Life during wartime - Melissa Hawkins' nightlife photos at the GLBT History Museum

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Wednesday February 13, 2019
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Duo with cigar. This and all photos: Melissa Hawkins
Duo with cigar. This and all photos: Melissa Hawkins

The late 1980s and early '90s were a complex time in San Francisco. The city had gotten beyond the initial shock of living during an epidemic and had begun to react. The takeover of Burroughs Wellcome in January 1988 was a signal that people were not satisfied with the high cost of AZT and the slow development of other treatments.

In 1989 ACT-UP blocked the Golden Gate Bridge and disrupted the San Francisco Opera. And in 1990 all hell broke loose with streets blocked with a die-in and the disruption of the Health and Human Services secretary during the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco.

Phatima and MichaelAngelo. photo: Melissa Hawkins  

At the same time nightlife was exploding in the city. The Stud, Club Chaos and Uranus were an opportunity for dance clubs that veered toward the edge of performance art. The Box took over the Kennel Club (628 Divisidero) on Saturdays and Thursdays with Page Hodel as the mixtress and a fun, vital and diverse dance floor. Colossus, Dreamland and I-Beam provided large dance floors to dance the night away. As a photojournalist for The Sentinel, Melissa Hawkins was there to document it all.

The GLBT Historical Society and Museum is presenting the exhibition SoMa Nights: The Queer Nightclub Photography Of Melissa Hawkins, curated by Hawkins and nightlife historian Marke B. from February 15 through May 27, 2019. The photos in the exhibition are a veritable explosion of talent and fun from this period, depicting both the movers and shakers and party-goers alike.

In one image, DJ Page Hodel is seen celebrating the third anniversary of The Box in 1991 with a prize for a contest. In another, Colossus owner Gus Bean is seen with the legendary promoter and party planner Ggreg Taylor (at Colossus, which was at 1015 Folsom).

D'Arcy Drollinger and Jason Mecier (then the band Enrique) are seen at Colossus.
Jennifer Junkyard Morris poses with her friend Shannon at the Endup (most likely at Club Uranus).

Dancer at 1015 Folsom 1991. photo: Melissa Hawkins  

The pictures of party-goers are equally stunning. In one photo at the Eagle, two friends in leather and Levi's, he with a leather cap and mirror sunglasses and she with a buzz cut, pose for the camera. In another Alex Fazekas-Paul poses at Club Uranus in an outfit that appears inspired by Madonna's cone bra.

Some of the photographs are particularly poignant. Hawkins snapped a photo of Sluts A Go-Go (Doris Fish, Tippi and Miss X) at an event that may be the Drag USO Show that Ggreg Taylor produced to entertain the ACT-UP "troops" during the sixth International AIDS Convention in 1990.

Doris Fish wrote a column for The Sentinel from October 1989 to October 1990, the same time period that Hawkins Hot Shots photo column appeared in the paper. In November 1990, she snapped a photo at the Doris Fish benefit. By August 1991, both Doris Fish and Tippi had died.

In discussing the work with Hawkins, she said that she has often reflected on the similarity between life in this period and life during wartime (particularly World War Two).

"In movies, servicemen in Italy or London were celebrating because your next assignment could be your last," she said. "Performance and drag responded to the AIDS crisis with a counterbalance of an outlandish expression of creativity."

It's clear that her work was a very moving experience for her.

"There were personas like nothing I ever saw," said Hawkins. "They put so much time into their outfits. They were like gifts.

"In the daytime, you'd read an entire section of the paper filled with the names of people who had died. Then at night, you would go to the craziest parties on earth. It truly was about living every moment as if it were your last."

Sister of Perpetual Indulgence with revelers, SoMa. photo: Melissa Hawkins  

Hawkins also reflected on the impact that this culture had on the broader art world, with artists like Madonna and Vivienne Westwood taking inspiration from it, and performers like Leigh Bowery expanding the horizons of both visual and performance art.

Simultaneous to the explosion of creativity inspired by AIDS and the specter of mortality, the lesbian club scene was exploding as well, with new dance venues like Code Blue and Skirts popping up on a nearly weekly basis. It too was a vibrant renaissance moment. Hawkins was there and her photography also chronicles these developments.

Aside from being a photojournalist for the Hot Shots column, Hawkins ran a longtime "person on the street" column entitled Photo Op in The Sentinel. The serious moment that the community at large faced struck me by one particular column in this series where she asked men and women, "Would you help a friend commit suicide if they were terminally ill?"

These were the issues that people in their 20s and 30s were dealing with on a daily basis at this time.

With apologies to Dickens, it was the best of times and the worst of times for our community. If you were around at this time, you owe it to yourself to see this stunning body of work.

If you weren't here yet, you should treat yourself and see how the community responded to tragedy with art and creativity. The GLBT Historical Society, Marke B. and Melissa Hawkins have provided us with a wonderful picture of how to respond to difficult times with the power of the human spirit and deserve to be thanked for their work by a visit this show.

'SoMa Nights: the Queer Club Photography of Melissa Hawkins 1986-1994,' opens Feb. 15, 7pm-9pm at the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th St. $5.