Castro to Christopher, Gay Streets of America 1979-1986
Photographer: Nicholas Blair
Exhibit Title: Castro to Christopher, Gay Streets of America 1979-1986
Location: United States
Between 1979 and 1986 - after Stonewall and before the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic - there was a period of exuberant and burgeoning gay life in places even then known as “gay paradises.” There were others, but the best known were San Francisco’s Castro District, New York’s Christopher Street and Fire Island, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.The joy and pathos of these tragically lost worlds is beautifully and vibrantly documented in this collection of compelling portraits and street scenes photographed by Nicholas Blair. As a teenager lured to San Francisco from New York, via hitchhiking to Buenos Aires, Blair lived in a hippie-style arts commune just across town from the Castro. With a Leica rangefinder camera loaned to him by a childhood friend, Blair began honing his craft as a photographer amidst the explosion of LGBTQ life that was rapidly eclipsing the hippies as the most visible (and photographable) counter-culture movement of the day.
Intrroductyion by Jim Farber
In 1973, I dropped out of high school in New York City and hit the road. Fifteen months later, after hitchhiking as far as Buenos Aires, I landed in San Francisco. There, I joined my brother Doniphan, and with a few friends, formed a small arts commune called “The Modern Lovers.” I had in my possession a Leica rangefinder camera loaned to me by my high school friend, Anna Reinhardt, who had inherited it from her father, Ad, the abstract expressionist painter.
My brother introduced me to Larry Bair, a photographer friend, who owned a car. Larry took me under his wing and together we explored the Bay Area photographing, occasionally venturing south to Santa Cruz and Los Angeles. Before long, Larry introduced me to the esteemed photographer and teacher, Henry “Hank” Wessel.
In the San Francisco of the mid-to-late 1970s, the explosion of LGBTQ life was eclipsing the last vestiges of the hippie movement, which were still lingering on in our commune. I was photographing ubiquitously and at times found myself covering events in the gay community. The scene was campy and fun, unpredictable and full of energy. Being an outside observer, I could
not fully understand the intense personal, familial, and social pressures that had created this revolution, but this was the big political/social movement happening
at that time, in a city where these things were not uncommon. As far as I was concerned this was the new normal.
In 1976, we created Ancient Currents Gallery in
the storefront of our commune. It hosted art and photography exhibitions, poetry readings, performance art, and musical events. People did their own thing. Drugs and sex were common and the day centered around a large family dinner and nightly jam session. Eventually, two babies were born in the back room. Different artist/traveler types stopped in for weeks or months at a time. One friend, Gary Halpern, showed up with a 28-piece French circus band. They all crashed on the gallery floor and shared our one bathroom.
I continued to passionately pursue photography. Hank (Henry Wessel) invited me to sit in on his classes at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). He taught me how to overexpose and underdevelop film to preserve shadow detail, and advised not printing negatives for a year in order to separate the evaluation of images from the emotional experience of taking them. It was exciting and revealing to watch him review my work.
I could tell how much he liked an image by how long he looked it over. Eventually, thanks to his mentorship, I earned my MFA in photography at SFAI without an undergraduate degree.
As long as I can remember, my father, Vachel Blair, a cinematographer, showed me photography books,
in particular Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Desisive Moment. We would discuss composition, lighting, and the image’s story. Now, studying with Hank
and Larry, I was perfecting a method of candid street photography that entailed pre-focusing the camera before quickly, and briefly, bringing it to my eye and releasing the shutter. Interesting moments could be fleeting. Anticipation and intuition were critical.
The goal was to suspend premeditated thinking and see things with “fresh eyes,” a form of nonspecific
or natural awareness. The rewards were photographs of serendipitous moments connecting the interplay of light, people, and their surroundings. In the darkroom, I discovered how the camera sees things and transforms the three-dimensional world into
a two-dimensional image. It was fascinating how
a photograph could meticulously described reality while remaining an illusion at the same time.
Understanding how perception is transformed into photographs is the alchemy of photography. Shoot, print, reflect, and shoot again. This is the self-actualizing loop of photography. It’s the same whether one’s predilection is for spontaneous or pre-visualized image-making. Looking at my prints enabled close
scrutiny of transitory moments, crystallized gestures, juxtapositions, and the geometric structure created by objects in the frame. Oftentimes
I caught people looking into the lens in a way that is both revealing and enigmatic. Many of thesse images would suggest a backstory, like mise-en-scene from a film.
In 1978, after ten months traveling and photographing in India and Europe, I returned to San Francisco just before the tragic and shocking assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. This event made me more acutely aware of the intense political struggle between the LGBTQ community and reactionary forces opposing them in the city. I realized then that something unique was happening in San Francisco and I started to photograph it with specific concentration.
Having parents in New York City, I often returned there as well. I photographed LGBTQ life on Christopher Street and Fire Island, as well as in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In 1982, some of my images were published in the American LGBTQ magazine The Advocate and the French magazine, Gay Hebdo Pai. My local Bay Area Reporter (B.A.R.) printed a weekly photograph under the title, “From Castro to Christopher Street.” The community was encouraging.
Tragically, the blossoming of these “gay paradises” were soon to be eviscerated by the AIDS epidemic. The horrors and sadness of this lost generation came home to me with the agonizing sickness and eventual death from AIDS of my close friend and mentor, the photographer Larry Bair.
In 1985, I was given a professional opportunity to photograph with a film team for the relief and development agency CARE, documenting the famine in Ethiopia. This led to more travel assignments and the winding down of the first part of this project. Now, forty years later, I’ve had time to revisit and reflect on these images and, finally, complete this work.
It is my intention to present to the viewer a walk through a place in time, without judgement, but with attention paid to unique moments that reflect the ethos of thisera through the window of my photographic sensibilities.
Nicholas Blair – September, 2022
90 La Salle Street #18F
New York, NY 10027
Tel 646 765 3091
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