Celebrating the 1980s and 90s, by Hank Trout
As a little queer boy growing up in Morgantown, West Virginia, coming of age in the 1960s, I gazed at San Francisco in the distance as a beacon pulling me westward to its Golden Gate. I worshiped Dashiell Hammett and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg; I memorized Rod McKuen’s Stanyon Street and Other Sorrows; I didn’t understand “Vertigo” but I sat through it a dozen times, for the scenery; I sang along with Grace Slick and wanted to feed MY head too! I didn’t want to leave my heart in San Francisco – like millions of others, I wanted to move here and FIND my heart!
Now, mind you, when I finally arrived in San Francisco, I was no starry-eyed writer-wannabe with flowers in my hair, stumbling drunk and stoned down the Yellow Brick Road! No, no, no! I was summoned unto Oz by The Great and Powerful John Embry, publisher of Drummermagazine! [I believe some of the photographers represented in this show published photos in Drummer at one time or another.] I had written a few stories for the magazine, but I was shocked when Mr. Embry called me at work one day and asked, “How would you like to be assistant editor?”
“What time is the next plane?” was all I could think to say.
And what a glittering, magical world I dropped into on that 23rd day of August 1980!
The 1980s and 90s in San Francisco will always be remembered for the epidemic that decimated my generation. That is unavoidable.
But in the midst of all that grief and loss, what great things we did! What relationships we formed, what art we created – and yes, what fun we had!
For every tear we shed, we spent another hour on the dance floor at Club Q, with Page Hodel spinning the soundtrack of our lives, or thumping around mindlessly at the End-Up, the Trocadero Transfer, or the I-Beam. If we wanted quieter entertainment, we could catch a new play, for us and about us, by a gay playwright at the freshly minted Theatre Rhinoceros or Theatre Artaud. Come October, we were likely to be dancing to Sylvester and Two Tons of Fun for FREE at the Castro Street Fair! We invented gay street fairs! If you couldn’t afford tickets to see Sharon McKnight at the Plush Room, not to worry, you could catch keyboard wizard David Kelsey for free on Polk Street.
David Kelsey will always be one of my favorite memories from the 1980s. David was a master of keyboards. He used to play the Wurlitzer organ at the Castro Theatre before the movies. Two or three nights a week, he also played at the New Belle Saloon. The New Belle was a huge old bar that resembled a 19th Century music hall. It had a large stage, complete with proscenium, that was almost filled with David’s grand piano stage right and a large organ stage left. Between the two was a lone piano bench. David could swivel on the bench from the piano to the organ with great fluidity, some times in the middle of a song. Often, as during his performance of music from the 1925 silent movie “The Phantom of the Opera,” he would sit astride the piano bench, playing the piano with one hand and the organ with the other, using his feet to work the pedals on both. Now that sounds like a silly gimmick, but his performances were never less than perfectly musical. My friends and I spent a lot of hours at the New Belle listening to David.
We also did a lot of drinking! We all did. Especially South of Market. The first few years that I lived here, there were more bars along Folsom Street between 6th and 12th than there were brightly colored hankies in back pockets. I made this list just off the top of my head the other day – the Black and Blue, the Bolt, the Ambush, the Trench, My Place, the Stables, the Cave, the Stud, the Arena, the Watering Hole, the Eagle – I’m telling you, bar-hopping South of Market in those days took remarkable stamina.
But when we tired of the bar scene, we could hang out at the Valencia Rose or Josie’s Juice Joint and listen to young gay comedians like Karen Ripley, Lea DeLaria, Marga Gomez, Scott Capurro, Danny Williams and other funny gay folks who labored there at the birth of gay comedy. The men all told jokes about unfortunate tricks at the baths and the women all told jokes about the men.
There might not be such a thing as “gay comedy” without Tom Ammiano! Tom was everywhere, dishing about everyone, especially local politicians. He was never vicious, but he was never subtle, either. I remember he once said of Mayor Diane Feinstein, “I like Dianne, but that Planet of the Apes hairdo has to go!” But like most of us, when he needed to get serious, Tom got busy. After leading the San Francisco school board, and fighting off the bigotry of the Briggs Initiative, his work on the Board of Supervisors produced some of the city’s most progressive laws and programs, including the seeds of the Healthy SF program. And his run for mayor was no joke, either. He damn near became San Francisco’s first gay mayor – and still, he kept us laughing when we needed it most.
