LGBTQ History Month: Online archive features Gerharter's B.A.R. photos

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 25, 2023
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Andy Ilves and Tom Tymstone kiss during a Queer Nation kiss-in at the Powell Street cable car turnaround in 1990. Photo: Rick Gerharter Photographs Collection, SFPL
Andy Ilves and Tom Tymstone kiss during a Queer Nation kiss-in at the Powell Street cable car turnaround in 1990. Photo: Rick Gerharter Photographs Collection, SFPL

Two decades ago the San Francisco Public Library purchased a portfolio of photos from longtime Bay Area Reporter photographer Rick Gerharter. He selected most of the photographs documenting the city's LGBTQ community.

"I chose the photos I liked obviously for their coherence," recalled Gerharter. "They were news photos so they've got to reflect the experience and reflect the news story, or whatever it is, so that is the limitation in the photos."

Jim Van Buskirk, at the time the program manager for the library's Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center, now known as the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA+ Center, also selected several of Gerharter's photos for the library's collection. One showed the Dykes on Bikes going by the New Main Library under construction in the city's Civic Center as they kicked off the June 19, 1994 Pride parade in San Francisco.

"We were concerned about diversity. We are everywhere, and our goal was reflecting that as much as possible," said Gerharter about their decision-making process behind which photos ended up being bought by the library.

He received $10,000 for the portfolio of his work in July 2003. Until last fall, the photos could only be seen in person at the library. Now, anyone from anywhere on the planet can call up 26 of Gerharter's photos on their internet-connected device. They are part of the library's online Hormel LGBTQIA Center Collection and accessible at the webpage.

Dee Dee Kramer, a lesbian who is the manager of the library's Digi Center, uploaded the Rick Gerharter Photographs Collection last fall. She did so as part of the library's LGBTQ archival digitization effort, which the B.A.R. first reported about last October.

"I am glad it is more accessible. I haven't gotten any further inquiries from it," said Gerharter. "Over the years there was always a verbal description of the photos on the Hormel website. What was always accessible was what was the day and event but not the photo itself. I would get regular inquiries about the photos."

One of his favorites in the collection depicts Andy Ilves and Tom Tymstone lip-locked during a July 28, 1990 Queer Nation kiss-in at the Powell Street cable car turnaround in downtown San Francisco. Tymstone is a fellow photographer, while Ilves was an aide to late former San Francisco supervisor and then district attorney Terence Hallinan.

"He was Estonian. His brother, I believe, was prime minister of Estonia," said Gerharter, referring to Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as the country's fourth president from 2006 until 2016.

On assignment for the B.A.R., which grants photographers the copyrights to their photos, Gerharter has used the image often, he said. For instance, he chose it for the promotional cards of the show "Queer Pix" mounted in 1991 during Pride Month in the Castro at the defunct Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint.

"I think it says San Francisco right away," said Gerharter, who also likes its angular composition and truly gay content. "I just think it encapsulates, for me, a lot of what San Francisco is and a lot of the special qualities of San Francisco."

With the photos now being online, Gerharter said he hasn't received an influx of queries about them.

"Certainly, they are much more accessible, my god, so that is really nice to get that stuff out there," he said. "Some of the things have more broad historical importance and some have had more interest certainly over the years, especially as people die too."

The Dykes on Bikes ride past the under construction New Main Library during the 1994 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Rick Gerharter Photographs Collection, SFPL  

Came to SF in 1977
Gerharter, 71, a gay man who grew up on a farm in Aberdeen, South Dakota, moved to San Francisco in 1977. The B.A.R. first published one of his photos in 1987.

It was the same year that he sold a photo to the California Lawyers for the Arts. It showed the late gay San Francisco supervisor Harry Britt on a panel with his then congressional opponent, Nancy Pelosi, who would go on to win the special election for the open House seat and is seeking her 19th term next year.

"I knew I wanted to be a photographer," recalled Gerharter, whose archival collection begins in 1986 when he traveled throughout South America with a friend. "I wanted to continue to travel and I knew getting a 9-to-5 job would not allow me to do that. Photography was a natural way for me to travel."

He ended up living and working in Fortaleza, Brazil for six months, having met a guy at a bar there. They returned together to the U.S. and dated for two years.

Once back in San Francisco Gerharter enrolled in a photography class at City College. He did so mostly to learn how to develop film in a darkroom.

"A lucky break for me was just at the time I was competent enough to sell photos, AIDS activism started. So there was a lot to take photographs of," recalled Gerharter. "The protests were very visual, and in many cases, there was international interest in the activity. Selling that sort of sustained me."

His photos of the Castro Sweep, when police rioted in the city's LGBTQ neighborhood the night of October 6, 1989, impressed then B.A.R. news editor Brent Averill. One of his pictures from that evening, of police arresting protestors, is part of the library's digital collection of his work.

"I got extremely dramatic photos of that," said Gerharter, who was offered a staff position with the paper in 1990.

The next year he left in order to travel in Europe. But he has remained one of the paper's go-to freelance photographers to this day.

"The paper over the years, and the various editors, have been extremely accommodating with me being gone and coming back and not losing out," said Gerharter.

In February, during one of his out-of-state trips, Gerharter passed out while driving his car in downtown Reno. Someone who witnessed his accident gave him CPR, likely saving his life, said Gerharter, who doesn't know the person's identity. He also happened to be one block away from a nonprofit run regional medical center.

"I am extremely lucky to be alive. I really am," he said.

After nine days in Nevada, Gerharter was transported back to San Francisco, where he had double bypass surgery at UCSF.

"I am good. The people of Reno saved my life. During my recovery, I also had incredible care," said Gerharter. "A lot of gay people were involved in this too, especially in Reno. I have recovered, I am well healthwise."

He has been in talks over the years to donate the entirety of his archives to the library's Hormel center. While Gerharter doesn't know the exact count of photos in his archives, he estimated it runs in the tens of thousands. He does know the linear amount of space his archives cover is 22 yards.

"We've not signed an agreement yet," said Gerharter.

He had toyed with giving it to the GLBT Historical Society, but Gerharter said he has had more of a relationship with the library, which has mounted several shows of his photographic work over the years.

"I have had more exhibits at the library. In some ways they have been a bit more supportive," said Gerharter.

And he feels it will be able to care for the photographic collection for decades to come.

"They will have the resources to maintain it for 100 years or 200 years, for forever and ever," said Gerharter.

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