In the summer of 1986, a young photographer shot hundreds of rolls of film documenting the pulsing rhythm of male bodies in the heat of the California sun. Moments of intimacy—a hand resting on a chest, bodies clasped in an embrace, lips parted for a kiss—reveal the sensuous pleasure of queer culture over a quarter century ago.
“I wanted to create a fresh portrait of a largely undocumented subculture,” Doug Ischar explains now. “The only images of gay men that existed at that time were staged studio compositions, for example the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe or Arthur Tress. Photographs of gay men flirting, socializing, and cruising were few and far between. And that pissed me off.”
Currently on display at Night Club Gallery, Ischar’s collection of photographs, entitled “At Large,” reflects the rich tapestry of gay life in San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Inspired by a long tradition of documentary photography established by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Frank, Ischar was determined to chronicle what he believed to be the twilight of the gay culture. “I was an avid shooter,” he says, “because, like a lot of people at that time, I was fearful that gay life as I knew it would be eclipsed by AIDS and right wing reaction. I was a man with a mission and wanted to commit to film as much as I could of what was going on.”
Equipped with the camera of all the great street photographers—a Leica Rangefinder—Ischar captured the colorful spectrum of gay life from Pride Parades to the Gay Games, originally known as the Gay Olympics. Shooting with a 35mm wide-angle lens required a proximity, both physical and emotional, to his subjects. “Gay guys didn’t mind me photographing them, because I was a good-looking, well-built guy in a T-shirt, and I’m sure that got me a fair amount of access.”
Rejecting the role of objective observer, Ischar allowed his photography to be driven by desire. In the photograph AL 17, young athletes stretch in black Speedos against a backdrop of wet towels. “I wasn’t a neutral activist type who wanted to shoot the entirety of the gay world,” Ischar says. “I was very much driven by my own erotic passions. I didn’t just shoot the guys I found hot, but when I was going back through the negatives, I had to admit there was quite a bit of that going on.”
For many years the photographs collected dust in the artist’s basement. Though a 1987 series documenting San Francisco’s leather bar the Eagle was exhibited in alternative photo galleries in London, Houston, Boston, and Chicago, museums shied away from promoting explicitly gay photography. Ischar remembers a conversation with the chief curator at San Francisco MOMA, who was interested in the downtown leather bar photographs until she saw a member of the board of trustees in the background of one of the prints. “She told me, ‘I just can’t touch this.'”
“I have always had a not-so-secret dislike for guys who passed, because I felt like they were having their cake and eating it too,” Ischar says. “They did not take the heat that a drag queen would take when she walked down the street at midday. They were hiding behind their more masculine looks and I didn’t like that. This caused problems when it came time to show the photographs because a lot of these guys were outed by them.”
Ischar is also achingly honest about his own personal life. In his most recent video, All My Own, which will screen July 25 at Night Club Gallery, the artist composes a requiem for his lover Tom Daws who died of a heroin overdose in 2013. From the repetition, harmony, and discord of cut and spliced footage, Ischar creates a delicate score of images. “This is the work of an older man for whom mortality weighs heavy. Some find my artwork too felt. Am I telling too much?” he asks and laughs. “I’m either fearless or foolhardy.”
Doug Ischar “At Large” runs through Sat 7/25 at Night Club Gallery, 3325 N. Pulaski, nightclubchicago.org.