When photo essayist Anthony Friedkin elected to spend 18 months capturing the gay experience in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1970s, he had two main objectives.
“When I chose to do ‘The Gay Essay,’ I was really dedicated to doing something about the art of photography,” he said in a recent interview.
There was also a more humanitarian motive underlying the project.
“I had gay friends, and the kind of anger, fear and mistreatment that gays experienced angered me,” he says. “There were laws against homosexuality, people were getting busted in Hollywood and you could still lose your job for it. I wanted to put my art together for a concern that I thought was an injustice.”
“Anthony Friedkin: The Gay Essay” — a show of more than 75 prints by Friedkin that became known as the first extensive record of the gay communities in the West Coast’s major cities — is on view at the de Young Museum through January.
Friedkin, an avid photographer since childhood, decided to turn his lens to the struggles and celebrations of the mostly undocumented post-Stonewall community, at age 19.
“I’m not gay, but I think there’s something beautiful about a straight guy wanting to do these pictures,” he says. “I think everyone’s sexuality is unique, special, important and something to celebrate.”
He adds: “But this series is not so much about my own sexual history as it is about my devotion to the art of photography. I had a passion to try and explore the gay community visually on a very artistic level.“
Soon after receiving support from the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, Friedkin was out photographing early gay-rights protests, the aftermath of a gay church arson, and gay hustlers plying their trade.
“A lot of people were touched that someone cared enough to photograph them and wanted to do something interpretive about them in a positive way,” he says.
Friedkin was also granted access into the private world of escorts such as Jim, whom he photographed nude, or Bobby and Linda, whom he photographed in a passionate make-out session. “I was being genuine so people gave me their trust and allowed me into very private moments,” he says.
The photo essayist also spent time in San Francisco, documenting The Cockettes’ rehearsals at the Palace Theatre in North Beach and featured future stars Divine and Sylvester.
“It was important to celebrate the theatrical connection to the gay community because cinema and theater have been a refuge to gay people from the beginning of time. I was lucky to capture it,” he says.
Friedkin first exhibited his gelatin silver prints at Los Angeles’ Ohio Silver Gallery in 1973. In 2009, collectors bought and later offered the photographs to the de Young Museum, which organized the current show.
As important as his own professional recognition is the continued acknowledgement of his subjects, the photographer says.
“I could never have shot ‘The Gay Essay’ without those people’s trust, and I’m glad that they’re still getting the recognition for what they allowed me to do,” he says.
IF YOU GO
Anthony Friedkin: The Gay Essay
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except until 8:45 p.m. Fridays; closes Jan. 11
Tickets: $6 to $10