ArtSpan’s Photographers give glimpses into lesbian and gay everyday life

  • by David Foucher, EDGE Publisher
  • Thursday October 25, 2007
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The artists on staff at RayKo Photo Center devote a good deal of their time to mounting, printing and aiding the work of other photographers, but this weekend, Johanna Case-Hofmeister, Mary Celojko, Letty Garcia, Ann Jastrab, Mia Nakano, Kira Sugarman and Barry Umstead will step forward and have a much-deserved moment in the sun. This year's presentation during ArtSpan's Open Studios month includes picture plates, traditional prints in both large and small formats, inkjet copper prints, and silk screens on wood. Here are a few highlights.

Barry Umstead is a gay photographer whose work incorporates homoerotic themes. His latest series, Homosemiotics, includes photographs of dozens of objects, primarily books, postcards and records, as well as other assorted items that feature the words Queer, Homo, Fag, Fairy, or Gay. Umstead challenges the meanings and connotations of these words, which previously had nothing to do with homosexuality, by removing them from their historical period and presenting them in a modern context. His fascination with this subject began when his high school Spanish teacher called him a fairy, though he says the words don't have the same power to hurt people that they once did. Umstead has amassed an impressive collection of over 50 images to make a salient point with wit and recognition. The Gay Blades' rendition of "The Happy Organ," "Keep Cool and Be Gay," "Dat's Berry Queer" and "Grandfather Was Queer" are among the examples in Umstead's catalogue.

Mia Nakano is a lesbian woman of color, photojournalist and community-based artist who keenly observes aspects of everyday life. Recently, she journeyed to Nepal to document first-hand the quality of life for queer communities in Katmandu. She says that what she found was a "strong butch/femme dichotomy," a more sexually segregated society than here in the Bay Area, and a community under siege; brave, visible and threatened on a daily basis. According to Nakano, police regularly rape, beat and assault LGBTQ members in a local city park.

In one of several series she produced for the show, Nakano captures, through her intimate color portraits of members of the Blue Diamond Society, a LGBTQ activist organization in Nepal, the humanity and multiple sides of human rights workers laboring in dangerous conditions in Katmandu. Nakano also documents the streets and walls of the city, monumental bells and two images of the great golden Buddha, which reside in a town believed to be the deity's home. In another series, Nakano concentrates on complex textures and patterns found in the natural world. She transforms the architecture and shadows of rocks, water and trees into fluid, abstract compositions.

Johanna Case-Hofmeister, who uses a large-format camera, frequently exhibits work that's as large as she can possibly print. The gargantuan size allows her an expansive canvas for her exceptionally beautiful, painterly compositions. Her extraordinary photographs, filled with intriguing details not readily apparent, provide a sense of voyage and discovery.

Although the size of her prints may be epic, her focus is smaller in scale: human relationships and the need for connection. "For the past four years, I have pursued a dialogue with the people who occupy my everyday life in the rural areas of upstate New York and California," she writes. "I have found the act of making photographs to be an emotionally dynamic event where the subject and I share a part of ourselves. It is at home, in places of leisure, and in the unfamiliar that I have made these photographs [in order] to help understand my place in the world."

The people who populate the world of her photographs are integrated seamlessly into the landscape. The photographer's mother, dressed in a coat with a fur collar that rises to meet her mane of grey hair, is shot from behind against a background of snow-covered fir trees. She could well be a furry denizen of the woods. In "Ariel in Quarry," a young woman with her back to camera sits on the edge of a lake and leans towards an inner tube; a stunning blue sky and clouds are mirrored in the water. In "Ariel Swimming," the aforementioned Ariel, floating on her back naked in a stream, is almost a lovely afterthought. Adjacent to her, light-blue porch chairs are poised on a wooden deck along with a pink inner tube and a scarlet umbrella leaning close to a thinning gold-flecked, red maple.

Kira Sugarman's autobiographical series Big Casino addresses love and other recent life-changing events through 10 digital photo plates dubbed, Everyday China. Sugarman, whose snapshots of the year preceding her engagement are documentary, commemorative and personal in nature, calls falling in love, "the big casino event in my world." Her fianc?, Ben, is the reluctant model for her photographs, and the one in which he's lying in bed with his armpit aimed directly at the lens is truly the money shot; priceless.

RayKo Photo Center, 428 Third St., SF. Open Studio exhibition: Oct. 24-Nov. 24. Open Studio weekend: Oct. 27 & 28, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., affordable prints will be available, along with the opportunity to meet the artists. Open Tues.-Thurs., 12-10 p.m., Fri.-Sun., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. (415) 495-3773, raykophoto.com.

David Foucher is the CEO of the EDGE Media Network and Pride Labs LLC, is a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association, and is accredited with the Online Society of Film Critics. David lives with his daughter in Dedham MA.