As we face an onslaught of regressive legislative attacks on LGBTQIA+ life, focused on trans rights, along with reproductive, and voting rights, book bans and restrictions on school curriculums, it can be empowering to look back at the organizing and methods of grassroots trans and queer resistance in previous decades. That was part of the inspiration for writer and photographer Ariel Goldberg as they began their seven year research project that has resulted in the stimulating, expansive, and urgent exhibition Images on which to build, 1970s-1990s, on view now at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art until July 30th, 2023.
Images on which to build reveals how, through photographic documentation, influential image cultures were constructed and circulated. It challenges the contemporary understanding of social justice movements by highlighting image cultures of queer life which have sustained the educational work of liberation movements. Its six distinct sections include work by Lola Flash in and alongside ART+Positive; artist and educator Diana Solís and Mujeres Latinas en Acción; the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ Keepin’ On traveling exhibition of Black lesbian life created by archivettes such as Georgia Brooks, Paula Grant, and Morgan Gwenwald; connections between trans image maker Loren Rex Cameron and the work of FTM International and the Sexual Minorities Archives; Allen Frame, Frank Franca, and Nan Goldin’s Electric Blanket slideshow with Visual AIDS; and JEB’s (Joan E. Biren) The Dyke Show.
Curator Ariel Goldberg takes The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann on a deep dive into Images on which to build, sharing how they went about assembling the exhibition, its connecting threads, and what they hope people will take away from their visit.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What’s the significance of the title and how did you land upon it? It frames our approach to the exhibition as we enter the space.
Ariel Goldberg: “Images on which to build is actually a quote from Carol Seajay—a co-founder of Old Wives’ Tale bookstore in San Francisco—who was writing a review for the newspaper Off Our Backs of JEB’s (Joan E. Biren) slideshow, The Dyke Show. Both JEB and Tee A. Corinne did slideshow presentations at Old Wives Tale, and the phrase “images on which to build” was talking about how transformative an experience it was to view them. I came across the phrase in my archival research and added the decades to it. This show is very much for the present, but we’re looking at materials that are bracketed by the late 70s through the late 90s.”
The Dyke Show by JEB (Joan E. Biren)
“Slideshows, which are formally the crux of this exhibition, were community spaces. They were where people gathered to do grassroots educational work. Tee Corrine made erotica slideshows, so she was doing sex education, sex positivity, and body positivity work that was trying to reclaim feminism to a place of feeling good about sex and your body for lesbian communities. JEB was doing a photography history slideshow, The Dyke Show, which is featured in this exhibition, digitized and remade for a contemporary audience, along with many other projects.”
As you mention, the exhibition brings together various projects, what connects them?
“The exhibition is thinking about the question: ‘how were people organizing and how were photographers using their skills to help build educational projects?’ Each section of the exhibition answers that question through a different formal and material angle. They are all their own exhibition within the exhibition.”
There’s such an abundance here, but of course it’s only a fraction of each archive that’s represented. What was your guiding principle as you were deciding what to include?
“I want to show an abundance of queer cultural activity that was always tied to social justice movements outside of specific trans and queer or lesbian and gay life. I want to show that there’s this overflowing, overlapping, cacophonous, multivalent series of practices. My guiding principle in what I selected was looking at how the process of getting images out there happened in the community and collectively. I was looking for things that were showing people working together.”
“One of the threads of the Keepin’ On part of the exhibition is to show the dark room. There’s a photograph that Morgan Gwenwald took of the dark room at the Lesbian Herstory Archives where she did a lot of printing and also one showing Paula Grant, Jewelle Gomez, and Georgia Brooks in what appears to be a bedroom, where there’s a sound system, organizing photographs on foam core boards. Morgan has said that the image summarizes the idea of this exhibition quite well. It’s really about people coming together to insist on preserving and activating trans and queer histories, because we are currently being repressed by systems of power and very rapidly moving right wing legislatures, both at the state and what I think could very quickly turn into the federal level. There is a lot of the voter suppression that’s happening; banning of books, banning of curriculum. They’re trying to restrict any sort of accurate history of the United States, or gender, or sexuality, and it’s at universities as well as in schools.”