I thank all the gods that we never lost our sense of humor as our sense of obligation to one another grew. Even when we had serious work to do, we made it fun. I remember the very funny “Men Behind Bars” variety shows organized by Mark Abramson and others – who knew all those bartenders were such talented dancers and singers! And there was Rita Rockett and her troupe bringing food, love, laughter and tap-dancing to the patients in Ward 5B at General Hospital. I remember the fun I had with Bears of San Francisco when we distributed Easter baskets at Davies Medical Center. And I remember laughing a lot but also learning the meaning of the word “generosity” working with Ruth Brinker on the very first fundraisers for Project Open Hand.
Thinking of Ruth Brinker and Rita Rockett and Page Hodel reminds me… If it weren’t for the women of San Francisco, I and most of my friends would be dead. The women of San Francisco, gay and straight, rolled up their sleeves and marched to the front lines of the fight against AIDS. They were our care-givers, our confidantes, our comfort, our sisters in every sense of that word. They lent their talents to every fundraiser, they marched in every demonstration, they held our hands at every memorial. When the rest of the world seemed poised to throw me and my gay brothers onto the garbage heap, the beautiful, courageous women of San Francisco stood up and said, Oh, hell no, not on our watch! I would be remiss if I passed up this opportunity to acknowledge all of the women who kept so many of my friends alive. Thank you.
Only in supposedly godless San Francisco could we make even religion fun!
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were more than happy to expiate our guilt – that is, when they weren’t too busy raising tens of millions of dollars and teaching us how to have one hell of a good time — guilt be damned! The Sisters even made politics fun. I’m sure most of us remember when Jack Fertig, Sister Boom Boom, ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors and got nearly 24,000 votes, listed on the ballot as “Nun of the Above.” When Jack also tried to run for Mayor, in the Castro there popped up posters featuring Sister Boom Boom riding over the San Francisco skyline on a broom, spelling out “Surrender Diane.”
Amidst all the fun we had, we also found time to create incredible art here! Queer magazines thrived here for many years, from the big and glossy like Drummer and Folsom to cheaply Xeroxed and barely legible queercore ‘zines. Artists like Ken Wood and REX created some of their most daring pen-and-ink drawings here. Thom Gunn was here writing poetry about the men with night sweats. Cleve Jones and other San Franciscans began stitching together a commemorative quilt that became known as The Names Project – which grew to 48,000 panels and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The glorious Cockettes were creating theatre of an entirely new kind, on and off the stage. We even spurred our own counter- to the counter-culture when Queer Punks crashed the 1989 Pride Parade using a battered police car as a “float.”
Look around at these magnificent photographs. They are proof that Gay Pride may have been born at Stonewall in 1969, but it came of age in San Francisco in the 1980s. We grew up together. Fast. We formed a community that was dedicated to caring for one another — and to having a lot of fun along the way. It turns out, I wasn’t the only little queer Munchkin who found his heart in San Francisco. Other writers and musicians, painters and poets – and, thankfully, photographers! – all created art that not only reflected the times but shaped them, ennobled them. These photographs remind us that amid all the gloom of the 1980s and 90s, there was also a lot of sunshine, a lot of love, and a lot of hope – “You gotta give ‘em hope!”
I salute all of the photographers represented in this show, and thank you for using your cameras to tell our stories.
Light of Ireland – 30 years – Tim Baskerville
Thursday, June 30 2016, 6:30–8 p.m.
Photographer: Tim Baskerville
Location: Harvey Milk Photo Center, Exhibit Room, 50 Scott St (at Duboce), San Francisco (415) 554-9522
Free and open to the public.
The Light of Ireland For over three decades Tim Baskerville has been travelling to Ireland to photograph, and to lead Photo Tours in the West of Ireland. From a relatively routine sign-up as a participant in a two-week Workshop in the 1980s to the current Photo Tours Baskerville conducts throughout County Mayo, he has returned again and again to capture the timeless beauty, the unspoiled villages, rugged ancient abbeys, and the dramatic coastline of Western Ireland.
Join him in a virtual Tour of this enchanted Emerald Isle, Thursday, June 30, 6:30–8pm; as he directs our gaze to see beyond the unrivaled beauty of the landscape, to venture out past the intersection where the land collides with the built environment; further still to where our ancestors reside in-time, within the land they loved – to a true “timescape,” This special presentation, made for Viewpoint Member Night, offers not only stunning imagery from the West of Ireland: Counties Mayo (where Tim’s ancestral roots are), Sligo, and Galway; but also includes work done at various times in County Cork and in Dublin as well.
More about Tim and his work: www.thenocturnes.com
Pan Pacific 1915 – de Young | Legion of Honor newsletter
The historic exhibition Pan Pacific 1915 – Centenial Photography Exhibit is written up in the de Young | Legion of Honor museums of San Francisco news letter.
