Pin It

Intimate portraits of America’s outsiders in the 1980s

Billy Howard’s ‘Love, Lust and Loss’ is a tender look back at the Americans living outside the white picket fence during a turbulent decade

There is something deeply sentimental about Billy Howard’s portraits. His photographs recall an era in which America was a little less refined, simpler perhaps, but undoubtedly a struggle. The 1980s was the decade which brought cable television, the Reagan administration and a full-blown Aids epidemic – a dark period in history that has begun to retreat from our lives today but still lingers as a collective scar. Howard’s upcoming book Love, Lust, and Loss: A Photographic Memoir of the 80s’ documents life during this time, going under the skin of the American South’s polished ‘patina of respectability’ to capture those left out on the peripheries and relay their stories.

Coming-of-age in Atlanta, Billy Howard ascribes his sense of self and curiosity as the driving impetus behind his decision to pick-up a camera. Fascinated by individuals who existed outside of society’s white picket fence – those under-the-radar communities hanging in strip clubs or gay bars. Howard had realised the camera was his ticket to the fringes. “I had an explorer’s sensibility on a budget and Atlanta offered the exotic right in my backyard” he explains. In and out of strip clubs, tattoo parlours, sleazy dive bars and into unmade beds, he discovered a “common humanity in people who were marginalised by society, yet had the same dreams, desires, and in many cases, stronger values than those who would shun them”.

As with Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, two seminal photographers who transgressed the traditional boundaries of portraiture, Howard’s life and art are inextricably entwined. The series, which will be published nearly 30 years later, is not only a memoir of Howard’s youth but also an ode to places and people tied to a vanished decade. We asked Billy Howard to revisit his past and shed light on growing up in Georgia during the 80s.

How do the photographs describe the general milieu of Atlanta during the 1980s?

Billy Howard: The 1980s were not quite as refined as today, there were more funky bars, lounges with peeling wallpaper and bathrooms with stained porcelain, dusty shelves with stacks of long forgotten memorabilia and waiters and waitresses that may or may have not been friendly. This gave way in the 90s to slick restaurants with professional designers and everything thought out with feng shui and a patina of respectability. You could go into the darkest recesses of a bar with a camera and come out with not only great images but wonderful stories from people who lived life on their own terms. Just like the clean up of Times Square, the city became a little more respectable but lost some of it’s authenticity. I hope the images I took are a reminder of that.

You are currently putting together a book, entitled Love, Lust, and Loss: A Photographic Memoir of the 80s’ due for release in 2018. Why have you chosen this title?

Billy Howard: Love, Lust, and Loss were common themes I experienced in the 80s. There was a depth of love in many of my subjects, some dying of Aids while their lovers supported them through horrid physical torment knowing that when it was their time there would be no one left to comfort them. The lust that underpinned strip clubs, drag bars and a flirtatious decade of sexual inhibitions. The loss of so many amazing people from disease, as well as the loss of humanity that I found in the culture of hatred in the Klu Klux Klan, which was not that different from the hatred in a society that also choose to shun people with Aids.

“The gay community was particularly hit hard, already stigmatised they became doubly outcast as they lost family, jobs, friends, insurance. They were left to sickness and death without the compassion a moral society should provide” – Billy Howard

The Aids epidemic was a traumatic moment in history. How did the Atlanta community deal with the void left?

Billy Howard: The 80s were devastating for people struck with HIV and Aids. The gay community was particularly hit hard, already stigmatised they became doubly outcast as they lost family, jobs, friends, insurance. They were left to sickness and death without the compassion a moral society should provide. Most of the people I photographed during that time were around my age. We were all relatively young; now almost all of them are gone. It is profoundly sad.

What was your relationship to your subjects?

Billy Howard: I became quite close to many of the people with HIV and Aids, many of whom were rejected by their families because of stigma and simple misunderstanding. Photography became a gift that allowed me to not only enter into taboo spaces, but gave me an excuse to meet and get to know the people I photographed. That became more important to me than the images; I learned a lot about humanity from those living on the margins. My world view has been enlightened by people you would least suspect. Those treading on the underside of culture offered a mirror to respectable society and I found a level of honesty sometimes withheld when people try to live up to a particular standard of behavior.

The individuals you photograph – the drag queens, AIDS victims, the strippers – all would have been isolated to an extent. Your portraits reflect this, particularly in the way the individual is posed.

Billy Howard: I am a portrait photographer and the isolation you feel is partly because I separate the individual from the community in creating their image. Many of those individuals had close and warm communities of friends. There were also those who were quite alone – the homeless, those who suffered from HIV/AIDS and people in the sex industry – through circumstances completely out of their control. In other words, they became a microcosm of the rest of society. I found that even in the nicest neighbourhoods and the wealthiest enclaves, there can still lurk devastating despair.

What did you hope to resolve by taking their photographs?

Billy Howard: My goal in much of my photography, is to use images as a way to give voice to those without power. I want to introduce people on the margins, whether due to health issues, poverty or social stigma,
and humanise them to the viewer, breaking down the walls of prejudice along the way. There are a few exceptions, as in my photographs of the Klu Klux Klan. In those, I want to lay bare the other side of the coin, capture the people we should hold in disdain.

All the prints, negatives and correspondence from his documentary on people with Aids in the 80s is in the permanent collection of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. and prints from the series are also in the Library of Congress Photograph Collection.