Don Kilhefner and Morris Kight at the Gay Community Services Center, Los Angeles, 1972 © Anthony FriedkinA native of Los Angeles, Friedkin began taking photographs at age 8 and was developing film in a darkroom at age 11. The artist formed a deep connection to the medium and later sought to combine a photojournalistic tradition with an individual statement. In the spring of 1969, when Friedkin was 19 years old, he embarked on The Gay Essay as a self-assigned project. His goal was to create the first extensive record of gay life in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and to chart the emerging and shifting visibility of the gay communities in California. Influenced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész and Josef Koudelka, among others, Friedkin found his place in an approach that retained the outward-looking spirit of reportage combined with individual discovery. As an extrovert with an avid curiosity, he developed close relationships with his subjects that enabled him to create portraits that are intimate and devoid of judgment. He did not aim to document gay life in Los Angeles and San Francisco slavishly, but rather to show men and women who were trying to live openly, expressing their individualities and sexualities on their own terms, and improvising ways to challenge the dominant culture. Whether photographing in city streets, motels, barsor dancehalls, Friedkin approached his subjects with an open and inquiring mind to achieve empathic portraits that celebrate pride, dignity and the expression of love between people of the same gender.
Gay Liberation Parade, Hollywood, 1972 © Anthony Friedkin
“More than four decades after this work was created, The Gay Essay stands as both a record of historic change in our culture and an eloquent testimony to Anthony Friedkin’s passion for the art of photography,” said Julian Cox, curator of the exhibition and chief administrative curator and founding curator of photography at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “We are left with a beautiful, sensitive record fit for the ages.” While selections from The Gay Essay have been on public display in museums and galleries in the past, the entire scope of the series will be shown for the first time at the de Young. Accompanying the original full-frame black-and-white prints will be contact prints, documents and other materials from the photographer’s archive and loans from the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society that provide valuable historical context and insight into the conception and execution of the work. The exhibition opened on June 14th. 2014 and continues till 11th January, 2015.