“I want to show people organizing through image making. Photography has always had a slippery history because it can be used against people, but it can also be used in an empowering way and this period of time in the exhibition is trying to activate all of these different material forms that photography was emerging in and being shared through. The goal in what I select is that it has to show some form of transmission of art and education and activism as inseparable, like it was all happening at once. So if a material hit on all those points, then it was welcomed into the cacophony of the exhibition.”
“I was also looking for ways to demonstrate coalitional, intergenerational grassroots volunteer run projects. There is organizing outside of nonprofits and there’s organizing in a way where it’s embedded in people’s social lives. I’m hoping that all of these materials will inspire people to be like, ‘okay, these artists got a really strong slide projector, lens and light and they got a cassette tape and hooked it up to a boombox and they were projecting slideshows to tell people about HIV/AIDS statistics on buildings and trying to decriminalize drug use and decriminalize sex work, and say healthcare for all’. All of these messages that are inside of Electric Blanket.”
“It’s not like we can compare it to today, but comparisons are inevitable. I do really want people to look at the work in this exhibition and feel like the context of where we are now is available to them and that there are resistance movements that we can tap into. The goal of this exhibition is also to focus on artists, archivists, and organizers who are still living. Very few people that I zeroed in on have passed away, but sadly—just to show how urgent it is to collaborate with and talk to people who were organizing during the 70s, 80s, and 90s—two people who are featured in the exhibition, Hunter Reynolds, who was a member of ART+Positive, and photographer Loren Rex Cameron, both passed away in the time that I’ve been working on the exhibition. Not to mention the photographers who have passed away since I began the research for my photo history book. So we need to talk to these people now.”
Lola Flash: In and Alongside ART+Positive
“I wanted to look at the work of photographer Lola Flash through the lens of their activism during the time that they were volunteering for the New York City chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Lola Flash was part of an artist collective called ART+Positive, formed in 1989 which ran through the early 90s. They had a few very short, but powerful years of organizing. It was made up of artists thinking about how they could fight Jesse Helms and censorship against the arts. That was one way that the Christian right Republicans in federal and state legislatures were trying to suppress any expression of homosexuality or queerness in public life because they did not want artists, organizers, and activists to be advocating for the funding of treatment and research for HIV.”
“ART+Postive was formed while there was a lot of insurgent activity and people were getting the word out by every means necessary about what sort of discriminatory legislation queer people were facing at that time. I look at the projects that Lola Flash did with cross color work. So it’s looking at one artist amongst many artists in a collective who were doing many different projects. There are also four different projects by ART+Positive including a slideshow called This Up Against That. It used art history and contemporary artists’ work to show how, according to the Helms Amendment, anything with nudity or homoerotic undertones would be banned from public life and public funding wouldn’t be able to be given to it. A classic example of an application of the Helms Amendment was the cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment exhibition at the Corcoran in Washington D.C. ART+Positive was trying to prove that you can’t really make these restrictions in art, just like you can’t make restrictions about what books young people or anybody should have access to, which is a fight that we’re fighting now: the fear of the rich and complex life of people who are not white, straight, conservative Christians.”
Diana Solís: Intimacies in Resistance
“Another section of the exhibition looks at Diana Solís, a photographer based in Chicago, Illinois, who has been working since the 1970s. Through their friends and family, they got involved very early on in their life in organizing in Chicago Public Schools, demanding more resources; Black Studies programs; Chicana Studies programs; and more funding for schools. Another way that the government suppresses resistance movements and Black and Brown activism and organizing, is by underfunding and stopping resources for people that everybody should have access to like high quality education and healthcare.”
