Tenderness in Queer Photography

At Auction August 17: Gay Pride Parade, A small group of 11 photographs documenting early Pride Marches in New York City, including the first ever in 1970, circa 1970-71.

When you think of queer photography what images come to mind? For a lot of people photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe or Peter Hujar come up, especially their more provocative works. This is of course a large part of queer history within images—great examples are beefcake and S&M photography—but this isn’t the only thing queer photographers have to offer to the medium. I wanted to highlight some of the tenderness and intimacy that can be found in queer work throughout history and how being made by queer artists in queer communities can lead to some of the most intimate portraits and tableaus, unseen anywhere else.

“You can’t build a movement without being seen.”

At Auction August 17: Diane Arbus / Neil Selkirk, Two men dancing at a drag ball, NYC., silver print, 1970; printed 1972.

Inherent to queer photography is intimacy and trust; to photograph people expressing themselves and loving as they wanted, especially in times when they weren’t allowed to publicly celebrate their identities, is powerful. In these photos, we see people living their lives without fear. Documenting these intimate moments preserve, mirror, and affirm that fearless tenderness. Diane Arbus was not publicly a part of the LGBTQ+ community, but she is known for transcending the boundary between subject and artist. The people she photographed trusted her eye to document them, and from that trust images such as “Two men dancing at a drag ball, N.Y.C.” are created.

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This sense of intimacy can also be found in the way the images themselves are presented. The use of polaroids was very popular amongst queer photographers, often because they were unable to access the resources of a dark room. Even if the artistic choice was made from necessity there is a quality within the small art object that inspires closeness within not only the subjects but the viewer. This Jim French Polaroid is, I think, a perfect example of this sensation.

At Auction August 17: JEB, Barbara Smith and Beverly Smith, Roxbury, Massachusetts, silver print, 1978.

As a medium, photography continues to allow space for otherwise under-represented communities. We owe a lot to the photographers who stepped up to capture what no one else would. Even if their art would never be accepted, they understood the importance of capturing a community that always felt fleeting so that future generations knew that queer people have always existed; they were just denied visibility.

At Auction August 17: Shelby Sharie Cohen, On Her Back for “On Our Backs,” digital print, 1987; printed later.

The result is an archive of some of the most moving and intimate portraits that showcase the beauty of queer love and community. To me, the heart of queer photography lies in those shared moments of tenderness where a photo goes past the need for documentation and instead transcends into art.

At Auction August 17: Del Lagrace Volcano, The Ceremony: Robyn + Peri, London, selenium-toned silver print, 1988.

Do you have photographs we should take a look at?