Photography & the LGBTQ + Imaginary
I was invited to curate an exhibition for the Ruth Chandler Williamson Art Gallery at Scripps College and knew I wanted to bring together historic photographs of persons from LGBTQ+ communities with contemporary photographers as a way of thinking about gender in our own time. The exhibition is intended as a resource to students, faculty, and staff at the Claremont Colleges, who share the belief that LGBTQ+ persons deserve equal rights under the law and equal representation in our most cherished institutions.
Scripps College embraces an interdisciplinary approach to many fields of study and particularly when addressing issues around community, sexuality, and gender. I hope the exhibition will be a reminder that love is universal and that LGBTQ+ students may be experiencing differing degrees of precarity.
The struggle for equality continues. Dozens of state legislatures are attempting to turn back the clock on decades of civil rights progress. Recent global estimates suggest that 83% of those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, must keep their orientation hidden for their safety.1 LGBTQ+ communities are being targeted by far-right lawmakers in legislation in nearly every state of the union. The ACLU is tracking this legislation and it is chilling. See map here.
What is vernacular photography:
Whether friends, lovers, or even family members, the exhibition invites us to consider displays of intimacy that manifested before the camera’s lens and to provide viewers an opportunity to consider the challenges of being part of a community that has been targeted simply because of how one identifies, or who one loves.
There have been many exhibitions on vernacular photography, which the Museum of Modern Art in New York defines as, photographs made by non-artists to capture everyday life and subjects of all kinds.2 One such exhibition was, Dear Friends: American Photography and Male Affection, 1840 -1918 presented at the ICP in New York and curated by David Deitcher. At the time, the exhibition was described as an exploration of “the role of photography in commemorating affection between men in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This installation of highly suggestive and ambiguous photographs demonstrates the extent to which the interpretation of images depends upon shifting social values.” The exhibition was groundbreaking because it offered a glimpse of gay male life, as well as homosocial relationships. One of the criticisms of the exhibition was that there was no way to be sure of the relationships depicted. Unlike previous exhibitions, this one asks viewers to consider the link between LGBTQ+ communities and the field of photography in shaping what we might call, the queer imaginary.
Vernacular images are wonderful reminders of just how much a photograph can communicate as well as how much they can hide. This is doubly so when looking at images of LGBTQ+ individuals. One might imagine a hint of intimacy in a gesture or pose, the suggestive placement of the hands, or in a telling item, but each new clue brings new questions.
The vernacular images in the exhibition date from the 1860s to the 1960s and are drawn from my own collection. History reminds us that many of the individuals depicted in these photographs had to keep their sexuality hidden during their lifetimes because coming out could get one fired, institutionalized, incarcerated, or worse. One couple turns their back to the viewer as clear way to express a shared connection and yet also to protect their identities.
The exhibition also includes a number of examples of couples wearing wooly chaps. These individuals may not have been queer but were included because the images can clearly be read as queer-ish, which is to say, they reveal a playfulness that suggests modern-day satyr’s, embracing notions of freedom once associated with the American West – as a space to act out symbolic acts of conflict, conquest, and homosocial friendship.
Queerness is precarious, defensive, unseen, uncertain, fluid, shifting, and can be hard to share with others. Some of us want to be seen and others just wants to feel safe. Generations of LGBTQ+ persons were not accepted by their biological families, died alone, or had their belongings end up in garage sales and second-hand stores. Finding queer images is only half the battle and many of the stories behind these images will never be known. In many cases one can’t be certain how the persons depicted would have self-identified, or identified as queer, then or now. It is against this backdrop that an exhibition of works depicting persons, who may or may not be queer, is meant to encourage discussion around what it means to express or present precarious identities, sexualities, and genders, then and now. For those outside of these communities, the exhibition invites viewers to consider the joys, risks, or ambivalence of being “seen” even as we acknowledge that our understanding of gender will continue to change and expand across generations, cultures, and communities.