“In this exhibition we see images of the 1987 Encuentro Feminista Latinoamericano y del Caribe in Mexico City, a Latin American feminist conference that started in 1981 which is still active today. We look at Diana’s work through the framework of photographers who were also doing educational work in grassroots organizing. Diana was an educator building dark rooms in feminist Chicana organizations in Chicago, such as Mujeres Latinas en Acción. There are photographs of Diana teaching inside of the different classrooms that they were a part of such as St. Procopius, a Catholic high school. You can see within the span of 15 years the different grassroots organizations that Diana was involved with in and around the Pilsen area of Chicago, where she still lives and works.”
“When I started looking at their archives—a body of work of about 8,000 negatives that Diana was in the process of scanning and becoming reacquainted with—it was like a time capsule of their life, because they moved on to illustration and painting public artworks in Chicago. It wasn’t just the organizing, there are images of lots of amazing historic demonstrations, and not so major protests, that Diana documented because they were working as a photojournalist and a documentary photographer as well as an educator. There were a lot of really joyous, intimate moments of celebration in the images, so the subtitle of Diana’s section of the exhibition is “Intimacies In Resistance”, which is very much a grounding force within the exhibition.”
“Diana’s work looks at how multilayered organizing is and how it doesn’t look one way. It’s trying to look at the life of an organizer and a documentarian of the various modes that you engage. So there are images of social groups; there’s a lot of hanging out in the afternoon reading together, talking, laying on beds together, and going out dancing. Some lesbian clubs are documented that no longer exist, like Marilyn’s bar in Chicago. It’s a mixture of the many different threads of the life of an organizer.”
Keepin’ On: Images of African American Lesbians
“It was very hard to edit all these projects down, but when it came to the representation from the Lesbian Herstory Archives, I chose to show an exhibition that traveled in the 1990s through the 2010s—mostly to universities and student centers—called Keepin’ On: Images of African American Lesbians. The Lesbian Herstory Archives is the largest lesbian archive known in the world, mostly focused on North America, and it’s based in New York City.”
“I’ve got to know a number of the longtime archivettes, the volunteers who have devoted their lives to this grassroots organization. Their activities are vast and they use photography in very radical ways. One of the things that the Archives did very early on when it was founded in the mid-1970s was to build the trust of their communities. They wanted to build a collection that represented real life lesbians, so they’re not necessarily focused on celebrity, although they do include more well-known lesbians, including “bad lesbians” as historian Lisa Davis likes to call them. People like Angela Calomiris, who was an FBI informant in the 1940s and one of the main feeders of information in the McCarthy era Red Scare. She was a photographer and affiliated with the Photo League.”
“I wanted to ground this exhibition focusing and celebrating the work of Black lesbians and to think about how the Herstory Archives has always celebrated the work of Black lesbians, especially under the leadership of Mabel Hampton. Mabel was one of the early volunteers and a source of inspiration and friendship and mentorship for many of the archivettes, including Paula Grant and Georgia Brooks, two of the co-curators of Keepin’ On, along with Morgan Gwenwald. Within this exhibition, there is an assemblage of color Xeroxed photographs that celebrate and give information about the art, music, activism, literature, and publishing of Black lesbians in their collection. A lot of people who were active community members who the Lesbian Herstory Archives were proud to be affiliated were represented such as Audre Lorde.”
“Keepin’ On opened at the LGBT Center in New York City in 1991 and was a tool to learn lesbian history specifically through a Black queer lens. Like all things at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, it was an all-volunteer operation and what I’m tracking in this exhibition is the process of making something like this, that’s both art and educational and a tool to bring people together. It’s very important to me to have documentation of the opening, where you can see a really big crowd in attendance, with people like Stormé DeLarverie standing next to somebody like Ira Jeffries. They’re both featured in the original exhibition and celebrating the opening at very different ages than they are in the photographs. The photograph of Stormé is when they were singing, doing one of their beautiful baritone performances before they became a bodyguard stationed outside of the Cubby Hole and other gay bars in the West Village for the latter part of their life. While Ira Jeffries is seen on her 16th birthday at a nightclub in Harlem.”
