Across 30 years of work, the photographer spotlights New York’s 80s Aids epidemic and colourism within black communities
“You had to be realistic and realise that probably no little black girl was going to change the photography world.” This is the self-doubt that once rippled through photographer Lola Flash as a queer, black woman starting a photo career in the white-washed, patriarchal context of 80s America. Over 30-years later and this statement could not be more wrong. Flash’s commitment to making her experiences as a queer black woman represented in wider photo culture both defined her 30-year career and increased visibility for the oppressed communities she has spotlighted. “I am black, queer, and female; those are the things that make me excited everyday to wake up and fight the world.”
Growing up in a "Kodak" perfect white America, Flash started her career with a desire to completely overturn her world. So she did through a unique photo processing technique called cross-colour, where traditional colours are inverted to produce images that look like they are frozen in their negatives. Using this method to shoot queer life during the peak of New York’s late 80s Aids epidemic including ACT UP demonstrations on the streets of NYC, and a series on the community within lesbian bar Clit Club, Flash empowered and immortalised her marginalised subjects in a world of their own.
When Flash moved on to a traditional lens, she turned her focus into everyday experiences of queer and black communities. Her most notable series include [sur]passing, a collection of life size colour portraits that probe issues of colourism within black communities across London and New York, and her SALT series that captures the power of women who are still in the workforce at age 70, despite societal expectations of domesticity.
Below, we caught up with Lola Flash ahead of her first ever 30-year retrospective at New York's Pen + Brush to discuss how photography once illuminated the height of the Aids crisis, and how it continues as a tool of activism for queer, black communities today.
You started your career with cross-colour which is definitely not the most conventional way to enter photography. What made you start like this?
Lola Flash: When I first started shooting I remember there was an ad called A Beautiful Kodak Day, and they had this white family sitting on the beach, with blue skies, white clouds and white kids. I soon realised that if I did that photograph in cross-colour it would be this crazy orange sky, with black clouds, and little black people running around. It would be a different world. There are so many myths created about colour, gender, race, that now, in hindsight I realise that I was working against those things through this process. And I think that the purpose of an artist is to see the world a certain way, and to encourage people to see the same.
There’s definitely an entire new world conjured in your early work, colours are totally inverted.
Lola Flash: Definitely. Soon my friends were saying 'Oh Lola I saw a wall that would look really cool in cross colour', so they started seeing different colours, reds really popped, and they would see my world.
How did the photography world embrace your technique?
Lola Flash: At the time there was a battle with photography becoming one of the arts. People were trying to figure out: is painting still necessary if photography's here? So I think that there was more impetus put on black and white photography in the beginning than on colour. This idea of cross-colour was just not accepted. Of course, here I am black, queer, and female, those are the things that make me excited everyday to wake up and fight the world, but at the same time you had to be realistic and realise that probably no little black girl was going to change the photography world – yet.
“I am black, queer, and female, those are the things that make me excited everyday to wake up and fight the world” – Lola Flash
Looking back now, would you say that your perception on that is totally different? Because you've got a 30-year body of work, which is incredible, and the series you've done have definitely made an impact.
Lola Flash: I haven't realised how much impact it has had, because, for instance, this is my first big show. I have that one piece, Stay Afloat, Use a Rubber (1993) in the Victoria and Albert Museum. But I don't have work in the collections of MoMA. When I see those lists of 'ten photographers you should be aware of ' I don't see my name there, and when I do a Google search and type in 'black, queer, American woman' I see Zanele's work, who I love. I see more work of white women and men, but I don't see me. I don't see my pictures, I don't see people that look like me really.
So is that lack of visibility what drew you to shooting different types you series like you've done across your career?
Lola Flash: Yes, I think it’s also seen by going to galleries, going to art fairs, looking at magazines. Even though it’s getting better in magazines. But, for example, in America, what do we have? We have Mappelthorpe, who fetishised us, we have Lyle Ashton Harris, who's been doing some great work. And there's Cathie Opie, but she only photographs her friends, which is fine. But I feel like knowing the lack of representation of certain communities – that if you're a minority – it's your responsibility to make those things visible.
I just feel like that means that the community of people that I'm photographing aren't being seen – when they need to be. For everybody, in all my series, I follow ideas of beauty. When people go away from seeing my stuff I want them to think about beauty, and photographing these people and showing the beauty which is, for older people, for queer people, for black people – it's not the way that we are often shown.
You really did this for communities by fighting the Aids epidemic through ACT UP demonstrations in 80s New York.
Lola Flash: Yes. The Aids epidemic was pretty much peaking at that time, in New York at least. We were having demonstrations what seemed like every day, and there were all these different affinity groups that one could join. One that I was a part of was interested in women who were HIV positive, which worked towards getting them transportation to clinics, and childcare. So you had all these little groups within the big group that concentrated on certain parts of it. You had the scientists that were working on things, and that's what was so cool about it, because whatever you were good at you could use your talents to advocate. So if you were a club kid, you would go and pass out condoms. I suppose one of the biggest things, one of the lasting things that I did was that I was chosen to be in the Kissing Doesn't Kill (1989) poster that was on buses and such around America.
Some of my cross colour shots also come from Clit Club where I was working at the time. Using cross colour was a way of protecting identity back then because, in the 80s, people weren't so willing to be out as they are now. I mean people still aren't, so it was a way of camouflaging who you are by those colours. So I got people to take their clothes off, and do a lot of things that maybe they wouldn't normally do because they knew they couldn't be seen.
You then moved to traditional colour photography and launched your [sur]passing series about colourism within black communities. What pushed you to address this important issue?
Lola Flash: It was a lot to do with the fact that when I was studying in London, ideas of pigmentocracy were pointed out to me by people always saying 'Oh yeah you know Lola, the American girl', or, 'You know Lola, the mixed-race girl' My grandmother could pass because she was light-skinned, so she used to wait in the white train-lines for tickets. So I was thinking about how this idea of me being light-skinned, how I actually probably had possibly a ‘better life’ than if I was darker-skinned, and I just started feeling a lot of guilt. I thought the title [sur]passing makes sense because to me it means that we are above passing, that we don't have to straighten our hair, we don't have to lighten our skin – we can just be who we are.
Lola Flash: 1986 to Present is running between 25 January - 27 March at New York's Pen + Brush – the single international organization exclusively showcasing work by women in the visual and literary arts.