JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white and grey walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1969 and 1973. Each of the prints is sized 11×14 (or reverse). The show incudes mostly vintage prints, with modern prints of the same images available in editions of 10. This body of work was originally exhibited at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2014 (here); that exhibit also included a catalog co-published with Yale University Press (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the in-depth photo essay was the artistic mode of choice for most documentary photographers trying to make their mark. Building on the late 1940s picture magazine work of W. Eugene Smith and others, over the next two decades, the characteristics of the form became increasingly long term and immersive, with multi-year projects often digging into overlooked communities and areas of political and social marginalization. From Danny Lyon and Susan Meiselas to Gordon Parks and Bruce Davidson, a wide selection of American photographers embraced the photo essay as the de facto method for communicating complex multi-layered narratives and ideas, many of the projects leading to now iconic photobooks.
So when the 19 year old Anthony Friedkin began work in 1969 on what would become The Gay Essay, he was setting off along a path that absolutely fit the photographic context of the times. During the same year that the riots were flaring up at the Stonewall Inn in New York, Friedkin was getting close to the gay communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and during the next four years, he returned to the subject from a variety of angles, tracking hustlers, activists, gay/lesbian couples, and drag queens with equal intelligence and sensitivity. The result was a thoughtful, inclusive portrait of lives many had never seen close up, taken at a time when the LGBT community was in the early stages of finding its voice.
While Friedkin’s images do capture a few moments of stereotypical gay flamboyance, including drag queens flouncing around on stage and a handful of flashes of exuberance from the 1972 Gay Liberation Parade in Hollywood, for the most part, he avoids the clichés and sticks to smaller, more personal moments, where human vulnerabilities sneak out from behind public personas. Young hustlers wait on the streets with studied swagger, only to have that façade slip away to reveal a mix of wariness, hope, and even a little fear, especially when the vice cops come around to harass them. And once inside a hotel room, Dan stands fully naked, seemingly both at ease with the situation and quietly uncertain. Friedkin also wades into the shadowy space of the gay cinemas (including the All-Male Film Festival), where public and private desire intermingle.
Friedkin’s photographs are full of these kinds of emotional dualities, and his various images of couples, in gay, lesbian, interracial, and transgender combinations, are his most poignant images. Nearly all capture an embrace of some kind, from the easy going arm-over-the-shoulder acceptance of comfortable couples together for years to the rushed youthful urgency of new pairs kissing in crowded bathrooms. He shows us playful public grinding, introspective faces held close, passionate togetherness, and the simple tenderness of intertwined arms and legs.
When Friedkin moves to single portraits, his images become more sober, with loneliness, trepidation, and resilient confidence coming though more strongly on his faces. Jim sits with a soda, Brandy cradles a cat, and cross-armed Kelly stands against a wall, each walking the fine line between open engagement and guarded reserve. Most of Friedkin’s images of sequined drag queens come backstage, in that in-between alone time when wigs and makeup are being put on, the transition offering yet another glimpse of personal confidence being gathered up. And his portrait of Reverend Troy Perry standing among the charred rubble of his burnt down church is a stark reminder of the painful costs endured by many when standing up for gay rights.
While there are a handful of standout images in the larger group, this is a case where the project as a whole feels much stronger than any one picture. The Gay Essay is a little like a time capsule, taking us back to a particular moment in American social history, but its truths remain resoundingly universal. By immersing himself in the community and approaching its members with nonjudgmental acceptance, Friedkin exposes us to the hopes and dreams of real people, and that intimacy of experience is what gives the photographs their durable vitality.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The vintage prints are $5000 each, while the modern prints are $2500 each. Friedkin’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.