“Within Keepin’ On there are historical photos, snapshots, and portraiture. JEB, Tee Corinne, and Bettye Lane all had photographs within Keepin’ On. It’s a very radical presentation of photography of this time in that it wasn’t confined by genre within photo history. It fills a gap within documentary photography and fine art photography during this time period of the 70s, 80s, and 90s when the mainstream legacy institutions that were showing photography were not necessarily thinking, ‘What is the Lesbian Herstory Archives doing with vernacular photography? What are they doing with saving news clippings from Ebony Magazine?'”
“There’s an original Ebony Magazine that features James McHarris, otherwise known as Annie Lee Grant, who was for a brief period a well-known trans figure in mainstream news and is one of the rare representations of Black trans life in the rural South, in Mississippi, where the story takes place. It’s a difficult article to read because it’s through the lens of “discovering” this person, exposing them as being assigned a different gender at birth. It was exciting for me to find C. Riley Snorton, a contemporary trans scholar, who was doing research and writing extensively about Annie Lee Grant and James McHarris. It brings together all these different threads of my research about trans history and thinking about trans history as being embedded within lesbian archives.”
“An image of James McHarris striking a match on the sole of his foot is featured in Keepin’ On, and also appears within JEB’s The Dyke Show and within Allan Bérubé’s Lesbian Masquerade. So you see some echoes or reappearances of certain photographs. What that indicates, and what I’m very interested in demonstrating to viewers of the exhibition, is how images were circulating. It was not at the same speed, or not with the same tools as reposting on Instagram, but these were prototypes for the ways that we share information today.”
Little Gems: Trans Image Networks
“Lesbian Masquerade is a slideshow was the result of the GLBT Historical Society, which was notably a mixed lesbian and gay group, and of course there were people who we would call non-binary and trans today involved in this collective which was grassroots and all volunteer run. The slideshow premiered the same year that JEB’s The Dyke Show premiered, 1979. In this section of the exhibition I show how one audience member of Lesbian Masquerade, Lou Sullivan, was so galvanized by seeing it that it changed their life and he became one of the primary advocates of this slideshow. Lou showed the slideshow at FTM, a support group and then a newsletter which he founded, which went on to grow into an international community, taken over by Jamison Green after Lou’s passing.”
“Slideshows were experienced as a community event, so if you missed Lesbian Masquerade at the Women’s Building in 1979 you could see it with the Golden Gate Girls/Guys, which was a mixed group of trans women and trans men. These early transsexual organizations also included cross-dressers and people who identified as transvestites and transsexuals; it was a big tent group. Transgender was a later word.”
“Allan Bérubé gave the slideshow. His research goes back to the early 20th century about women who passed as men, what we would now think of as trans masculine and/or lesbian life, but we don’t necessarily know because we can’t talk to these historical figures. There is quite a variety of different reasons that people were passing, whether it was for work or because people were actually trans and just living their true life in their bodies.”
“What I’m showing archivally is also that there was a personal correspondence from a gay trans man, Lou Sullivan, to Allan Bérubé, another gay man. There was this coalition building, which is what I am trying to engender in our current moment; finding how can we be together instead against one another. I show correspondence, newsletters and advertisements for screenings of the slideshow and then another thread where it’s two trans men writing to each other. I also bring in correspondence from all the way across the country in Northampton, Massachusetts with Ben Power Alwin, who continues to lead the Sexual Minorities Archive, which was then known as the new Alexandria Lesbian Library. It’s important to me to show how an archive as a place for people to come to is a site for empowerment. It’s a place where Ben Power Alwin has been protecting trans and queer history since the late 1970s.”
