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Chloe Sherman, Renegade San Francisco: the 1990s
Chloe Sherman, “The Heist” (1996))Photography Chloe Sherman

Candid photos that capture San Francisco’s 1990s queer renaissance

Chloe Sherman’s exhibition, Renegade San Francisco: the 1990s, is a celebration of this legendary decade in the city’s queer history

Long after Joan Didion wrote Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1967) – her excavation of San Franciscan hippie culture in its last gasps – the west coast city remained an epicentre of counter-cultural activity in the US, continuing to provide a home for subsequent generations of displaced communities and “missing children” who didn’t subscribe to the nation’s dominant normative ideals.

In the 90s, San Francisco was the focus of a queer cultural renaissance. Photographer Chloe Sherman recalls, “It was such a pivotal time in San Francisco’s queer history. Queer youth, outcasts, and artists flocked to the city to find one another and to experiment with art, self-expression, style, and gender. People embraced difference, celebrated weirdness, laughed in the face of adversity, and joined forces against oppression.”

As an avid reader of early 90s zines depicting urban life and San Francisco, such as Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist and Mudflap, the young Sherman gravitated to the city, beginning a BFA in photography at San Francisco Art Institute and finding a home amid the welcoming queer community, which was burgeoning partly due to the accessibility and affordability of space. In a conversation over email, she tells us, “The Mission District and surrounding neighbourhoods became a hub of queer-centric businesses… clubs, bars, cafes, tattoo shops, bookstores, galleries, and performance spaces.”

As a photography student, Sherman took pictures prolifically. She tells us, “I always had my camera with me, there was so much going on at the time… a club, an event, a show, or a place to go most nights of the week. The Lexington Club Bar, the Bearded Lady Cafe, Glamarama Salon, Black and Blue Tattoo, Faster Pussycat club, Mission Records, Club Junk... the list goes on.”

Now, her images of this legendary time in San Francisco’s vibrant history are on display in Renegade San Francisco: The Nineties at the city’s Schlomer Haus Gallery. While shining a light on the evident sense of community and collaboration galvanising the city’s queer circles, they also preserve a sense of the styles and fashions that characterised this boundary-pushing scene. “Fashion was driven by the freedom and flamboyance of gender-bending, hopeful, fashionable young queers,” Sherman says. “It was a groundbreaking time, people expressed themselves with butch and femme identity roles at the forefront.”

Her images depict eclectic styles, drawing on looks from previous decades. “Femmes wore thrifted vintage dresses and slips dresses, butches wore suave vintage men’s shirts or suits,” she explains. Alongside the thrift-store finds, prevalent looks might feature rocker t-shirts, hoodies, trucker hats and belt buckles, and punks with hand-stitched tapered jeans and back patches. Sherman recalls, “People sewed clothing from scratch or cut and altered clothing to create new improved versions.”

Renegade San Francisco: the 1990s distils the spirit of the time, which Sherman describes in terms of communality and cooperation: “I remember the strong sense of support and a sense of extended family. You could leave your flat, walk down the street and always run into friends. The sense of community was palpable.” The images allow an inside view of this unique time in San Francisco’s rich history, exposing the “resilience, tenderness, and joy of a burgeoning scene.” 

In the future, Sherman hopes to create a book from her archive of 35mm images. Meanwhile, her hopes for the exhibition are that it communicates the rebellious energy that infused the era with meaning. “The show is titled Renegade San Francisco: the 1990s to reflect the revolutionary attitudes and actions of the people in the photos, and of a community that was forging their own way off the beaten path. There was a need to stick together, to see grace, beauty, and bravery in each other.”

Chloe Sherman’s Renegade San Francisco: the 1990s is currently showing at Schlomer Haus Gallery