Photo: Drag Queens at the Mirror, Long Beach, 1971 (detail)
In the Tao Te Ching, Leo Tzu observes, “Nature does not hurry, but everything is accomplished,” recognizing the way in which the Universe works, for what is meant to be occurs as it naturally unfolds through human experience. Perhaps artists are particularly sensitive to the times in which they live, as the zeitgeist flows like a channel throughout the air we breathe.
1969 was a pivotal year in American history. It was the year of the Stonewall Riots, which occurred in New York, when patrons at the Stonewall Inn fought back against the police during a raid at 1:20 am the morning of June 28. At that time homosexual acts were illegal in every state in the nation, with the exception of Illinois. As a result, the police frequently abused their power, targeting gay people and destroying their lives—until one night when the people stood up and fought back.
That same summer, at 19 years of age, American photographer Anthony Friedkin was traveling through Europe, thinking about what he would like to do as an artist. Friedkin, who had been honing his craft as a photographer since he was 11 years old, recalls, “I asked myself what would be the most complicated, challenging, difficult subject for a photo essay—and I decided on The Gay Essay for a lot of reasons. There is anger I still feel today when people suggest gay people are insufficient or lacking something that heterosexuals have. The audacity to judge and put down people and the conceit to say God told you this is what you are supposed to do! We all have our own unique sexuality, like your fingerprint.”
Friedkin took that anger and turned it into love, into understanding, knowledge, and wisdom about the many-splendored people who inhabit the gay community. He returned to Los Angeles, where he lived, and began photographing in his hometown and San Francisco over a period between 1969 and 1973. His timing was flawless; it could not have been better if he tried. He recalls, “It wasn’t calculated. It was the perfect storm. I was ready to do it, I was prepared for it, an I am grateful to the people who let me into their lives and allowed me to be there to share in the intimacy, desire to express themselves, the love they expressed for each other. I got to take it to the next level, to photograph everything I could think of doing, from the vice cops who were monsters to the lesbians and male prostitutes.”
Friedkin documented people from all walks of life, people who were out, proud, and unafraid, people who represented the full spectrum of American diversity. From drag queens and the political activists to the couples in love and Reverend Troy Perry, who married them, Friedkin’s photographs present a compelling cross-section of people who lived life on their own terms.
“I wanted to celebrate gays and culture and love of gayness and be a kindred spirit. I wanted to say, ‘I do think gay people are special and different and have fantastic energy that should be celebrated!’ I didn’t want to show people in Brooks Brothers suits, passing and applaud them for fitting in. I wanted people who were out the door, openly gay. Back then it took courage to get a sex change, to dress in drag, or to go to the parade and walk down the street. You could be arrested and lose your job for it,” he reveals.
With The Gay Essay, Friedkin created beautiful photographs, but more than this, he created art that challenged the power structure. He shows us Americans, plain and simple, citizens of the nation who refused to allow bigotry and hatred to destroy their souls.
In celebration, Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York, presents Anthony Friedkin: The Gay Essay, an exhibition of approximately 50 vintage black and white photographs handprinted by the artist, on view now through March 4, 2017. Friedkin observes “This one set of pictures is he foundation for the pyramid. Internally how deep you go into yourself and you belief system to investigate how you do what you do—it validates what I love as an artist: my faith and instinct in the power of photography to move you as an art form. It’s really special. It celebrate life in a pure way.”
Indeed, the photographs themselves are carefully crafted works of art, as Friedkin, who has been printing his own photographs since he was a child, has always created his own prints. “I worked so hard on these prints. I really care about print quality. A negative is like a scene in a play that you have to print to life. It is special. For this show, we used the original set of vintage prints that I worked months on in order to make the book [published by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Yale University Press, 2014]. This exhibition makes me realize that my instincts held true, they held up all these years. You have to hope that things don’t get lost as an artist, with all the problems of money, agony, and drama. I broke down crying while I was working for days on these prints. I was emotionally and physically exhausted and had to resurrect myself back.”
From this resurrection comes a body of work that just won’t quit, the story of a people at a time in American history that changed the nation forevermore—and has become even more significant in light of the crossroads we have reached today. The Gay Essay remind us that that the fight for freedom begins with the self. Once you liberate yourself, you are the captain of the ship, free to follow you guiding star to your destiny, wherever it may take you.
All photos: ©Anthony Friedkin, courtesy of Daniel Cooney Fine Art.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.