On his 38th birthday in December 1984, budding photographer Patric McCoy made a commitment to himself that he would carry his 35mm camera with him wherever he went, take at least one shot a day, and stop whatever he was doing if anyone asked him to take their picture and oblige. Four decades on, the collection of thousands of photographs that McCoy took in the 1980s while on his bicycle commute across Chicago, and in and around the clubs and bars that he frequented, presents a rich document of the city’s Black gay life and street culture of the era. Though as McCoy—now a retired environmental scientist and avid art collector—notes, at that time the majority of his subjects would have seen themselves as “same gender loving”, rather than embracing the term gay.
At the centre of McCoy’s social life in the 80s was a South Loop dive bar, the Rialto Tap, which provided a wealth of photographic subjects for McCoy. Open 23 hours a day, the Rialto was a vibrant hub where Black men from all walks of life could enjoy the company of other Black men. As the AIDS crisis began to take its devastatingly heavy toll on the city’s Black community, McCoy captured images of men whose lives would be cut tragically short, including his friends and lovers. Fulfilling an unspoken need for Black men to see themselves, McCoy’s photographs are an intimate, playful, and poignant marker of place and time. Perhaps most significantly of all, McCoy captured his subjects just as they wanted to be seen.
Curated by artist Juarez Hawkins, a new solo exhibition Patric McCoy: Take My Picture opens at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago on Friday, April 14th and runs until July 15th, 2023. Ahead of the opening, Patric McCoy spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about his memories of the city’s Black gay venues of the 1980s, how he went about taking the photographs, and how he feels looking back on them now.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Take My Picture is actually your first solo photography exhibition isn’t it?
Patric McCoy: “That is absolutely correct and I’ve got to say it’s both daunting and exhilarating. It’s the first time to get appreciation for the photographs that I took from a wider audience. Back then, I took them and then put them away and never thought about them again until around 2017.”
So the idea that there would ever be exhibition probably wasn’t on your mind when you were taking them?
“Well, there was an ego there back in 1985 when I started taking pictures every day, where I was like, ‘I’m going do a book and I’m going call it 38 Special, because I was 38 years old and I was using a 35mm camera to shoot things. So I did have that moment, but then that dissipated and I didn’t think about it anymore.”
Take me back to the mid-80s when you first started getting serious about photography and how that came about.
“I had been using one of those little point-and-shoot cameras from the 1960s and 70s and I was taking pictures all the time with family and friends and on outings. One of my best friends worked at a camera store and he told me that I should get a 35mm camera because I was too serious about photography to be using this little amateur thing. So I did. That was in 1981 and by about 1984 I’d got some comfortability with the camera, but still not fully. On my birthday in December 1984, I wrote out a commitment, saying that I was going to further teach myself photography and get really into it by taking my camera with me everywhere I went and that I was going to take at least one picture every day. Also, that I was going to stop whatever I was doing if anybody asked me to take their picture and I’d take it.”
“I didn’t think that last part was going to be a real thing. Who asks you to take their picture?! But it turns out that was a real phenomenon. I commuted to work on a bicycle, so I was riding through these neighborhoods in Chicago from the South Side all the way to the downtown area with this camera always visible, hanging off my neck. I’d be riding and people on the street would just holler out at me, ‘Hey, take my picture!’ It was almost invariably men. In fact, I might have five images of women out of the thousands and thousands of images of people who asked me to take their pictures. So I would stop and take their picture and it often led to, ‘Hey, what’s up with you…?’ It was a come on. I would take it into the Loop where I worked and I would take it to the clubs. There was a little dive bar, right around the corner from where I worked, so I’d stop in there on the way to work, at lunch hour, and after work. People in there would see the camera and they would also ask me to take their picture.”
That was the Rialto Tap?
“Yes. Oh God, it was an amazing place. I really long for a place like that to exist today. I ended up taking a lot of pictures and I captured something that was really kind of special. The mid-80s was a really trying time for the country. It was a trying time for Black people and it was definitely was trying time for people who were same gender loving and so forth. The reason I say same gender loving is because gay had come into existence with Stonewall and it slowly got into the Black community, but it was not something that was embraced. By the mid-80s, some people were accepting of it, but most people weren’t. They would say, ‘I’m not gay’, even though they were doing everything!”
“So this activity of photographing became a documentation of the change in the culture as we progressed. It was also a documentation of the recognition of HIV/AIDS. At the time, I never even thought about it like that, because in my community people didn’t get serious in thinking about the AIDS crisis until the latter part of the 80s, even though we were seeing people disappear, get sick and go in hospital. It was like everything was a one-off. You never thought about it as part of something larger. I was in the clubs taking pictures of all these people and then all of a sudden some of them just vanished.”
