Phyllis Christopher chronicles ’90s San Francisco’s lesbian community within party and protest

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To come out was to risk one’s job, children, and protection. For these communities, “the party was the victory”

“This era decided to party as tough as we were protesting, ” says photographer Phyllis Christopher of her time spent documenting LGBTQ life in San Francisco between 1988 plus 2003. Indeed, Christopher’s magnetic images oscillate between celebration and protest: in one, a cop in riot gear slams an activist’s encounter to the floor; in another, lesbians dance in a crowded nightclub. Christopher was photographing during the height of the HELPS crisis: a time when queer individuals faced rampant homophobia and political vitriol along with little to no lawful protection. To come out was in order to risk your job, your children, your own safety. And for these towns, “the party was [also] the victory”.

These types of communities’ triumph lives on in a new exhibition of Christopher’s work,   Connections ,   at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art till 20 March 2022. Within it, her dreamy photographs catch lesbians in moments of safety and danger, special event and dissent. “The lovemaking openness in San Francisco experienced revolutionary, but it also felt totally natural, ” she says. In her charged pictures of protest, sex, closeness, and community, Christopher paints a picture of lesbian lifestyle in an irreplicable moment in time.    

In San Francisco, “a huge community of women came from all over the country to live healthy lesbian lives”. Lesbians built a “queer economy”: women would hire each other to work in gay newspapers, magazines, stores, and clubs to ensure no one lost their job from coming out. It was the “gay mecca, ” as Christopher put it; upon arrival, lesbians “just said yes , I am beautiful – photograph me ”. 1 image [above] pictures six topless females slung over a windowsill waving down to Christopher. They clench their fists in emblems of power. Movement floods the photograph: objects traveling from the window, bodies filled into the frame. However , although these women are unselfconscious, naked, playful, free, their own precarious position upon the windowsill evokes the radical and literal dangers to be “out”.

© Phyllis Christopher.

Each of Christopher’s images vibrates with politics potency. “There was a hunger out there to be seen and noticed, ” Christopher says. Her images nourished that food cravings. On a macro level, the photographer captured an unparalleled era of lesbian independence and fight. In the clubs, they danced; in the streets, they protested. But Christopher’s collection also includes stunning solo photographs: Lex [above], in a cowboy head wear, smokes a cigarette; Elvis Herselvis [below], an Elvis Presley impersonator, screams right into a microphone. “Mainstream culture informs lesbians they are ugly. The work has always been to make the females in my photographs look as beautiful as they are. ”

Depicting lesbians’ sex lives has been essential to this project of representation. Christopher’s images show lovers embracing, kissing, licking and touching. “Sexual exploration during the 90s was type of our main activity: it was like our sport, ” she explains. Documenting sexual intercourse was not only about freedom – but it was also about safety. During the AIDS epidemic, “staying alive depended on knowing what and what not to do in mattress, and the government was no help at all at disseminating information, ” says Christopher. Photographing queer intimacy destigmatised what mainstream media got characterised as diseased. And, in the time of AIDS – and at a time when lesbian porn life specifically was hidden and unspoken – documenting sex was the ultimate party-protest.

© Phyllis Christopher.

Christopher’s sensual images, although often honest, relish in their performativity. The girl stylised and euphoric depictions of sex function as testaments to the era’s uncurbed freedoms and sense of enjoy. Although more prominent in her book, Dark Space , than her exhibition, these pictures show lesbians having sex in clubs, trucks, an empty warehouse – sometimes with several partners. They are joyful, exciting, and vivacious. The believe in between subjects and photographer is palpable in the images: “I was photographing the community, ” Christopher says. “We wanted to show how beautiful and erotic our lives were. ”

Christopher’s pictures are all black-and-white as this file format allowed the photographer to build up her negatives at home without having to worry about how film developers might respond to them. “I never censored myself this way, and the women I worked with sensed safe because they trusted which i would ‘okay’ the pictures with them before they sought out into the world, ” the girl explains. By rendering her images in black-and-white, Christopher furthermore imbues them with a dream-like quality. In one photograph, a blonde woman stares on the camera, mid-embrace with her topless lover. The light radiates from her lover’s bare back, the centre stage of their embrace. The dark areas dance off their natural leather and lace garb as well as the graffiti-covered concrete walls, however bodies glow. “Monotone will be romantic to me. It pauses reality down into shapes: it allows you to dream while you are observing the images, ” Christopher says.  

Christopher’s appreciate for her subjects is visible in each and every photograph. There is an awe plus admiration for everyone depicted:   Connections   is, after all, a window into a community thrumming along with love and life.  

Contacts can be on show at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art until 20 March 2022. Phyllis Christopher’s book, Darkish Room: San Francisco Sex plus Protest, 1988-2003 is available here .

Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate associated with Yale University with a level in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, as well as the Yale Daily News.

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