as Humble Arts Foundation, Urban Milwaukee, and Photo Emphasis. In 2021, their work was included in the publication Witness, which has since been acquired by the MOMA Library of New York. Later that year, Larsen was invited by California Institute of the Arts to give a talk as part of the Paul Brach Lecture Series. They are currently preparing their first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. Most recently, in 2022 they performed alongside trans artist and activist, Cassils, in their piece Human Measure.

Larsen is the founder and curator of That Way, an online platform and printed zine started in 2018, highlighting the work of LGBTQ+ artists from around the globe. In 2021, Larsen was the sole-organizer and co-curator of Queering the Cream City, an exhibition taking place on 12 Milwaukee billboards replacing advertising with LGBTQ+ art for one month.

Any inquiries related to exhibiting my work or purchasing of prints can be directed to:

LarsenVaughan (at) gmail (dot) com


2020 Essay by Sophie Barbasch, a New York-based photographer:

In Vaughan Larsen’s photograph Self-Portrait as my Mother as a Cheerleader (2018) we see a lone figure in a cheerleading uniform. They are enclosed within a circle of pompoms that simultaneously suggests celebration and isolation. The main event of the photograph is the football that is hitting them in the face. There is tension between wanting perfection—to be the perfect cheerleader, to make the perfect photograph—and feeling that this “perfect” moment has been ruined by a sort of careless violence. It’s unclear how the figure feels about the football and everything it represents. The gendered symbols (literally) collide, generating questions: What is it we want? What is it we should want? 

These questions run throughout Larsen’s series Rites, in which they re-imagine the family album through a queer lens. They address the exclusion of their own experience from the snapshots that typically commemorate pivotal moments (a wedding, a birth, a prom) by re-staging and re-photographing them. In doing so, Larsen points to whose experiences are remembered and whose aren’t, while also asking us to consider what has been omitted from our own family albums. By photographing a cast of changing characters, including themself, family members, and friends, they suggest a fluid definition of what a family can be. 

Larsen’s new version of the album is both heavy and light: the humor and direct address of the portraits is disarming. Maybe it’s more of an investigation than a critique. Or maybe it’s about making fun of the rituals and longing for them at the same time. Ultimately, the subjective, political nature of both image and archive emerges; what we can remember and visualize shifts our understanding of the past as well as what we can envision for the future. 

While these ideas are inextricably tied to photography, Larsen’s first love was theater. It’s not surprising, given the recurrent theme of bodies coming together in space, seeking mutual understanding. This attention to everyday performances is perhaps clearest in Aiden from Grindr; Illinois (2018), a portrait of a boy from the series ASL? In it, the red walls are like theater curtains, his mask is reminiscent of Phantom of the Opera, and neon lights blink in the background. A second mask on the wall hints at the desire to inhabit multiple identities. Instead of going to his physical space, Larsen photographed the screen of their video chat. Elements of classical portraiture come up against the digital texture of the screen; light and color dissolve into pixels and noise. The distance between artist and subject is visually embedded in the image, but it’s not about that. It really has to do with the ingredients of connection: looking, observing, making yourself visible to another.

These themes of visibility and vulnerability drive Larsen’s most recent work: nude self-portraits in the American landscape that invite us to consider the intersection of gender, nature, and photography. The images reference art history—Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog come to mind, and we see echoes of Edward Weston’s pictures of Charis Wilson and Ansel Adams’s views of Yosemite. The pictures also evoke Deborah Bright’s seminal essay, “Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men.” In it, she delineates the trope of the male photographer-explorer, arguing that the field of landscape photography is dominated by a straight, white, male gaze and its exclusionary agenda. Larsen engages and challenges this history by placing themself in the frame and alluding to their own gender fluidity. In this sense, the work is about the experiences and bodies that have so often been left out of the canon. By exploring their femininity and questioning the myth of nature as feminine, Larsen disrupts gender binaries that have historically been applied to both people and spaces. The images reinforce Bright’s idea that no landscape has an essential condition but is, rather, always in flux, its meanings dependent on who is looking.