Anthony Friedkin: The Gay Essay

By Anthony Friedkin, Julian Cox, Nayland Blake, and Eileen Myles

Anthony Friedkin, Gene Harlow, Drag Queen Ball, Long Beach, 1971 from the series The Gay Essay. Gelatin silver print. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, anonymous gift, 2011.58.2

In making his photographic series The Gay Essay (1969–1973), Anthony Friedkin approached his subjects with an open and inquiring mind to achieve a portrait of a community and its habitués that is fearless and devoid of judgment. The Gay Essay carefully charts several aspects of the gay world at the time: street life, protest, gay leaders, lesbian activists, transsexuals and drag queens, hustlers and vice cops, and more. Whether made in city streets, motels, bars, or dance halls, Friedkin’s photographs demonstrate an understanding and respect for the private lives of the people he has portrayed. From flamboyant street parades to late-night rendezvous, the photographs forthrightly show the beginnings of the Gay Liberation movement in California and offer insights into the lives of performers, activists, hustlers, and hopeful youths in quiet defiance of prevailing social norms. Four decades after its making, The Gay Essay functions as both a valuable time capsule and a record fit for the ages.


Anthony Friedkin’s photographs are included in the permanent collections of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the International Center of Photography, New York; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, New York. He received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1977. He has taught photography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the California Institute of the Arts and has lectured at the J. Paul Getty Museum and other educational institutions. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, French Zoom, the Los Angeles Times, Malibu magazine, and numerous books, including Los Angeles: Portrait of a City, Taschen’s comprehensive 2009 volume on the city, and the Huntington Library’s This Side of Paradise: Body and Landscape in Los Angeles Photographs (2008). His monograph, Timekeeper, was self-published in 2003.

Julian Cox is the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s founding curator of photography and chief administrative curator. His prior curatorial appointments include positions at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (now the National Media Museum), Bradford, England; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. He coauthored, with Colin Ford, the critically acclaimed publication Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs (2003), the first catalogue raisonné of Cameron’s work. Other notable publications include Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–1968 (2008); The Portrait Unbound: Photographs by Robert Weingarten (2010); Real to Real: Photographs from the Traina Collection (2012); and The Errand of the Eye: Photographs by Rose Mandel (2013).

Nayland Blake is an artist, writer, and educator. His writings have appeared in Interview, Artforum, Out, and Outlook. He is the author of numerous catalogue essays and was the cocurator and coeditor, with Lawrence Rinder, of the groundbreaking exhibition and catalogue In a Different Light: Visual Culture, Sexual Identity, Queer Practice (1995). He is the chair of the ICP-Bard Program in Advanced Photographic Studies at the International Center of Photography, New York.

Eileen Myles is a New York–based poet and writer. Her recent books include Snowflake/different streets, Inferno, and The Importance of Being Iceland (2009), which received a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Writers Grant. Her writing has appeared in Art in America, Artforum, Parkett, Harper’s, AnOther Magazine, The Believer, and The Nation. She received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2010 and was a Guggenheim fellow in 2012.

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