Getty Museum Photographs curator Arpad Kovacs likes to imagine 1970s San Francisco through the eyes of writer Armistead Maupin, whose tales about the Bay Area bustled with free love, sex, and art. While reality on the ground was more nuanced, it was an optimistic time for the city. By 1977, the Vietnam war was over, Harvey Milk had just been elected as the first openly gay city supervisor, and the ravages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic were still a few years away.
This is also when artist and critic Hal Fischer began photographing friends and strangers in the Castro and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods. “Gay life traditionally existed behind closed doors at night, and for good reason,” Fischer said in a video on SFMOMA’s website. “What was so different about the Castro was that it existed 24/7.”
Fischer created Gay Semiotics, a playful study of the signs and symbols of his gay community, in 1977 and published it as a book the following year. A man wears a red handkerchief in the right pocket? He plays “the passive role” in bed. Left pocket? He’s the active one. Fischer adds that handkerchiefs, of course, are also used for blowing your nose and “could have no significance in regard to sexual contact.”
The Getty Museum recently acquired six photographs from Gay Semiotics, including Street Fashion, Basic Gay, which shows a smiling, mustached man in jeans, plaid shirt, and Converse; Street Fashion, Jock, satin gym shorts and white socks; and Street Fashion, Leather, shirtless, leather jacket, and chaps. The men are relaxed as they pose for the camera and there’s a joy that comes through the act of being seen.
I talked to Arpad Kovacs about San Francisco, Hal Fischer, and why this series still stands out.
Caitlin Shamberg: Take me back to 1977. What was going on?
Arpad Kovacs: This work by Fischer, which was first exhibited in 1977, and published by NSF Press the following year, was radical in its portrayal of openly gay men. It also exemplifies a shift in the field of photography. These pictures move away from the pictorial expressiveness of form and nature championed by California photographers Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Minor White, among others. Fischer used his camera as a tool to informally document his community. His addition of text to identify individual attributes mimics a systematic method associated with scientific diagrams and suggests a pseudo-rational investigation.
During this period, more and more artists, including Fischer, were influenced by conceptual art and the popularity of critical theorists. Fischer’s work also exemplifies a core tenet of conceptual art, which is the impulse to categorize and decode through combining images and text. In this case, he represents subject matter in a manner that offers a wink and a nod to an audience “in the know”—in other words, a sense of playfulness—while engaging with the self-serious endeavor that is semiotics. Humor is a significant component of conceptual art.
CS: What is Gay Semiotics?
AK: Semiotics itself is the study of signs and symbols and the various ways they can be used to interpret the world around us. In the study of art, semiotics has been employed by academics and critics to interpret images. During the 1970s artists and art historians were looking to literary theory and the works of Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes along with the writings of cultural critics like Susan Sontag. I think Fischer was really interested in the rigor that critical theory could offer.
In this series he foregrounds a coded language, primarily based on dress and fashion accessories that gay men have used clandestinely to identify each other for decades, often to display their sexual preferences and interests in kink subcultures. Fischer’s pictures celebrate these various attributes. I also think of these pictures as political statements–even declarations–of being “out and proud,” since none of the figures obscure their faces. This is significant because, while the late 1970s saw a greater rise in rights for LGBTQ+ individuals, the ‘70s was still a period during which many were reluctant to be open about their sexuality for fear of dire personal and professional consequences.
CS: As a photography curator, why are you drawn to this particular series?
AK: What really fascinates me about this work is the specificity of the moment and the place in which it was made. San Francisco was a center of the counterculture movement that began in the 1950s and ‘60s. With several prominent art schools and a vibrant art community, the legacy of Beat culture and the hippie movement, it was broadly considered a (relatively) safe haven for a lot of queer youth who moved to the city from elsewhere.
But for me, this project almost represents a moment of utopian fantasy right before the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaged this country’s queer communities. The arts, in general, were disproportionately affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and too many promising artists died in the 1980s and 1990s.
CS: Why should we look at these images today?
AK: I think everyone might have a different answer. The way I approach it is that it’s important to look at these pictures today because they are ultimately about self-definition and refusing to be weighed down by societal expectations.
I also want to mention that the series was published as a book, which allowed for a wider distribution than a few gallery exhibitions in the Bay Area. Fischer has commented on hearing from younger people discovering this book in libraries and how meaningful that encounter was. That’s exactly how I first discovered this project. It makes me think about the movement to “queer” the archive, about how history and stories are stored and disseminated, and the role of archives and libraries in that process.