“There’s a description by Ben Power Alwin of showing She Even Chews Tobacco, which was the new name of Lesbian Masquerade, to his community in Northampton. Ben was describing this experience to Lou Sullivan, who had already published Information for the Female to Male, a pamphlet about socially transitioning, medically transitioning, and emotionally transitioning. It was a self-published book that was a guide for peer-to-peer counseling. They were communicating and sharing resources. I also show a letter from Lou Sullivan in response to Ben Power Alwin and the title of this part of the exhibition comes from a quote by Lou Sullivan who said when sending clippings to Ben, ‘we have to save these little gems so that future FTMs know that we existed and don’t feel as lonely and isolated as we do’.”
“The last section of Little Gems is looking at the mid to late 90s in San Francisco, thinking about and paying homage to the photographer Loren Rex Cameron who very sadly passed away in November, 2022. There’s a large photo of Rex marching topless in the first FTM contingent at the 1994 Gay Pride march in San Francisco with a sign that he handmade that says “FTM Trans Pride” on it. There’s a copy of Rex Cameron’s first book, Body Alchemy Portraits of Transsexuals, published by Cleis Press in 1996. There’s also a video of a panel discussion that was the closing event for Loren Rex Cameron’s first exhibition, Our vision, Our voices, which took place in San Francisco at 848 Community Space in 1994.”
“That was a really important historical exhibition because Loren Rex Cameron was a trans photographer who wanted to photograph trans people in an informed and sensitive way, where their experience and empowerment was the goal. It was all about representing them in a way of mutual respect, because at that time—which was sort of the first transgender tipping point—trans people were often represented in mainstream media as freaks or as sensations in ways that were not very positive. Loren Rex Cameron was interested in creating normalizing positive images of the trans community as well as providing information to those who needed it. Whether it was people related to trans people or trans people themselves at the very beginning of their journey figuring out things like, ‘What does it look to get gender affirming health care?’ Or ‘What does it look like to have surgery?’ Things like that were graphically portrayed in Loren Rex Cameron’s work in ways that are radically different to how we talk about trans visual culture today. It was very much just trying to get any representation out there and it was very risky, difficult work.”
“Also represented in this exhibition is a biographical turning point for Loren Rex Cameron when he decided to become a photographer. It was because he didn’t like how he was represented in the popular lesbian magazine, On Our Backs, in the early 90s when Rex was photographed by Honey Lee Cottrell. That experience made Loren Rex Cameron want to learn how to photograph so he could take self-portraits and photograph other people. One of the people that he first photographed was Susan Stryker. An essay by Susan Stryker about the experience of being photographed by a trans person as a trans person is also featured in the exhibition. So if people want to spend a few hours at the exhibition, there are definitely a lot of great “little gems” to experience!”
“It’s really important to me that the video is in this exhibition because it was a sort of trans 101 information session. Rex’s goal was to provide education through his photography. It was largely answering questions about trans experience and life and the process of transitioning to a lesbian and gay community in San Francisco in 1994. That was a very important year for trans rights in San Francisco because there was a public hearing and a big report authored by two people that are featured in this trans 101 event called Transsexuals Speak Out, Jamison Green and Paula Ky Santos, who are both longtime trans advocates in the Bay Area.”
Electric Blanket: AIDS Projection Project
“Electric Blanket was a slideshow created insurgently as an artist caucus within the organization Visual AIDS, which is still very active today. It was the idea of the photographers Nan Goldin, Allen Frame, and Frank Franca, and a number of other members of the artists’ caucus, for the second Day With(out) Art in 1990. It went on to be a decade-long traveling slideshow that was always evolving and includes thousands of slides.”
“Visual AIDS initiated December 1st as a day of activism and education within art spaces to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS as it was affecting artists and people working in the arts. Essentially it was an excuse to take over art spaces to do AIDS-related programming, and to this day, Day With(out) Art is an international call to arms to do this sort of work. The goal in 1989 and in 1990 was to get as many organizations, museums, and art spaces of all different sizes and affiliations, to do an event related to HIV/AIDS activism.”