Darkroom has kept light on for 75 years, even in digital age
A few months ago, Dave Christensen, director of the Harvey Milk Photo Center, was at his desk when the chairman of Leica Camera dropped in unexpectedly to tour this unique community facility he had heard about all the way back in Wetzlar, Germany.
By the time Christensen had composed himself and entered the main lobby to meet this exalted international figure, Andreas Kaufmann was breathing deeply of the chemical air. Christensen knew exactly what to do — escort the Leica chief and his friends into the darkroom, where the aroma is even more intense.
“To him, the smell was like somebody baking a cinnamon roll,” recalls Christensen, proudly. “He said he had never seen a darkroom that large.” The Photo Center darkroom, which opened in 1953, is probably the biggest, and certainly the oldest, public darkroom in the nation. There is room for 40 photographers to work at once, turning raw film into frameable prints, and the amazing thing is that this technological time warp is in demand like never before.
“A generation that grew up on digital and never touched film is experiencing the magical process of traditional darkroom printing for the first time,” says Christensen. “People are shooting in digital, creating a negative and going into the darkroom to make a print.”
The photo center has all the digital scanners, too, but that is not what has kept this place going for 75 years. Since the day it opened, at a different location, in 1940, the Photo Center has been a place where anyone could come in with a camera loaded with film, pay a nominal membership fee, and walk back out with a finished print.
If you don’t have a camera, they will loan you one. If you don’t know how to work the camera they loan you, there are classes to get you through processing film, running it through the enlarger and making prints. If the resulting work is good enough, they will even show it in a group or solo exhibition in the gallery.
“I think it is a goddamned miracle that something like this exists in this town,” says photographer Fred Lyon, 90, who has been shooting the streets of San Francisco since 1946 and finally earned a solo show at the Photo Center a few months ago. “It is beautifully equipped, and the whole staff is enthusiastic and encouraging in presenting photography at all levels, which is another miracle.”
Though Christensen has been unable to locate a photographer who has been using the Photo Center for all of its 75 years, he knows one who has been using it for 55. He is documentarian Jeff Blankfort, 80 of whose images, spanning 50 years, will hang in the lobby, the gallery and the hallway connecting them starting Sept. 12.
“Without the Photo Center, I would not have had a photographic career, because there would have been no place for me to develop my film, print my pictures and teach myself photography,” says Blankfort, 81, by phone from the ranch where he lives near Ukiah.
When Blankfort first found the place, in 1960, he was a hobbyist who worked a desk job in San Rafael by day and commuted to the Photo Center by night, working in the darkroom until it closed at 10 p.m.
“The Photo Center is unique in the United States,” says Blankfort, who paid $6 for his first six-month membership. Now it costs $62 for six months and $6 each time a member uses the place. Membership with unlimited usage is $155 for six months. But price is not a barrier to entry because membership is at an all-time high of 1,300.
The Photo Center is owned by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. Director Christensen and his instructors are all Rec and Park employees.
“Its alumni is like a who’s who of San Francisco photography,” says Lyon. One of those alums was the late Harvey Milk, whom the place was named for after it was remodeled and upgraded to digital as part of a $12 million building upgrade in 2009.
The Harvey Milk Photo Center is a department within the Harvey Milk Center for the Recreational Arts. The main entrance is on Scott Street. But if you go around back, the Photo Center has its own entrance, through glass double doors decorated with photographs. People in Duboce Park see the sign and come up to peer through the glass.
The next step is through those doors. Then they can smell the chemicals of film development and they’re hooked, just like Kaufmann of Leica.
“There is nothing else like it that I am aware of,” says Christensen.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @samwhitingsf
Jeff Blankfort: 60 Years Behind the Camera: Sept. 12-Oct. 25.Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott St., S.F. www.harveymilkphotocenter.org.
Video: Take a tour of the Photo Center with Dave Christensen at: http://sfg.ly/1PCxQnf.
Top 25 Free Things to Do in San Francisco – Fodor’s Travel
San Francisco is a favorite city for photographers. Established in the 1940s, Harvey Milk Photography Center is named for one of Castro’s most famous residents, the first openly gay supervisor and photo shop proprietor. The center hosts exhibitions, lectures, and photo walks.
Another top spot for photography buffs is Pier 24, home of the Pilara Foundation, which is dedicated to collecting, preserving, and exhibiting photography. It offers free admission but is open by appointment only. Its visiting artist program brings six artists, writers, and curators to San Francisco for free lectures.
SF Camerawork also offers exhibitions and events. Their focus is on emerging artists, and their mission is to support artistic exploration and community involvement and inquiry.
Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor’s San Francisco Travel Guide
The New Fillmore, David Johnson ‘Retrospective’
September 6 to October 19
David Johnson’s photographs are on view at the Harvey Milk Photo Center at 50 Scott Street
The New Fillmore, Images that tell a story, a conversation with David Johnson
SF Gate, David Johnson’s photo exhibit at the HMPC
September 6 – October 19, 2014
The Harvey Milk Photography Center on Scott Street was bursting-at-the-seams crowded for Saturday afternoon’s opening of a retrospective of the work of David Johnson, who was “Ansel Adams‘ first African American student.” -SF Gate
Black Power * Flower Power Exhibit
Featured on Wanda’s Picks Radio Show
Radio host Wanda Sabir spoke with the Photo Center’s Dave Christensen and the Pirkle Jones Foundation’s Jennifer McFarland about our current Black Power * Flower Power exhibit, which runs through March 23.
Check out the interview here. (Interview starts at 94:33 into the recording.)
KALW Visits the Photo Center
KALW’s Hear Here storytelling series recently visited the Photo Center and profiled member Reynaldo Cayetano.
If you get to go inside the darkroom, where the wet lab – the wet room – it’s public. So as much as people think the dark room is solitary, you get to talk while you’re over the developer and you get to mingle with a few people. And you see other work as well, so you see a lot of different styles and different appreciations, and different angles and perspectives as well. And for me, I believe, a person’s photography style reflects a personality, and that can be seen here, so.
San Francisco Chronicle profiles “The F-Line Inside-Out”
November 30, 2012
Sam Whiting writes about photographers Kevin Sheridan and Tim Baskerville and their photos in “The F-Line Inside-Out” at HMCA. This is some of what Whiting said:
When the F-Market line opened in 1995, Sheridan was 14 and ready to dedicate himself to the historical streetcars that clank and rumble from the Castro to the Ferry Building. Eighteen years later, the line of vintage transit trains from around the world extends to Fisherman’s Wharf, and “The F-Line Inside-Out: Photographic Works Showcasing San Francisco’s Historic Streetcars” extends to the Harvey Milk Photo Center, a free Rec and Park gallery at the top end of Duboce Park.
The title, “The F-Line Inside-Out,” reflects a joint show between Sheridan, who is 31 and lives in Martinez (to be near the Carquinez train bridge), and his onetime photo instructor Tim Baskerville, who is 60 and lives on Mare Island.
The Chronicle Reviews ‘Off the Beaten Path’
October 29, 2012
The Chronicle’s Meredith May paid a visit to the Off the Beaten Path exhibit at the Photo Center and McLaren Lodge. Here’s what Photo Center Director Dave Christensen had to say:
The idea for the show came to Harvey Milk Photo Center Director Dave Christensen more than a year ago, when he took a shortcut through Golden Gate Park to get to a meeting.
‘It was a stressful day, and when I got inside the park, all of a sudden I felt I was somewhere else, enveloped in a deep forest,” he said. “I was transported. We have these places of refuge readily available to us in the middle of the metropolis.
San Francisco Chronicle
June 16, 2012
“Public darkroom users hone craft in digital era”
Although photo darkrooms may be going the way of the typewriter and the videotape, there are still a few holdouts, like the Harvey Milk Photo Center near San Francisco’s Duboce Park – the oldest, and largest, public darkroom west of the Mississippi.
San Francisco Chronicle
February 25, 2012
Visions Beyond the Badge’ show – officers’ photos
When Lt. Dwayne Newton of the San Francisco Fire Department, an avid photographer, came up with an idea for police officers and firefighters to exhibit their photographs, many people assumed that the images would be all grime and crime.
But that’s exactly what Newton didn’t want.
San Francisco Chronicle
February 8, 2012
Leah Garchik on ‘Visions Beyond the Badge’ Exhibit
The work of firefighters and police officers is pretty serious business, and all too often their off-duty public gatherings include bagpipers and dirges. But it would have been hard to find any person – participant or spectator – who wasn’t smiling at Friday night’s opening of “Visions Beyond the Badge” at the Harvey Milk Photo Center.
sfRecParkTV’s Coverage of ‘Visions Beyond the Badge’ Exhibit
San Francisco Recreation and Park TV took an in-depth look at the Photo Center’s recent, hugely successful Visions Beyond the Badgeexhibition, which showcased photographic works by the highly talented members of the San Francisco Fire and Police Departments.
Check out a sampling of the work, along with some great interviews.
sfRecParkTV Visits Harvey Milk Photo Center
sfRecParkTV takes an inside look at the Photo Center, featuring interviews with Director Dave Christensen and instructors Roxanne Worthington and Andrei Riskin.
SF Chronicle: “Photographers find light in the dead of night”
October 8, 2011
Chronicle coverage of The Nocturnes 20th Anniversary Photography exhibit