“Looking back at it now, I recognize that I did capture that period when AIDS was starting to affect the Black community. It was only around 1988 or 89 that people really started to take it seriously and started to change their social relationships. Before that it was like, let it rip, let’s do everything we can do. Then it became more cautious, a sense of, ‘I don’t know about that’. People started saying things like, ‘somebody got the package’, or other slang like that about someone being sick. But during the time period when I was taking most of those photographs, that was not the case. It was like partying on the Titanic.”
What were some of the gay venues that you were going to?
“You don’t have enough time, there were so many places! The Rialto was a dive bar on the south end of the Loop, the seediest part of the area. It used to be a Skid Row area, with homeless shelters, single room occupancy places, and all of the burlesque places. So the “good people” would never say that they went to the Rialto, but they would go there, they’d just never admit they did. There was one bar that was even seedier than the Rialto. It was on the corner and you had to go down these really steep steps underground to get to it. It was the place of no return, but it was closed down near the end of the 70s. The health department came in and shuttered the place while there were people in it and everybody got up off their barstools and went up those crazy little stairs and walked three doors down the street to the Rialto, went in there and took it over. So it became the the place of last resort within the community. To begin with the owner of the bar, and some of the patrons, refused to accept that it was a gay bar. All of the people from the homeless shelters would come there, alongside Black people from the local the businesses. It was a mixing place of all kinds of folks.”
“In the early years, the Rialto had the reputation of being a place where you could smoke marijuana openly at the bar just like you’d smoke cigarettes and nobody would say anything about it. The police didn’t even do anything. They would come into the place and just walk right past people smoking. So in my mind it became a drug bar before it was a gay bar. The latter half of the 80s was when the bar itself started to accept the fact that it was gay. I think they even had a float in the gay pride parade one time. They joined the gay athletic league and they won the basketball championship.”
“There were several other gay bars in the downtown area at that time and in the South Side of Chicago where most of the Black people live. There were many more gay bars than there are today. It was sort of an explosion of that expression and the acceptance that we needed to have our own place to party and to socialize. I think the liquor laws were looser back then than they are today because almost anybody could say, ‘I want to open up a gay bar’ and then did it. A comparable place to the Rialto at that time was Stop and Drink, which most people called “Stop and Stink” because it was also a lowlife bar and people loved it. There were images of porn on the walls all the way around this U-shaped bar. People would go back and forth between there and the Rialto at that time.”
How do you think people asking you to take their photographs rather than the other way around affected the images?
“My whole approach when anybody asked me to take their picture was that I didn’t do anything to set it up. My approach was, I’m not telling you to smile, or move here, or do this, or whatever. It’s how you want to be presented. Because I was trying to teach myself, I wanted to get the best shot out of what they presented to me. I wasn’t trying to change them. In retrospect, it’s amazing that these men really wanted to be seen and to be documented the way they were. I had people that basically crawled out of the gutter to ask me to take their picture! To me, it’s a very important collection in that it shows how people wanted to be seen.”
“As a student of photography, I recognize that the 1980s was a period when the 35mm camera was starting to filter into the hands of more than just the professional photographer. Prior to that, most people had these point-and-shoot cameras which were notoriously bad for photographing Black people. They were horrible. So most people hadn’t got a good photograph of themselves and then they’d see this little nerdy guy riding a bicycle with a camera and they just say, ‘hey, take my picture!’ I guess they were thinking that I must be some sort of a professional. But why would you ask somebody to take a picture that you’re not expecting to get? Still today that just blows my mind. But because I’d go back and forth through these same neighborhoods, I would see some of the same people again and give them the photographs as a 5×7 that I had developed at home with my father at night. The men would be shocked because besides being given a photograph, it was a 5×7 that was done very well and they’d actually be able to see themselves.”
“In a lot of these neighborhoods, I think they let it be known that this crazy man was going to be riding through and he’ll take your picture. It was the same in the clubs. There were people in the clubs whose hustle was to take Polaroids of people which they’d charge for. But I’d be there partying with the people and they’d take me outside on to the street in front of the Rialto, I’d take their picture and then the next day I’d have a stack of prints and give them their photograph and they’d be in awe. So that became a pattern and got me a lot of ugly looks from the guys who were hustling photographs!”
It sounds like taking the photographs became a big part of your social life.
“I was going to go to these places anyway. I wasn’t going there because I thought I might be able to do this thing with photography. I was carrying the camera with me because that’s where I was going, but it did open up a lot of doors. It opened up a lot of interactions with people that I would not have had without the camera, but I was already in those places to make contact with people.”
