Image advisory: many of the Web sites linked to in this article contain photographs that are sexually explicit.
It is not entirely happenstance that the founding figure of the modern gay movement, Harvey Milk, was a photographer and the owner of a camera store. In the 1970s, the simple documentation of presence, the photographic equivalent of saying “we are here,” by itself assumed a progressive political cast for a population long freighted with the demand to remain both silent and invisible. At my current age of 55, I still remember the embarrassing sting of a film store’s refusal to process pictures of my 23rd (very gay) birthday party because the printer deemed the images “indecent.”
Queers had, of course, long been photographed, generally in the context of law enforcement, scandal, spectacle or satire. But in the 1970s, there emerged a new genre of queer photography that didn’t take pains to “other” its subjects, adopting instead a position of sympathetic witness. Anthony Friedkin’s photographs — especially his Gay Essay (1969-1973), now on exhibit at the de Young Museum in a show timed for the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots — assume exactly such a sympathetic stance. His pictures are notably quiet, neither triumphal nor suffused with pathos. And that, paradoxically, is why they are important — and why they were largely forgotten. In the years immediately after Stonewall, pictures of ordinary gay people leading ordinary lives were nothing short of extraordinary.
LGBTQ photography has changed and developed since then, along with the political movement that gave it birth. What follows is a list of largely West Coast LGBTQ photographers from Friedkin’s moment to the present. Collectively, their work can be read as a sensitive barometer to shifts in queer social life, revealing the turbulent political weather that has pushed queer identity into forms and guises unimaginable four decades ago.
Tress and Arnold: The Dream of Escape
Arthur Tress (born 1940), a photographer from New York who has spent much of his life in California, and Steven Arnold (1943-1994), a California artist, both cultivate in very different ways a photographic sensibility that casts Friedkin’s photos into high relief. Both are slightly older than Friedkin (who was born in 1949). Neither man’s photographs aspire to either contemporary relevance or to social understanding, opting instead for a kind of dreamy, surrealist timelessness.
But while Tress’ work pulls the viewer into a dream that turns on the psychic state of the photographer’s subject, Arnold’s leads the viewer away from the subject of the photo into a larger exploration of the viewer’s subjective responses. In Tress’ “Flood Dream,” for example, a young boy appears as an image of childhood alienation. As with so many Tress images of loneliness and displacement, the work suggests the psychic toll of social difference.
Arnold’s “Dreams of Transformation,” on the other hand, stages a palpably artificial performance to invoke a camp melodrama. Like much of Arnold’s work, the photo is a tableau vivant with a kind of queer subtext. The dreaming subject is a cipher, unreadable even as to whether she’s a woman or a man in drag. Queerness is present not in the form of a particular subject encountered on the street, as in Friedkin, but as an aura that suffuses everything.
Tee Corinne and the Landscape of Womanlove
Tee Corrine (1943-2006), an influential artist based in Oregon, also resisted the impulse toward photojournalism, yet she managed to adhere to an ethic of reportage.
A pioneering photographer, art historian and advocate for a specifically lesbian visual culture, Corrine was well aware of the danger that images of women together might serve the pleasure of a heterosexual male gaze. To frustrate that unwelcome attention, she used processes like solarization and double exposure to make images that offer the outlines of women’s faces and bodies, while robbing them of the specificity required for an erotic charge. Her nudes resist the confines of conventional beauty while opening onto a seductive picture of female sexual self-determination.
Corinne is perhaps more famous as the author of The Cunt Coloring Book, which invited women to color line drawings of genitalia and to draw their own vaginas and the vaginas of their friends. In some of her photographs, she places images of vaginas seamlessly within undomesticated landscapes, implicitly gendering Mother Nature according to familiar tropes, but also suggesting a wild femaleness that cannot be tamed.
Marsha Burns: Manufacturing Masculinity
Marsha Burns (born 1945) parted ways with the mythopoetics of Corrine’s equation of femininity with nature and fecundity in a series of images of masculinized women she began making in the early 1980s.
These images anticipate photographs by artists such as Cathy Opie by a decade, especially with respect to their emphasis on the constructed nature of masculinity — how the right accoutrement, like a cigarette or white t-shirt, can cause one gender to mutate into another. Long before theorists like Judith Butler codified this idea, Burns underscored the performative aspects of gender roles.