This exhibition explores the concept of a queer imaginary, which can be understood as a generative space in which subtle, and not so subtle, gestures can be said to point towards LGBTQ+ visibility and reminds us of the ongoing struggle for acceptance and equal rights. To be queer has always been complicated and the idea of a queer imaginary suggests a conceptual space where the possibility of LGBTQ+ communities can thrive. The queer imaginary is particularly well suited to photographic images with all their symbolic fluidity, their transformative and potentially transgressive power to represent, and their ambivalence with regard to the mechanics of photographic production in terms of, chemicals, optics, and the harsh reality that even the strongest truth claims begin to fade once the image is taken.
Photography entered the modern world as a record and document, as a way of proving something had existed or occurred. These days, photographic meaning is far less stable. Images can be altered or even generated by A.I.
Today, many photographic scholars question once held notions of photographic truth, opting instead to consider photographic doubt as a new point of departure in keeping with much post-structuralist criticism. The images presented in the exhibition are mutable and varied. The conditions of their making may have been problematic or exploitative. Their interpretation may be uncertain and unknowable. Particularly as notions of gender, human sexuality, and community continue to shift. Against a backdrop of loss and invisibility, the images stand on their own. They are intentional. They record small acts of self-expression and self-making. They depict love, defiance, camaraderie, exploration, desire, fantasy, and point the materiality of photographic history itself. In short, they are moments recorded in an instant, glimmering, moving, blurring, shifting in or out of the focal plane, and point to a space we think we know, but can’t completely trust.
Roland Barthes conceptualized photography as a signifier without a signified in Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang, 1980) and in the decades since then many contemporary scholars have explored the intersection of photography and doubt. See, Photography and Doubt, ed. By sabinet Kriebel and Andrés Mario Zervigòn (Routledge, 2006); Kate Palmer Albers, Uncertain Histories: Accumulation, Inaccessibility (University of California Press, 2015); and even Okwui Enwezor’s, Archive Fever: Uses of Document in Contemporary Art (ICP/Steidl, 2008); among others. These and other texts reflect a new set of questions for artists and scholars who recognize that there is still much to learn about photographic meaning.
What makes a photograph queer?
Is it queer because of the sexuality of the person in the picture, or the person taking the picture? Does it matter if the persons depicted are lovers, friends, or extended family? Does the means of production and distribution change its meaning?
They smile, lean in, and present themselves. To be photographed is a performative act but it is not a performance, though of course it can be. The image is only half the story. Digital and analog cameras, hardware and software, photographer and subject, all navigate within a given photographic space. In fact, it may turn out that the crisis in representation is as much about the intersection of these relational, ethical, and technical considerations as the image itself. As a result, the exhibition is less about the photographic documentation of the queer community than it is about the generative role of photography in creating new ways of seeing LGBTQ+ history.
The exhibition will include examples of physical culture or “beefcake” images by photographers like Bruce Harry Bellas (1909-1974), who worked under the pseudonym Bruce of Los Angeles and was formative to early gay male physical culture, as well as examples of work by the German photographer Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931), who’s work was largely destroyed. The exhibition will also include a few queer artists like Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob (1894-1954), who worked collaboratively with Marcel Moore, born Suzanne Alberte Malherbe (1892-1972), or the surrealist artist Pierre Molinier (1900 -1976).
The exhibition will also include contemporary artists whose practices are engaged with questions of LGBTQ+ representation or speak to its history, and whose works may challenge or push photographic conventions in new directions. Key strategies include, borrowing from earlier photographic modes like, the erotic, the ethnographic, the vernacular, and are often linked to a desire for greater visibility, equity, and self-determination.
Artists: Ohan Breiding (SC ’06), Bruce of Los Angeles (Bruce Bellas), Claude Cahun (Marcel Moore), Tammy Rae Carland, Zachary Drucker & Rhys Ernst, Molly Landreth (SC ’01), Pierre Molinier, Catherine Opie, Marcel Pardo Ariza, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Joe Smoke, Annie Sprinkle, Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, and others.
Ruth Chandler Williamson Art Gallery
Oct 28 – Dec 15, 2023
LGBTQ+ History Timeline can be at the Gladstone Institute.
LGBTQ Rights Timeline in American History from One Archives Foundation.
LGBTQ history lesson plans from the One Archives Foundation.
GLAAD‘s LGBTQ Resource List here.
Lesbian pulp fiction collections can be found at both Yale University Library and Smith College.