Cherry and Martin Gallery in Los Angeles hosts Hal Fischer’s series of photographs, ‘Gay Semiotics‘, seen for the first time in its entirety for forty years after they were first exhibited in 1977. Fischer started photographing San Francisco’s gay community of Castro Street and Haight Ashbury in February 1977. It was the first series of work that dealt with the visual iconography of the gay lifestyle. The result is a photographic study of visual coding amongst homosexual men; annotated tableuxs of gay bodies and the reading that their adornment demands.
The exhibition deals with four different themes, the first is ‘Signifiers for a Male Response’ which features the elements of dress that formulate the sexual semiotics used to communicate whether one was homosexual and what their sexual preferences were, such methods of communication were necessary due to the complexity of sexual possibilities. For example a red handkerchief would signify submissiveness within a sexual act. Keys and earrings had a similar purpose.
‘Archetypal Media Images’ is another section which deals with the documentation of male fantasy, the archetypal gay images as they exist in the media and the urban realm. The characterisation is one rooted in gay magazines, cartoons and pornography. In his essay that accompanied the first publishing of the images in 1977, Fischer notes that ‘Natural’ and ‘Classical’ are mere pictorial structures and subliminal characters in contrast to the more complex ‘Western’, ‘Urbane’ and ‘Leather’ that have more of a role in reality due to their clothing (‘Natural’ and ‘Classical’ feature as nudes). The series also features the media image of ‘Dominance’, ‘Sado-Masochism’ and ‘Submission’.
The staged backgrounds of the archetypal media images are placed beside ‘Street Fashions’ which are staged on San Francisco’s sloped streets. ‘Street Fashions’ are the gay styles one is likely to encounter beyond the media, characterisation such as ‘Basic Gay’, ‘Jock’ and ‘Uniform’.
The ‘Fetishes’ photographed consist of photos of men sniffing ‘Amyl Nitrate’, also known as ‘poppers’, and images of S&M objects such as leather apparel and a gag mask.
The photographs are accompanied with captions and markers that point out the various elements that formulate the particular look or code. This visual equivalence of word and image reads like an instruction manual, which was essentially its purpose. One was to read the adornment of the body in order to read an individual’s sexual preferences.
This pairing of word and image is aligned with the conceptual photography scene of California in the 70s; Fischer was part of the Photography and Language group with Lutz Bacher and Lew Thomson in the San Francisco Bay area.
‘Gay Semiotics’ was photographed at a time of progressive liberation for homosexuals, following the 1967 Sexual Liberation Act in the UK and 1969 Stonewall riots. Speaking of their creation, Fischer said that ‘the images were published at a time when gay people have been forced to evaluate and defend their lifestyles’. Their display at present comes at a time of a new wave of gay liberation in 2015 with the legalisation of gay marriage in several States and countries.
Fischer took control of his culture’s image and the result celebrates the ingenuity of the subtle yet complex visual coding that the gay scene adopted in order to simultaneously stand out and blend in within both the larger and their own culture. This secret language was decoded by Fischer and now three decades on look both nostalgic and compassionate, as well as very original works of photography which blend concepts of graphic design.
‘Gay Semiotics’ is on show at Cherry and Martin Gallery, Los Angeles until February 21st
More information can be found here