Coming Together in LGBTQ Pride!

  • by Sura Wood
  • Thursday June 22, 2017
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"Celebrate Community!," an amorphous though undeniably well-intentioned LGBTQ Pride show that opened last weekend at the Harvey Milk Photo Center, aims to embrace humanity in its many permutations, a laudatory ambition that needed a clearly defined theme and a narrowing of the overly broad concept of community. That said, the idea allows for the coming together of nearly 30, mostly LGBTQ photographers, a few writers, and the inclusion of images of exuberant gatherings, parades, outbursts of joyful free expression, and some impressive individual works. 125 photographs and a smattering of poems ring the center's recreation room, an informal setting that may not show off professional-level photography to optimum effect, but has the advantage of attracting people from the neighborhood and others who wouldn't otherwise patronize a gallery.

The late Gilbert Baker, who in 1978 created the Rainbow flag, an emblem of gay pride that caught on around the world - he once called himself the "gay Betsy Ross" - is the show's de facto patron saint, according to HMPC director-curator Dave Christensen. (Christensen is on San Francisco Rec & Parks staff, and Harvey Milk Photo Center is a SF Rec & Parks facility.) Shortly before his death in March, Baker helped formulate this exhibition, which Christensen hopes is infused with the artist's spirit of inclusiveness and freedom. He's a palpable presence, popping up in a 1994 picture from Danny Nicoletta, standing underneath his creation, beaming in an off-the-shoulder sequined gown, and in nine gorgeous color images by San Francisco attorney Mark Rennie.

Rennie chronicles two turning points in Baker's life: 1978-79, when he delivered various incarnations of his now-famous symbol of empowerment; and 2012, after he returned to San Francisco (he had moved to New York in 1994) to receive a lifetime achievement award from the Pride Foundation. A flamboyant soul with a flair for the dramatic onstage and in life, a vintage Baker appears in Jesus mode, longhaired, bearded and in makeup; doffing a top hat as he slides down the billowing flag with a batch of rowdy clowns; half-naked, brandishing a sword on a rooftop like an opera singer going mad in the final act; and taking a bow in head-to-toe gold lame.

Among an array of noteworthy portraits is Rink Foto's marvelous 1978 shot of a charismatic, 30-something Armistead Maupin, looking casual and jaunty, smiling broadly, hands in his pockets, rightfully on top of the world at a bookstore launch party for "Tales of the City." Jay Blakesberg, who took a top-drawer, black & white portrait of a pensive, older Allen Ginsberg (1994), recalls that the poet began a Buddhist chant before the session, and afterward, turned the tables, snapping a few pictures of the photographer in front of his studio. LA-based A&U magazine editor Sean Black, who describes himself as an "HIV+ artist and card-carrying member of the LGBTQ community," offers up a series of polished celebrity shots of activists and leaders in the fight against AIDS: Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis; a dapper, unusually restrained John Waters; Cleve Jones; and filmmaker Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter of "Milk" and the HBO series "Big Love."

Since 1994, photographer Michael Johnstone has been documenting his partner and muse, costumer David Faulk, aka Mrs. Vera, decked out in zany costumes, each more outrageous than the next. Back in the 1980s, the pair circulated among theatrical troupes, drag queens and club performers whose ranks dwindled by the early 90s because of the AIDS epidemic. As an antidote to loss, and inspired by the Cockettes' example and the fun of dress-up, they created Mrs. Vera, a campy, mutable figure who dons multi-layered, garishly colored ensembles Johnstone has characterized as "fragments of a drag memory tornado." Ever a trendsetter, she has been spotted at the SF Pride Parade and other events sporting a metallic, emerald green headdress with beam-me-up-Scottie Martian antennae; swamped by a huge welcoming basket on her head filled with plastic cups and utensils and covered in cellophane; and posing as a geisha in a wild blue-haired wig accented with hot pink shells. But what is one to make of the orange-faced creature with three pairs of eyes?

A professional photographer since the 1970s, Skot Jonz has contributed several artistically composed images, like a coming-out-of-the-closet self-portrait where he's seen peaking through the crack of a partially open door. In another particularly dramatic piece, inspired by a friend going through a rough patch, a naked man pushes an enormous boulder up a sheer cliffside like a latter-day Sisyphus.

And then there's veteran B.A.R. photographer Rick Gerharter, whose fine images frequently complement my reviews at this paper. A selection of well-crafted photos he has taken over the last 20 years features a smooch at the cable car turnaround during a Queer Nation kiss-in; Gilbert Baker at the carousel in Pier 39 during a Queer Nation visibility action; a loaded, candid shot of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence squeezed into an elevator - oh, to have overheard that conversation; and a cutie-pie African American guy, bare-chested in a white sailor suit, saluting from a float in the Gay Day parade. So, handsome, where are you now?

Through July 23.