Coinciding with San Francisco’s annual Pride events and the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, Anthony Friedkin’s seminal body of work The Gay Essay goes on show this month at the De Young Museum, in San Francisco.
The Gay Essay chronicles the gay communities of Los Angeles and San Francisco between 1969 a 1973 — an era of great strides for political activism in the gay communities in California and nationwide.
Friedkin (b.1949) has always been committed to documenting cultures in his home state of California. The Gay Essay was one of his earliest efforts; he embarked on it as a 19-year-old. Self-assigned, Friedkin went poolside, to the city streets, and into motels, bars and discos in an attempt to create the first extensive record of gay life in the Golden State.
“Friedkin found his place in an approach that retained the outward-looking spirit of reportage combined with individual discovery. As an extrovert with an avid curiosity, he developed close relationships with his subjects that enabled him to create portraits that are devoid of judgment,” says the de Young press release. “He did not aim to document gay life in Los Angeles and San Francisco slavishly, but rather to show men and women who were trying to live openly, expressing their individualities and sexualities on their own terms, and improvising ways to challenge the dominant culture.”
In 1973, the San Francisco Art Week wrote, “The Gay Essay is comparable in magnitude to Robert Frank’s The Americans. The exhibit in its entirety is amazingly strong. And for the most part the photographs are singularly beautiful in execution.”
And yet, The Gay Essay has remained known, since, primarily only to photo-boffins. Consequently, I am personally eager to see this work. It’s “footprint” is not as large as its social significance warrants. Indeed, at the time of writing, a search “Anthony Friedkin” on Google has as the first result a speculative piece I posted on Prison Photography nearly five years ago. (Who knows, perhaps Google’s search metrics might shift a little once Friedkin and The Gay Essay enjoy new press interest for this big De Young show?)
The paucity of images and information on the internet is indicative of a wider photo culture that just hasn’t had Friedkin on the radar. This dearth has been reflected in the real world too. While selections from The Gay Essay have been on public display in museums and galleries in the past, the entire scope of the series — 75 vintage prints — has never been exhibited before in one venue.
“The Gay Essay accords with our goal of bringing to light important, and sometimes neglected or overlooked, bodies of work that enrich the history and study of photography, a medium that is central to art and society today,” said Colin B. Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
If you’re in the Bay Area at any point in the next six months, I recommend catching this exhibition.
The Gay Essay runs June 14, 2014 – January 11, 2015, at the DeYoung Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco, CA 94118.
Accompanying the original full-frame black-and-white prints will be contact prints, documents and other materials from the photographer’s archive and loans from the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society that provide valuable historical context and insight into the conception and execution of the work.
Exhibition catalogue: 144 pages, Yale University Press. Hardcover $45.
All images: © Anthony Friedkin
Anthony Friedkin started out as a photojournalist working as a stringer for Magnum photos in Los Angeles. Friedkin’s photographs are included in major Museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco MoMA and The J. Paul Getty Museum. His work has been published internationally including in Rolling Stone, Newsweek and others. He lives in Santa Monica, California.