Documenting gay rights activists at dawn of the movement

July 5, 2014 at 12:44 PM EDT
KQED presents a report on photographer Anthony Friedkin and his efforts to document gay life more than 40 years ago. Friedkin's photographs were ahead of their time and most galleries wouldn’t show them -- until now. The culmination of Friedkin’s vision took 45 years, but it’s now being realized at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

SCOTT SHAFER: In West Hollywood two old friends Don Kilhefner and Anthony Friedkin reunite.

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: I even have the camera that I shot all the photos with. This was the camera. This baby was the one that did it all.

SCOTT SHAFER: The camera that set them on a journey together decades ago. All gathered this night in honor of Kilhefner and other pioneering gay rights activists.

Placed at the center of the mural are Don Kilhefner, with Morris Kight at his left, founders of the Gay Liberations Front in Los Angeles.

A photograph taken by Friedkin at the dawn of the gay liberation movement.

It was 1969, a time when no one was producing murals in honor of gay life. But a societal shift was taking place.

DON KILHEFNER: It was rarely about saying no, we won’t accept this anymore.

SCOTT SHAFER: In cities across America gay people were fighting back. Something that wasn’t lost on 19-year-old Anthony Friedkin.

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: There is something that is referred to as the concerned photographer. And the idea is that you celebrate humanity for its good things, but you also identify the things that need to be reevaluated and changed.

SCOTT SHAFER: What Friedkin saw that needing change was attitudes toward homosexuality.

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: I thought it was horrible the way gay people were treated by our society, it made me angry.

SCOTT SHAFER: Friedkin grew up in Los Angeles.

DON KILHEFNER: His father was a screen writer, his mother was a dancer-choreographer. They had tons of friends that were gay.

He had been around gay people all of his life, so it didn’t seem strange to him.

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: They expressed themselves in a free way with love and affection and humor — so you know, I wanted to try to record that. You know just out of the dignity that I thought they deserved that many people wouldn’t give them.

SCOTT SHAFER: So Friedkin sought out Kight and Kilhefner who had just who had just founded the Gay Community Services Center in Los Angeles.

They gave him access to a world that was just emerging from the shadows

DON KILHEFNER: He comes across as real, and at that time as a young man he was on fire, he was on fire with creativity. He saw things that other people didn’t see.

SCOTT SHAFER: Friedkin dedicated two years capturing and printing the most powerful images possible.

DON KILHEFNER: It was not unusual at that time for cars with four or five young people in it with baseball bats to stop a gay person on the street and beat them senseless.

So it was dangerous even associating with gay people at that time. What Tony did was he ventured into this dangerous space — and he took his photographs.

SCOTT SHAFER: But the photographs were ahead of their time and most galleries wouldn’t show them — until now. The culmination of Friedkin’s vision took 45 years, but it’s now being realized at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

The exhibit titled “The Gay Essay” is under the direction of Chief Photography Curator Julian Cox.

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: Julian this looks fantastic, Oh my god.

This guy can play like a half back.

JULIAN COX: Anthony’s whole approach to what he does is very immersive. He really believed that to make good work that you had to be deeply connected to your subject.

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: I really believed that the print is such an important part the art form of photography.

Jim was such an extraordinary young man, you know he was Chicano and he lived in a hardcore gang infested area and to be gay in that kind of a community and to come out openly that way and walk around the neighborhood.

SCOTT SHAFER: What do you see in those eyes?

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: There’s a curiosity in his eyes about what his future might be like what the path that he has chosen to go down.

SCOTT SHAFER: And this is Troy Perry here.


SCOTT SHAFER: He founded the Metropolitan Community Church

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: Correct, this was a very dark tragic day. This church was burnt down. Look at his eyes, he’s defiant, and he’s saying “I’m here to take you on.”

DON KILHEFNER: It was that new gay liberation spirit. We were demanding it. You take your freedom. And it was that audacious attitude that the climate of the times and Tony caught that.
ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: Oh Divine, the one and only. Oh my god, this was such an incredible experience

SCOTT SHAFER: And she was with the Cockettes?

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: The Cockettes, yes.

SCOTT SHAFER: When Friedkin heard about San Francisco’s widely-popular Cockettes he couldn’t get to North Beach fast enough to film behind the scenes.

Like now North Beach was a bustling neighborhood and home to some of the first gay bars and night clubs in San Francisco.

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: The ensemble cast of the Cockettes and Divine and the energy where they did their musical numbers around Edgar Allan Poe and Masque of the Red Death — and it was just fantastic you know.

SCOTT SHAFER: There are images also now captured for all time in a book just published by Yale University Press.

DON KILHEFNER: Oh that’s great. Oh my god, look at those two characters.

He humanized us when I was looking again the photograph of Morris Kight and myself, a tear came to my eye.

Those were very difficult days for gay people there was an amount of oppression that we faced everywhere, was tremendous.

HAL FISHER: You have to put it in historical context.

SCOTT SHAFER: Hal Fisher was a photography critic for Art Week and Art Forum in the 70s, and is the author of two books on gay culture.

HAL FISHER: We have a lot of people in that period that were doing documentation of what was happening in the gay movement but Anthony Friedkin’s work goes beyond documentation. It’s art.

SCOTT SHAFER: Over time, gay imagery in the arts has evolved in response to events shaping the gay community, with photographers like Nan Goldin and Catherine Opie and Peter Hujar.

HAL FISHER: Without a doubt, the AIDS epidemic totally informed and generated really powerful imagery and some very important artists who had AIDS and I think specifically David Wojnarowicz.

SCOTT SHAFER: Images by young, contemporary photographers, like Ryan McGinley reflect a new found freedom in LGBT life.

JULIAN COX: But its freedom that came at a cost.

SCOTT SHAFER: A price Friedkin was willing to pay.

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: This camera has so many of those private special moments that it was a witness to. If anything happened to this camera, god, I don’t know what I would do. I really don’t know what I would do.

SCOTT SHAFER: Still a purist shooting black and white film with his Leica, still committed to capturing that decisive moment, like in his recent wave series, exhibited in the High Museum in Atlanta — and still pushing the limits.

ANTHONY FRIEDKIN: I actually started surfing right around the same time I started photographing.

There’s a parallel about what they call going for it in surfing, where you absolutely just abandon all sense of safety and you just hope to god that you’re going to make it.

I think the risk that we take as artist is critical to our ability to do interesting work and how much risk we are willing to take.