Chloe Sherman's 'Renegades' - photo exhibit documents SF's '90s lesbian scene

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Tuesday June 14, 2022
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Chloe Sherman's iconic photo "Kindred Spirits (San Francisco 1994)" will be on display as one of 36 other works.<br>photo: courtesy of Chloe Sherman
Chloe Sherman's iconic photo "Kindred Spirits (San Francisco 1994)" will be on display as one of 36 other works.
photo: courtesy of Chloe Sherman

San Francisco has always been a place where people are free to explore and find themselves. The 1990s was no exception, yet it was exceptional as queer fine art photographer Chloe Sherman demonstrates in her new exhibit "Renegade San Francisco: the 1990s," opening June 17.

"San Francisco, through the decades, has been the wild and crazy end-of-the-rainbow place to arrive, whoever you are," said Sherman, 53, who considered that she came home when she arrived with her queer friends Tai Uhlmann and Alessandra Ogren in San Francisco from Portland, Oregon in 1991.

"It just felt like it was my home," she said. "It was a very obvious place to arrive and stay."

Rent was cheap and the city welcomed artists, outcasts, queers, and rebels. Basically, anyone who came to San Francisco could survive, live, create, and become who they wanted to be. It was a heady defiant time in the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis' bold activism with ACT UP and Queer Nation, actions against former President Bill Clinton's anti-LGBTQ federal policies "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, and a backlash against feminism. The Digital Age was still on the horizon.

Queer Jewish photographer Chloe Sherman reviews prints of her photos of lesbian life in San Francisco's 1990s.  (Source: Su Evers)

Sherman was there capturing the attitude and spirit of the city's lesbian scene in the 1990s with her camera.

"The '90s, in particular, was an incredible, kind of radical and pivotal time in the city," Sherman said. "I knew it was an exciting time, and looking back at these photos, I can confirm that it was a unique and revolutionary era."

That revolutionary time will be on display in a rare exhibit of 36 archival pigment prints, when her exhibit opens June 17 at the Schlomer Haus Gallery. It's Sherman's first solo show. The exhibit will feature the iconic "Kindred Spirits," among many photos never seen publicly before.

Lesbian imagery
"Kindred Spirits," is an image of two shaved-headed Jewish queer women — Uhlmann, left, and Ogren, right — wearing yarmulkes and staring intensely into each other's eyes. The photo appeared in the 1996 award-winning coffee table photo book, "Nothing But the Girl: The Blatant Lesbian Image: A Portfolio and Exploration of Lesbian Erotic Photography," and on the cover of Uhlmann and Ogren's 1996 short film, "Bad Jews in My Kitchen."

More recently, an exhibit of Sherman's work was curated by lesbian historian and writer Jenni Olson at the virtual Lexington Club at Last Butch was created by Elena Rose, a 46-year-old Los Angeles lesbian, who lived in San Francisco in the 1990s.

"Kindred Spirits" was also inked onto 29-year-old nonbinary queer lesbian Sara Lewis's chest last month.

"The Jewish dyke representation is exactly what I needed to see at that point in my life," said Lewis, who was redefining Judaism at the time on her own terms when she found the photo inside an old copy of "Nothing But the Girl" at Dog Eared Books on Valencia Street.

The photo is "defiant in a certain way, with a lot of love in it," said Uhlmann, 49, a filmmaker who now lives outside of Vancouver. Like Lewis, the group of queer Jews was redefining their faith and culture at the time.

Sherman, who self-describes as "culturally Jewish," Olgren, and Uhlmann plan to recreate the iconic photo, they said. Olgren was unavailable to comment for this article.

"Hole in the Wall" (San Francisco, 1999)  

Nearly 200 people Sherman photographed in the 1990s are traveling from all over North America to San Francisco for the opening. Brandon Romer, who owns Schlomer Haus Gallery with his husband, Steffan Schlarb, called Sherman's work "evocative."

Romer and Schlarb opened the gallery in October 2021, and discovered Sherman after she started posting the photos on Instagram earlier this year.

Sherman began her journey back to the '90s after someone tagged her online on a digital copy of "Kindred Spirits," identifying her as the photographer, she said. She did not realize the photo took on a life of its own for nearly 30 years.

When the '90s ended, Sherman started a family and career and filed her 20s and the era away. The tag was a catalyst for Sherman who began reviewing and transforming her work from the 35-millimeter film for the digital age.

Sherman's documentary-style photography "really highlights and elevates the '90s queer scene in San Francisco. It's so evocative, it's beautiful," said Romer. Her images capture "a time and place [in San Francisco] that doesn't quite exist anymore," he continued, which "makes her work nostalgic and poignant, but also joyful and beautiful."

Tribe 8 lead guitarist and backup vocalist Leslie Mah, left, sitting on Elitrea Fry Jimenez's, right, the band's roadie, lap at the Lexington Club in San Francisco.  

Finding voices
Many of the people Sherman photographed are excited about the exhibit. Speaking with the Bay Area Reporter, many recalled the period as a time of coming into themselves and finding their voices.

Sherman "captured something that really could have just fallen off the map," said Silas Howard, 54, a queer transmasculine film and television director, who is one of the people she photographed.

Howard said he came into his creativity and political voice during the '90s.

"It formed me," he said recalling the music, art, and the era teaching him to not wait for permission to act to make change. "If you want something done, because you're not represented anywhere, it's on you to do it."

At the same time, "We weren't taking photos ourselves. We weren't documenting ourselves," he said, grateful for Sherman. "It was very much about the present moment."

Elitrea Fry Jimenez, a 48-year-old queer gender-fluid person, came to San Francisco from Brooklyn in the 1990s as a roadie for queercore riot grrrl punk rock band Tribe 8, and never left. Jimenez recalled hanging out with the group at the Lexington Club, the city's lesbian bar, and putting on a "badass persona" for Sherman and the camera. The Lexington Club closed in 2015.

Tribe 8 lead guitarist and backup vocalist Leslie Mah, who Sherman captured sitting on Jimenez's lap at the bar, recalled her as being "kind of mischievous."

"She was really beautiful," said Mah, a 58-year-old self-described dyke, who lives in Oakland. "She was able to finesse a scene" or capture people in the moment. "A lot of her photos were of people having a good time."

Sherman recalled the crowd being "collectively creative, supportive, proud, and defiant. People were rejecting cultural norms and, together, embracing a new lifestyle."

Chloe Sherman's "Renegades San Francisco: the 1990s" opens on June 17 with a reception, 5pm-9p.m, at Schlomer Haus Gallery, 2128 Market St., in San Francisco (through July 23). A curated selection of natural wines will be poured by Bottle Bacchanal, a new Castro-based woman-owned wineshop that highlights women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ producers. Music will be spun by DJ Campbell.

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