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Magic in black and white
It’s always best to open an article with a cliché, so here goes: A picture is worth a thousand words. Why, then, would one review a photographic essay filled with pictures, when it is itself worth at least 57,000 words?
The answer is simple. Why not?
Sometimes, a review is not to tell readers whether something is good or bad, whether a stellar talent has done it again (Meshell Ndegeocello’s Nina Simone tribute album, for example) or miserable (Foxcatcher). Sometimes the reader needs to know that something is out there, something to which he or she should pay attention.
That is most certainly the case with Anthony Friedkin’s The Gay Essay (hardcover, $45, Yale University Press), the first collected volume of a series taken by the renowned photographer in the 1960s and 1970s, during the early days of the gay liberation movement, the nascent seeds that have led to our age of Ellen, Edie Windsor and Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Oscars.
Friedkin explains the impetus for the series in the introduction to the book, penned by Julian Cox, the curator of photographer at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
“There are many reasons I chose to do this particular essay, in part because gay people are very misunderstood and mistreated by society and I wanted to document their lives,” he wrote in 1973 to the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “The experience I had while photographing gay people were vastly different from one another. The discoveries I have made are in my photographs.”
Cox wrote, “Friedkin sought to create the first extensive record of gay life in Los Angeles and San Francisco in an attempt to chart the emerging and shifting visibility of the gay community in California. His goal was not to be comprehensive in his documentation, but rather to conjure its spiritual and emotional core through photography.”
The essay is broken into seven chapters, each a different time, place or theme. They are Trouper’s Hall, the site of the Los Angeles LGBT center’s weekly dances for the young ’uns aged 18-20; the Christopher Street West Parade; Hollywood; Female Impersonators; Portraits; Theater, San Francisco, and Jim Aguilar.
“Angelic and androgynous, Jim is singularly himself, but Friedkin’s extended portrait of him seems to express symbolically the importance of intimate, lived experience,” Cox writes. “The inwardness of Jim, as subject, prompts reflection on the inner depths of our own lives.”
Friedkin, who has worked as a still photographer on Hollywood sets for decades, also captures celebrities big and small, warts and all. The Cockettes, Sylvester and Divine are some of the luminaries in the book, all captured with Friedkin’s camera, the eye of the consummate observer.
He has also photographed series on surfing, New York brothels, and Folsom Prison. However, for the pure historical joy, The Gay Essay, which he hopes to follow with further volumes of those early days of the gay liberation movement, this is the book to get. His photos are a time machine, bringing the viewer back before the Supreme Court decided it might like gay people, before the public had an inkling that it should be concerned with transgender issues, back when the “sensitive young man” or “tomboy” usually died in the third reel.
Anthony Friedkin is a sorcerer, a conjurer, and all that is left is to take his hand and step on his magic carpet. Go on, take the ride.