(Divine, The Palace Theater, S.F., 1972)
In the fall of 1969, a few months after the Stonewall Riots, Anthony Friedkin, a 19-year-old Los Angeles photographer, returned to his hometown from a summer in Europe and embarked on an extraordinary four-year project: The Gay Essay, a series of black-and-white photographs depicting members of what was not then a high-profile or even cohesive group—gay men, drag queens, Hollywood hustlers and lesbians.
“Anthony was not trying to make an encyclopedic document of the gay community,” explains Julian Cox, curator of a new exhibition of The Gay Essay that will open at San Francisco’s de Young Museum on June 14, also published this month in a book with Yale University Press. “He was following his instincts.”
(Rev. Troy Perry, Gay Activist, in His Burnt Down Church, L.A., 1973)
Those instincts led him to record historic images of significant figures—the Reverend Troy Perry, for example, founder of the Metropolitan Church, which ministered to the LGBT community, in the firebombed wreckage of his house of worship. They also drew him to make tender, private images that seem to exist outside the historical struggle—portraits of ordinary couples in their most intimate moments.
Friedkin is a straight man, who, influenced by Cornell Capa’s The Concerned Photographer (1968), came to view photography as an art that could heighten social awareness. Sensing that Gay Liberation would be as important as the Civil Rights Movement, he approached Don Kilhefner and Morris Kight, then directors of the Los Angeles Gay Community Services Center, to ask if he might turn his camera on their universe. (In a touching double portrait in the show, Kilhefner and Kight appear bearded, scraggly, rumpled, yet fully at ease in their identities.)
(Kilhefner and Kight, L.A. Gay Community Service Center, 1972)
“People can read your energy when you have a camera in your hand,” Friedkin said about their first meeting. The two men appeared to have liked what they read. “They were so beautiful and warm to me. I got their trust. And they taught me something important: to listen—to let the energy come to you,” rather than impose your own energy on a situation or a scene.
Their trust brought him more trust—including that of a lesbian couple in Venice who allowed him full access to their private time. “Bobby and Linda were so in love with each other,” Friedkin said. “Humans have a need to express intimacy and love—a need that is not unique to gay people or straight people.
“I had no desire to photograph people in the closet,” Friedkin continued. “I wanted to photograph people who were openly gay. I went into the whole project with a lot of love and caring.”
Not to mention a lot of technical skill. He shot his subjects with a 35mm Leica M4 camera and printed them on paper that enhanced the richness of their black tones. While he was incubating The Gay Essay, he was also a stringer for Magnum Photos, the agency founded by the legendary World War II photographer Robert Capa, brother to Cornell Capa, whose book had shaped his artistic vision.
In the 40-plus years since The Gay Essay, Friedkin has explored different themes—reality versus illusion on Hollywood back lots and the Southern California surfing community, of which he remains an ardent member. Although still a fan of analog, black-and-white photography, he has produced digital color images when he felt they were appropriate—while shooting New Orleans before Katrina, for example.
(Jim & Mundo, Montebello, East L.A., 1972)
Would he consider a version of The Gay Essay set in the present? Thanks to marriage equality—and a broader acceptance of the LGBT community—it might look quite different from its predecessor. Would he shoot it with his Leica or a digital camera?
“I might want to use both, actually.” he said. “Digital cameras can work in extreme low level of light,” which appeals to his desire to be unobtrusive—to preserve the world he is recording without altering it.
As for the substance of this essay—and of every essay on which he has embarked—he asks himself a question that first occurred to him as a 19-year-old student: “What can I do that could really challenge me as an artist on all levels?”
The answer, for him, comes in images, not words.
“I had no desire to photograph people in the closet. I wanted to photograph people who were openly gay. I went into the whole project with a lot of love and caring.
Click through to see more of Anthony Friedkin’s powerful photographs documenting the Gay Liberation era.