Despite being some of the brightest personalities you could ever hope to encounter, the darkness imposed upon California's gay community is undeniable, particularly in the years between 1969-1973. Moments such as the smiling face of Divine, as she readied herself in a dressing room at San Francisco’s Palace Theatre can be juxtaposed with activist Reverend Troy Perry standing in the burnt remains of his Metropolitan Community Church, a venue embraced queer theory and sought to include LGBT+ people. All these – and over 50 more during that period – were captured by photographer Anthony Friedkin and are now compiled in his project, The Gay Essay, which chronicles the lives and faces of members of the gay community and its attendant liberation movement in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Speaking about being gay in The Golden State at that time, one of Friedkin's subjects, Don Kilhefner, a founder of the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front, recalled: “It was not unusual at that time for cars with four or five young people in it with baseball bats to stop a gay person on the street and beat them senseless.”
Friedkin started work on The Gay Essay when he was just 19: he'd been taking photographs since the age of eight and began developing the results in a darkroom by the time he was 11. The project coincided with the famous Stonewall riots in New York and intimately captures images detailing the struggle, defiance and solidarity of the gay liberation movement that rose up during the early 70s in America. The photos often give a private view into a largely ignored world, with shots taken in restrooms, bars, street corners and backstage in club dressing rooms.
In one telling photograph, simply titled “Vice Police Harassing Gays, Hollywood”, Friedkin captures the violent antagonism and hostility directed towards these oppressed communities; yet, another observes a couple tenderly kissing. For him, it is necessary to “celebrate humanity for its good things” whilst identifying “the things that need to be reevaluated and changed” – a mission statement for the work he produced at the height of the movement.
The Gay Essay made its debut in its entirety at the de Young Museum, San Francisco in 2014 – having been rejected for years by many galleries after its completion – and then published as a book by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Yale University Press in the same year. Now it is being exhibited at New York's Daniel Cooney Fine Arts gallery.
As the gallery notes, the exhibition is very timely as LGBTQ communities once again encounter societal challenges and hostility in the wake of the 2016 election result. Friedkin's work is in permanent collections at various museums including the Museum of Modern Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
The Gay Essay runs at New York’s Daniel Cooney Fine Arts until 4 March 2017