Anthony Friedkin: The Gay EssayJuly 26, 2014
The first question a show about documentary work made more than forty years ago should ask is, “Why now?” Ripe with current significance, if lacking in self-awareness, Anthony Friedkin: The Gay Essay misses such an opportunity to address its own contemporary relevance while trying to establish the work’s historical significance.
The Gay Essay was conceived between 1969 and 1973, when a then-19-year-old Friedkin was building his career as a photographer. Through friends, he gained access to gay communities in San Francisco and his native Los Angeles that he wasn’t a part of, but identified with as someone who felt unfairly marginalized by mainstream society. Friedkin noted at the press preview that he chose his subjects based on their willingness to celebrate an “obvious” gay identity—those who were out and proud. His photos advocate for as much, as they capture the idea of power through visibility, something underscored by the reflective title he gave the series from which the exhibition takes its name.
The portraits of Jim, a young Latino from East L.A., for example, are where Friedkin’s personal connection to his subjects is most palpably conveyed. Jim’s gentle, androgynous face reflects Friedkin’s desired intimacy with his subjects that is otherwise too literal in some of the other photographs (like that of a naked lesbian couple kissing). Other portraits—of hustlers waiting on a street corner, couples posing together, or drag queens putting on makeup—are technically strong but less compelling. Their lack of candidness underscores Friedkin’s position as an outsider to his subjects, which in turn makes the photos look that much more generic. Friedkin’s intent may have been sincere, but, four decades on, the photographs reveal the inborn limits of his project.
The de Young does try to make a case for Friedkin, beyond the exhibition’s timeliness. (Its run coincides with the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.) But contextualizing Friedkin’s photographs via the influence of Lewis Hine (whose documentary photos catalyzed the passage of child-labor laws at the turn of the 20th century) doesn’t make them any more legible as documentation of a social-justice movement. After completing The Gay Essay, Friedkin shopped it around to various galleries, but ended up running excerpts of it in gay publications such as The Ladder and The Lesbian Tide, issues of which are included in three small vitrines in the exhibition. Those magazines, along with other ephemera from the time (on loan from the GLBT Historical Society), tell of the lives and struggles behind Friedkin’s now-familiar images. Outside the museum walls, those struggles continue, including for LGBT individuals to preserve their history: The GLBT Historical Society just announced that due to a 30 percent rent increase, it will have to relocate its archives in the coming months to an as-yet undetermined location.
Anthony Friedkin: The Gay Essay is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through January 11, 2015.
Susannnah Magers is a writer and curator. Currently, she is a co-director of The Royal NoneSuch Gallery, a North Oakland project space, and contributes to SF Arts Monthly.