Jean-Baptiste Carhaix, known for photographing Sisters, dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Thursday March 16, 2023
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Jean-Baptiste Carhaix waited in a tent at Mission Dolores Park on April 17, 2022, as he was prepared to be introduced as honorary Pope Condom I by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at their annual Easter party. Photo: Gooch<br>
Jean-Baptiste Carhaix waited in a tent at Mission Dolores Park on April 17, 2022, as he was prepared to be introduced as honorary Pope Condom I by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at their annual Easter party. Photo: Gooch

Jean-Baptiste Carhaix, a gay man best known locally for his large-format photographs of members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, died March 7 in Lyon, France. He was 76.

Gerard Koskovich, a queer man and historian, posted on Facebook that Mr. Carhaix had been hospitalized in Lyon for the past month.

Mr. Carhaix had lived in Lyon for the past two decades, but back in the late 1970s he started spending his summers in San Francisco, Koskovich wrote. He was principal of the French-American International School in the city in the early 1980s.

In a biography on his website, Mr. Carhaix wrote that the Sisters were influential to his work.

"My first important subject was to follow the politico-theatrical provocations of a group of anti-religious Californian gay activists: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — San-Francisco: 1981-1983 (distributed between 1984 and 1987 by the news agency Sipa)," he wrote. "Then, no longer satisfied with the simple reporting of their street actions, I staged these characters between 1984 and 1996 (during the summers of 1984-1987-1989-1993-1996). All of the staging work is doubled in B&W and color."

Ken Bunch, aka Sister Vish-Knew, started the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence with three other friends in a San Francisco apartment. Last year, the city renamed in his honor an alley near his longtime Dolores Street residence, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. He moved to the city in 1977 and brought with him some nun habits. On Easter 1979, Bunch and his roommate, then living in the Haight, donned the habits and paraded on city streets, he wrote in a history of the Sisters. He told the B.A.R. he first met Mr. Carhaix at the 1979 Castro Street Fair. The Sisters were officially founded in December 1979, he wrote.

"I was in nun drag," Bunch wrote in an email of that day at the street fair. "It was before I and three friends founded the Sisters. JB photographed me and from that point on he was obsessed. We say, 'he caught the nun bug.'"

"He returned to San Francisco from southern France every two years to photograph us," Bunch wrote of Mr. Carhaix. "He was a true visionary. Each time he did location reconnaissance and composed the photos in his mind before shooting them. He knew what he wanted. His Sister photos had shows in very prestigious galleries in Europe."

Mr. Carhaix was a rarity — an honorary member of the Sisters, Bunch explained.

"One year before he died he asked to be an honorary member of SPI. He is the only 'honorary member:' JB Carhaix Pope Condom the First. May he rise in power with the other 'Nuns of the Above,'" Bunch wrote, referring to the term used for Sisters who have passed away.

Sister Roma, a longtime member of the organization, remembered Mr. Carhaix on Facebook.

"His images of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Inc., shot on the billowing precipices of the Marin Headlands, became instantly iconic and contributed to our notoriety in Europe," Roma noted. "For his decades of service and devotion to the Order, JB was sainted and last Easter we made him an honorary Pope Condom the First.

"We were so lucky to have him visit this past Easter where he attend the official street naming reveal party of Sister Vish-Knew Way in honor of his longtime friend Kenneth Bunch," Roma added.

During the time he was starting to photograph the Sisters, he also took note of the AIDS epidemic when that started in the early 1980s.

"AIDS was then ravaging the homosexual community and some of my models were affected by it," he wrote in his biography.

Mr. Carhaix added that "... among other things, the militancy of these activists acting as alternative nuns with the sick (1982-1983): raising funds for the poorest, demonstrating in the streets in order to push the federal government to act in the emergency, distributing — after having written it — the first leaflet advocating prevention through the use of condoms. ..."

Koskovich stated in his post that Mr. Carhaix "had nearly 70 one-artist exhibitions and numerous group shows starting in 1980. He exhibited widely in Europe and the United States." His work is part of the permanent collection of the GLBT Historical Society, on whose board Koskovich once served. Mr. Carhaix's work is also in the permanent collection of the Mucem in Marseille, France.

Mr. Carhaix was born André Menguy on May 8, 1946 on the Mediterranean coast in Golfe-Juan. Under that name, he pursued a successful career in education, initially as a teacher. After completing a doctoral dissertation at the University of Nice in 2000, he became a professor of education. He ultimately published a revised version of the dissertation in 2011 under a title that can be translated as "Children and Television: Young Audiences and Audiovisual Fiction" (Editions Universitaires Européenes). Some of his first published and exhibited photos also appeared under his birth name, but by the early 1980s, he adopted the moniker "Jean-Baptiste Carhaix" to distinguish his work as photographer from his work as an educator.

Updated, 3/17/23: This article has been updated to include information about Mr. Carhaix's early life.

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