It’s weird how familiar the images from Anthony Friedkin’s The Gay Essay feel. Shot in Los Angeles and San Francisco from 1969 to 1973, when the photographer was just entering his twenties, they feature what you might expect as we continue to historicize that time: drag queens and hustlers, street corners and porn theatres, early pride parades and long hair.
The Gay Essay
(Yale University Press, 2014)
It’s a familiarity that borders on conspicuous, and flipping through the photographs (all expertly shot, beautiful and gray), I’m uncertain whether I actually have seen some of them before. There are a few faces recognizable to anyone with a passing interest in queer history, including Divine, the Reverend Troy Perry, and Morris Kight. But it’s the “anonymous” faces—the dykes in denim at a Gay Liberation Parade and the couple grinding hips on Hollywood Boulevard in 1970—that I stare at, unable to shake the feeling that I’ve previously looked at this photograph, even (impossibly) that I know the subjects. I startled with recognition at one long-haired, bejeweled couple at the Palace Theater, certain I had met them at a radical faerie sanctuary, before remembering over forty years had passed since Friedkin’s lens captured them, and that they have aged.
It’s not impossible to have encountered Friedkin’s work. He’s had a long career. But the specific images of The Gay Essay have by and large had a hard time finding a home until this book and the concomitant exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (sparing the maquette Friedkin put together upon the completion of the photographic project and some early showings).
The contemporary queer moment is fixated on two events in our past: the early-1970s “post-Stonewall” era and the late-1980s surge of ACT UP. This is all for good reason, of course. Yet as a historical narrative is retold it is often also narrowed, other stories excluded. We get Harvey Milk on a stamp and Larry Kramer on HBO, but no long-overdue biography of Sylvia Rivera moving productively among the Young Lords, STAR, and the Black Panthers. And as the political scope tightens, so too does the emotional scope.
The Gay Essay, however, presents photographs that broaden these dimensions. Friedkin’s photographs are gorgeous images of queer couples, often mixed-race couples and trans people, radiantly and openly living their romances and pursuing their art in public spaces. The hustlers are smiling in hotel rooms as often as they are on corners, smoking with friends. Jim, a regular subject, is as androgynous and femme when sitting on a friend’s porch as when alone in a restaurant, drinking a soda. Everyone is dancing on the street, dancing in the theatre, and dancing in the club. They also scowl at times, faces shadowed outside a porn cinema or lit by a passing policeman’s flashlight, and the Reverend Troy Perry poses (defiant) in the burnt remains of his church.
The artist Nayland Blake, in his accompanying essay, “And I’m Carmen Miranda: What Liberation Looks Like,” states, “It is said we cannot truly retain the memory of pain, but surely joy is even more difficult to recall.” He goes on to explore the way that Friedkin’s project presents a public queerness that manifests as celebration, care, and tenderness. It’s a smart read on the images, and one that illuminates the paradox of familiarity: to look at a history of oppression is to look so often at pain; to be a queer person who has found other queer people is to know joy.
These photographs exist in the undeniable context of oppression, the burnt churches and protestors, yet they still expand our historical memory. As Blake further notes, the project is one in which “Friedkin photographed people whose audience is sympathetic, where couples or groups of people are enacting their queerness for one another, and not for the world at large.” It’s a queerness that goes public not quite to enter the straight world, but to stop hiding from it and thereby invite more queer people into the space of the photographs. It presents a queerness that is for queerness, and it is a queerness that is about individuals, not about any singular idea of what it means to be gay. And it succeeds, of course, because Friedkin was taking pictures of his friends, the people he loved and who loved each other, too.
The poem Eileen Myles contributes to the book, “Gay as A,” gets to part of this. It’s a poem that declares “It’s the language / Breaks us cause I whispered to your fea- / Thers and I loved the way you turned” and ends “O I think you’ll like it / A lot. And I can smell / You now. And I like the / Way your teeth gleam.” Weird, that I feel like I can smell the people in these photos, too. That I still look at the bejeweled couple at the Palace Theater and could swear that I met them, just like that, forty years later. And weirder still that it all seems weird. Why would joy ever surprise? Friedkin’s The Gay Essay is valuable because it is beautiful and expertly shot, and a powerful example of a photographic mode, emergent in the years before Nan Goldin and the like, while documenting a historical moment. And just as significantly, it is valuable because to see it is to time warp, to witness the power of loving each other and for that power to be familiar. We need our anger, we need more stories of overcoming oppression, but just as importantly we need to remember that the struggle is not only to find our friends and lovers, but on finding them, to channel our beauty and our joy into strength. There are pictures of the Cockettes in 1972, immediately following the departure of singer Sylvester from the group. Several years later, Sylvester would release the dance hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” which remains regularly played at queer parties today. “I feel real,” the song repeats, “I feel real.”