“Electric Blanket was originally projected onto the Cooper Union Building in New York City in 1990, accompanied by live music. Then the slideshow got streamlined into a one-hour presentation. For this exhibition, we have a 30-minute edit of the slideshow with a soundtrack. Unlike The Dyke Show, it’s not a narrated script, but music by artists like k.d. lang and Madonna, and the Orlando soundtrack. Music of the late 80s and early 90s, and specifically musicians who were affiliated in a loose way with organizing to find a cure for HIV/AIDS. This slideshow was structured around also honoring the lives of people who were rapidly dying, organized by people who were losing their friends and wanted a way to memorialize them. It was originally thought to be the photography equivalent of The AIDS Quilt.”
“Jimmy De Sana, Cookie Mueller, and David Wojnarowicz are among the artists featured who were passing away at that time. The memorial element was interspersed with the other refrains: action and document. Document was more like photojournalism of people fighting HIV/AIDS, whether that was with a street funeral or in a shelter formed to house people who were in the stage of hospice who needed a place to be cared for with dignity. It also included international photojournalism, looking at HIV/AIDS in other countries.”
“One of the contributors and editors behind Electric Blanket was The New York Times Magazine’s photo editor Kathy Ryan, who is still Director of Photography there now. This slideshow really sticks out because it was a coalition between people working in all sorts of different realms of the photo industry. It includes photojournalism, documentary photography, and a lot of fine art photography. There’s a lot of photo history embedded in this slideshow. Frank Franca and Allen Frame are photographers who span all these different worlds, they’re longtime educators and they were thinking about how to do interventionist work. The ways that Electric Blanket used its platform to create public health information was really critical because the government was not a trusted distributor of information.”
“The slideshow was created with the intent that it would travel internationally, and it went to Hungary, Russia, Japan, other places in Europe, as well as traveling within Canada and the US. There’s a periodical showing a review of the original slideshow screening in Philadelphia by The Griot Press which was ‘a minority owned press’, as they described themselves. I’m trying to draw out the very robust, queer cultural landscape where a slideshow existed through its public perception and through someone being moved enough to say, ‘I went to this and I’m going to describe what I saw’.”
“The refrain for action was looking at how these civil disobedience projects were taking shape all across the country. Each time that the slideshow traveled, it recruited materials from those who were living in that area and then that became part of the archive. For example, in Philadelphia, the acquisition of Leonard West’s snapshots were included of people having a fabulous time out at nightclubs. It’s about showing a whole range of one’s life experience. There was a real intervention into how HIV/AIDS was represented in the media at this time, such as sensational images of gaunt victims, which is also included in the slideshow, it’s just not the only representation of people living with HIV/AIDS.”
By James Kleinmann
Images on which to build, 1970s-1990s is now on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art until July 30th, 2023. Visit the Leslie-Lohman website for more details. The exhibition is co-organized with the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, and was originally presented as a FotoFocus exhibition on the occasion of the 2022 FotoFocus Biennial: World Record on September 30th, 2022 – February 12th, 2023.
Free Event – Images on which to build: Morgan Gwenwald & Ariel Goldberg in conversation – Thursday, March 30th , 2023 6-8pm ET at 59 East 4th St, 7W | New York, NY 10003. RSVP to attend in-person or receive the webinar link.
In the first of two conversations between Goldberg and a photographer featured in the exhibition, Goldberg will speak with Gwenwald about her wide-ranging documentation of lesbian and queer grassroots organizing in New York City in the 1970s-1990s. A volunteer and coordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) since 1979, Gwenwald will share rarely before seen materials, including documentation of the 1982 Barnard Sex Conference and portraits of influential and beloved community members. Attendees will hear about Gwenwald’s practice, which includes publishing, exhibition making, constructing darkrooms, and building analogue networks for lesbian photographers to share skills and resources.
The second event in the series will feature Diana Solís on May 11th, 2023. More details to be announced.
Watch our full interview with Images on which to build, 1970 – 1990s curator Ariel Goldberg:
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