Someone asking for their photograph to be taken back then was so different to now when we all have cameras on our phones and there’s social media so the photographs could end up being posted anywhere.
“That is exactly right. I feel like I hit a sweet spot, because now I would not be able to get even a small fraction of the photographs that I took then because people are very wary of being photographed. They’re thinking, what are you going to do with it? These people were completely open to the act of being photographed just the way they were. It was a completely different thing. Another thing that’s different is that that community was very sexually active within the public sphere and yet they were concerned about identity. They would not label themselves, but they were doing all kinds of stuff. Today, the flip is true in that identity is a very important thing, but the sexual component is not so much from what I’ve seen. At that time period, we were very sexually active, but it was below the surface. It was undercover, but right there and in your face at the same time. It’s interesting to reflect back. I’m glad that I was able to go through that transition. The world is different today and there are a lot of things that we can commend people for like being very forthright and powerful in saying, ‘I want to be accepted for the way I am’. We weren’t doing that, but we were doing everything sexually.”
Take My Picture is curated by Juarez Hawkins and includes 50 of your photographs, mainly from 1985. What flavour does it give us of the larger collection?
“I recommended that Juarez Hawkins curate it. We’ve been friends for a very long time and I’ve bought a lot of her artwork over the years. I’ve always been impressed with her curatorial work too and when they offered me the show I thought I’d like to have a female perspective on it. So she went into the collection and picked out what she thought was emblematic of that time period. She hit it right on. It’s a very good sample, but it’s just a small section of the collection. There is so much more.”
Do you still like the idea of publishing a book of your photographs?
“Yes, and the response that I’m getting from this show is confirmation that doing that would be well worth it. I need to do it. It is going to be a document of a time period within what we’re going to call gay culture that there is not much written or presented about, and which had not previously been been preserved. I was in a really strange and unique spot and just happened to have a camera and a penchant for taking pictures and caught a lot of that. So the book is a big thing for me and I’ve started a GoFundMe campaign for it, partly to assist with getting better scans of the negatives.”
As we’re talking today you’re surrounded by some of the beautiful artwork you’ve collected. Tell me about Diasporal Rhythms that you co-founded in 2003 which encourages individuals and institutions to appreciate and acquire works by artists of the African diaspora.
“Even though I majored in chemistry and environmental science, I’ve always had an interest in art and I’ve always been acquiring art. But for a long time I resisted calling myself an art collector. Once I started to analyze my hesitation about calling myself that, I realized I was believing certain myths that weren’t true. We tend to think of an art collector as being somebody who’s rich, very private, academic in their knowledge of art, and interested in investment. But that’s not correct. An art collector is just somebody who sees something they like and acquires it and they keep doing it. They don’t have to know anything about it, or be rich, or concerned with making an investment or with security.”
“When I talked to other people, I found out that they had the same mindset too and never thought about what was keeping them from being an art collector or art appreciator. So I said, ‘let’s attack that’ and I got a couple of friends of mine who were art collectors and we formed the organization to dispel those myths. We’ve been doing that for 20 years now and we’re going to be having a twentieth anniversary exhibition in Chicago in October. We’ve had some real success and we have a large following. I’m hoping that this will go on into the future and I’ve already created a trust to leave the art works that I’ve acquired to the organization so that it can always remain in the public domain.”
I’d love to ask you for your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“The people who immediately pop into my head are the activist Bayard Rustin, who was just super strong, and Bruce Nugent, the gay rebel of the Harlem Renaissance. I’m impressed with what he documented about the Harlem Renaissance from a different perspective. I read a lot and I’ve experienced a lot, so it’s hard to pick just one thing. There’s so much important literature that came out of the 1990s where people were writing about this world. The periodicals that came out during that time period were really pushing the envelope too. I’m impressed with all of it.”
“I do like our celebratory culture. I think that’s something that has moved from this niche into the larger community and now everybody is doing the same things that we were doing 20 or 30 years ago. That’s normal, that’s how to be an American. It’s important to recognize how things that we started become the norm to the point that they lose their connection to where they came from. Like high fives. I remember that back in the 60s, only trans people would do that, now everybody in the world does it. Those are the types of things that really stand out for me, how we have affected the larger society.”
By James Kleinmann
Patric McCoy: Take My Picture is on view at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago, April 14th – July 15th, 2023. Open Thursdays 1pm-8 pm; Fridays 12pm-7 pm; Saturdays 10am-5pm. Admission is by advance ticket only available online at Wrightwood659.org.
Contribute to Patric McCoy’s “38 Special” photography book GoFundMe campaign.