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Photographer Charzette Torrence, Dead at 59, Helped Shape the Visual Image of Black Queerness in Detroit

Jason A. Michael

Whether she was photographing national LGBTQ+ figures like Ellen DeGeneres or people in her local Michigan community, Charzette Torrence used her unique eye to capture the beauty she saw right in front of her. Torrence, a Detroit native, died Saturday, March 18 in New York, where she had lived since 2000, after suffering cardiac arrest. She was 59.

Torrence studied photography and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from the College of Creative Studies (then the Center for Creative Studies) in Midtown. Torrence would teach at the Center from time to time. But a true photographic eye is something you’re born with. A natural talent. And Torrence had an eye for the ages.

She won the first award Between The Lines, Pride Source's biweekly print publication, ever received for a stunning Living section cover photo she shot in July 1998. The shot was part of a campaign to promote  Hotter Than July,

Michigan's annual celebration of Black gay Pride.

“Charzette’s photography captured the essence of Black queer Detroit at a time when our identity was hidden and devalued by others,” said Johnny Jenkins, co-founder of Hotter Than July and its original parent group Detroit Black Gay Pride. “She understood the importance of our moment to showcase us loving and being our fierce authentic selves in a distinctly Detroit fashion.”

Torrence traveled to Washington, D.C., along with then Pride Source and BTL publishers Susan Horowitz and Jan Stevenson, to pick up the Vice Versa Award, presented by Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service.

“BTL was honored to include her work, and we knew when she won the Vice Versa award it raised the bar for the whole paper,” said Horowitz, who went on to say that Charzette’s “passion for her art was inspiring. Her enthusiasm and vision for an inclusive body of photography drove her to reach for what seemed impossible and go out and achieve it.”

June Washington was a friend of Torrence’s and one of the models in her award-winning photo. Washington recalled posing until the point of exhaustion in the backyard of Torrence’s home in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit. They had been shooting all day when inspiration hit Torrence.

“She put a sheet up on the line,” Washington recalled. “I looked at Oddis, the other model. I leaned on him because I was so tired. She snapped that photo and it turned out to be the most beautiful shot. Charlie just had an eye.”

Torrence moved to New York in 2000. In 2009, she met her wife Danielle Johnson at a tea party event. “When I first saw her and she walked through the door, I was like, ‘That’s the woman for me,’” Johnson told  Pride Source. “I just knew it when she walked in.”

Torrence returned to Detroit in 2006 to curate an art show for Hotter Than July. In 2008, she returned to the Motor City again to present a show at Affirmations. “Just as We Are” depicted the lives of LGBTQ+ people from all walks of life in 30 black-and-white portraits.

“Coming home meant a lot to me; it means seeing loved ones and friends along the growth of Black Gay Pride,” Torrence told BTL at the time. “I was honored that Detroit Black Gay Pride asked me to create a show.”

In recent years, Torrence was busy working with Johnson on a scripted, episodic drama series, "Jillian’s Peak," intended for television and streaming. The pilot episode’s script was officially selected by major film festivals in New York and Los Angeles. It was also voted as one of the top 10 scripts in 2019 for the LGBTQ+ Toronto Film Festival.

In addition, Torrence photographed such celebrities as Aretha Franklin, Ellen DeGeneres and Chaka Khan throughout her career. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Black Enterprise, Code, Hue, Essence and Emerge. She also had a piece in the month-long Mighty Real/Queer Detroit art show in 2022.

[caption id="attachment_277786" align="aligncenter" width="555"]

"Racist Gothic of Black Family in America," by Charzette Torrence. From the Mighty Real/Queer Detroit show in 2022.[/caption]

L. Rambus was one of Torrence’s early models.

“I felt amazing because she captured my spirit in each photo,” he said, adding that the images she took “transcend time. My spirit will always be alive.”

Johnson, for her part, said she was going to miss Torrence’s silly smirks.

“We were like a team, and I fell into her world with the photography and the arts,” she said. “Charzette was the type of person that always tried to help people, to give them advice and stuff. She had a big heart.”

Torrence, a Buddhist, had a traditional service in New York. However, there will be a memorial service locally, as well. Details are pending.

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