AIDS and the Body in Ritts and Chester
The onslaught of AIDS in the early 1980s shifted the parameters of gay male photographic possibility. The beautiful male body, once a source of unabashed pride for gay photographers, was now tinged with sadness and even made into a vector of infection by those hostile to gay rights. Herb Ritts (1952 – 2002) and Mark Chester (born 1950) offered opposite responses. Ritts was without a doubt the most celebrated commercial and fashion photographer of the 1980s. His gaze was, at the time, the most homoerotic to date in mainstream fashion and advertising, yet the prospect of actual sex is excised. His images of well-muscled men and sensuous women offer no hint of the plague that would ultimately claim the photographer’s own life.
Mark Chester chose an opposite tack. A celebrated photographer of San Francisco’s sexual underground, Chester portrays a wide range of fetishes in formally composed, often explicit works. Men and a few women of all ages, shapes and sizes populate images in which the naked body is secondary to the hardware, sexual acts and garb in which his subjects glory. At the height of the culture wars and attendant censorship dramas of 1989-1994, Chester courageously photographed playwright Robert Chesleya covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and sporting a superman suit and an erection.
Rewriting the Beauty Code: Dureau and Hujar
George Dureau (1930-2014) and Peter Hujar (1934-1987) both made the wounded, the feral, the outsider and the unconventionally beautiful the defining subjects of their work. Both were raised as Catholics — Dureau in New Orleans and Hujar in New York — and in their work one feels a palpable sense both of the body’s frailty and of the possibility of the flesh’s transcendence.
Dureau in particular was celebrated for his sensitive depictions of men and a few women conventionally termed disabled or disfigured. In his images these subjects are heroic, erotic or ordinary, but above all made real as individuals with interior lives.
Hujar too found beauty in what others would pass over. In his more aggressively homoerotic photos, we see an array of faces and bodies that are hardly model beautiful. Photographed by him, however, they’re unforgettable.
The queerness in both bodies of work lies not only in the gender of their favored subjects but in this act of reclamation from the margins, this rewriting of the codes of acceptable beauty.
Cathy Opie’s Queer Grandeur
One of the most celebrated photographers in the world today, California artist Cathy Opie has always made her queerness a key facet of her work. She rocketed to fame on a series of crisp, color photographs, some self-portraits, in which marginal sexual identities were treated with the grandeur, pomp and majesty of 17th-century royal portraiture.
Her frank self-revelation included a self-portrait with the word “pervert” carved in her chest in baroque script, dripping blood. In another image, a tender self-portrait breastfeeding her son, the scars of that act are still in evidence, the word still legible. With this study in contrasts, Opie manages both to embody and to comment on the age-old religious trope of the Madonna and child.
Nan Goldin’s World
Like Opie, Nan Goldin photographs herself and her social circle. But unlike Opie, this New York artist’s works operate firmly within the photojournalistic tradition of capturing a fleeting moment of particular intensity. Such moments might include a brutal self portrait after a beating delivered by a boyfriend, a man kissing his partner who has just died of AIDS or two boys in drag in a taxi out for a night on the town. Taken together, her pansexual body of work paints the broad outlines of a life lived at the sexual and social margins, now deemed worthy of grandiloquent representation. But unlike Friedkin’s or Opie’s work, her photographs are never posed; her subjects know they are going to be photographed, but they don’t know when. This sense of isolating intimate moments out of a continuum of lives lived fully gives Goldin’s work the quality of cinema verite.
Nature vs. Nurture: Aguilar and Cassils
Like Tee Corinne, Laura Aguilar (born 1959) equates the female body with nature, but Aguilar’s body is of such a scale and shape as to begin to merge with the landscape itself. Challenging the cannon of acceptable female nudity, she gives her self-portraits an enduring, timeless quality by combining her form with timeworn natural features like boulders, pools or ancient trees.
This naturalization of the female form is precisely what the artist Heather Cassils seeks to refute. Through a daily regimen of intense physical training and metabolic steroids, she has transformed her own body into an idealized, manifestly male physique.
In one celebrated performance, she punches a huge cylinder of clay with her powerful biceps in an act of creative self sculpturing in which her unquestionable physical and performative masculinity wars with what we know to be true.
In the years since Friedkin’s Gay Essay, the mere assertion of gay presence has been superseded by a photographic exploration into what that presence actually means. What are the social standards by which something is marked off as queer? In their various ways, each of the photographers here has deployed sexuality as part of that investigation.
Hardly the despised other in need of respectful representation, queer photography now stands at the vanguard of a new pictorial inquiry into how social norms, internalized, are made flesh.