Painting a Different Picture
Lola Flash Talks About Confronting Ignorance, Bigotry & Cultural Erasure with Her Camera
by Lester Strong
Photographer Lola Flash has been called an “LGBTQ Art Icon,” and with good reason. From portraits to landscapes to cityscapes, her images capture the people, places, and events she photographs in dynamic ways that leave an indelible impression on the viewer. Among the topics her photographic eye has explored: gender-fluidity, and the ways visual representations of gender affect our lives and society (in the series “surmise”); women over seventy years old who serve as role models of people at an advanced age who still remain actively involved in their life’s work (“salt”); the impact of skin pigmentation on the lives and psyches of black people in our society (“[sur]passing”); queer and non-gender-conforming trailblazers who have offered alternatives to constrictive social and cultural norms (“LEGENDS”); lesser-known architectural similarities and differences between a number of cities around the world (“quartet”); autumnal light in different New York City seaside neighborhoods and the yearning it can cause for the bygone summer (“Scents of Autumn”); and last, but hardly least, a unique and dazzling photographic view of the AIDS crisis and ACT UP demonstrations in the late 1980s and early 1990s (“AIDS Art”).
Indeed, Flash emerged on the professional photography scene in the 1980s, an era ripe for the emergence of a black, lesbian artist harboring an activist soul to make her mark in the world. As she noted in a recent interview, “I moved to New York in 1987, I believe, and many of my friends were already members of ACT UP. I got sucked in, and before I knew it I was demonstrating, planning demonstrations, visiting sick friends in hospital, and going to funerals. In hindsight, I always wanted to be part of a revolution. I was too young for the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War protests, so the AIDS crisis gave me my chance to put my body on the line, I am very proud of the work we did.”
Flash put her body on the line in AIDS protests, but she took her camera along with her as a member of Art+Positive, a New York-based ACT UP art action affinity group fighting AIDS phobia, censorship, homophobia, misogyny, and racism. Along the way, she produced some spectacular images, two of the most intriguing of which were stay afloat—use a rubber, utilized by the London AIDS organization GMHA for a 1993 campaign, and AIDS Quilt, taken at the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987. She was also a photographic subject herself in Gran Fury’s famous 1989 poster Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do, where she’s the last person on the right, kissing another woman.
For both stay afloat—use a rubber and AIDS Quilt, Flash employed what she calls her “cross-color” technique. As she explained in the interview: “Cross-color is a process I stumbled upon when I was at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). To make a long story short, I discovered I could get fantastic colors by developing my photographic film on negative paper. Red became this gorgeous blue/green and black became white. So I started shooting with the idea that my color palette was going to be purposely reversed—thus cross-color was born.”
Flash developed cross-color, “before Photoshop,” she said. Cross-color “is a comment on the notion of ‘perfect Kodak days,’ in reverse. I was known for this process; it was my signature style. It started by accident. I had a number of images shot on slide film, but had run out of the proper paper to print them on. Instead, I used negative paper and was surprisingly happy with the results. The colors were so vibrant, and all hues were reversed. Blues became reds and white black. I was consumed by the psychological meanings of what colors were supposed to denote. For instance, when looking up the definition of ‘black,’ one found (to name a few examples) ‘full of gloom,’ ‘very wicked,’ or ‘evil.’ These meanings disturbed me then as much as they do now. So, from that day until the end of the 1990’s, I set upon a path where I created a world that I could happily live in, one in which the viewer’s expectations of color are challenged.”
Flash loves colors—her comment in the interview: “I love, love, love colors”—but not just for aesthetic reasons. “In the beginning, when I was just a kid [hometown: Montclair, New Jersey], my camera was my way of entertaining myself…a way of capturing all the cool stuff I saw on a daily basis…It wasn’t until I got to college and started creating my cross-color work that I realized I could make statements, share my point of view about race and sexuality by using my camera. I’ve never been very vocal, so the camera was and still is an excellent way to get my viewpoint out there.”
Race, sexuality, and (one should add) gender are at the forefront of the viewpoint she wants to communicate, and she doesn’t always do it through cross-color photos. Take her portrait of the black, lesbian, award-winning filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, perhaps most well known for Watermelon Woman (1996), which explores the history of black women and lesbians in film, and Stranger Inside (2001), about black lesbians in prison. Without using cross-color, Flash in this photo (which is nevertheless still full of color) conveys a sense of proud accomplishment by a woman who can serve as a model to others for having blazed an important trail through some little-known parts of American history.
Another example: her portrait of civil rights activist Esther Cooper Jackson, who at over a hundred years old still serves as a reference point for the ongoing efforts to end racism in America despite the current ugly retrograde political climate in this country.
And still a third example: Agnes Gund, who at eighty years of age remains a vital participant in philanthropic, social justice, environmental, women’s, medical, and civic causes.
Asked to describe the reasons for her focus on racial, ageist, gender, and lesbian/gay/trans issues in her work, Flash replied: “I use photography to challenge stereotypes and offer new ways of seeing that explore, interrogate, and transcend perceived gender, sexual, and racial norms. Cliché though it may sound, so much has changed, but so much has stayed the same. I grew up in the 1960s, a time when Black women were finally able to vote, the civil rights movement was ripe, and most queers were in the closet. But I never saw myself [portrayed] in the media, in school I was teased because I was a light-skinned ‘tomboy,’ and the books we read were the ilk of ‘Dick + Jane.’ As I got older, I noticed that in the movies older white men were given the lead roles and, of course, their co-stars were young and usually blond. Herein lies my need to paint a different picture, shall we say.”
About her interest in portraits, Flash had this to say: “I create portraits because I love my people, and it is such a pleasure to create an image of someone that makes them feel beautiful. I think that so often people don’t see their own beauty. We are so busy working toward surviving, going to work, paying the rent, and dealing with this thing called LIFE that we forget to really look in the mirror. Add to that mix racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and what you get is a whole lot of misrepresentation or [the cultural] absence of the folks in my communities. It is therefore my duty to create portraits of the people that are still being erased culturally in this twenty-first century.”
And about her interest in cityscape and landscape photography, Flash explained: “My series ‘quartet’ and ‘Scents of Autumn’ are also kind of like portraits to me, although I imagine most people would label them landscapes. In the same way that I am always concerned with similarities and differences in my portraits, I am also interested in those qualities in these two series. I often think of both series as my ‘watercolors,’ in which I return to the basics of art: composition, light, and texture.”
These days Flash has turned her activist impulses in the direction of education, teaching visual arts at a high school in Brooklyn. “I used to say that teaching was great because it paid for my [photographic] film. But now I really love it. I’m invested in my school, and enjoy creating lessons that engage our students. Teaching is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Many of our students are challenged, challenging, or both. But I walk into the classroom, after having traveled the world, standing on solid ground, feeling confident. We just started one of my favorite projects, where we start off with a portrait I take of [my students]. The project is based on Shepard Fairey’s Obama ‘Hope” poster [famous from Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign].”
As final questions in the interview, Flash was asked: What do you think is the best way to educate young people about AIDS? Her answer: “I’m not sure. I dabble in it a bit when I talk about Keith Haring’s work. But I have to say, this is our health teachers’ area.” And when asked about what she thinks the priorities are today for dealing with the AIDS crisis, she answered: “Gosh, well, a brilliant start would be to have healthcare for all. We really need healthcare for all!”
Healthcare, racism, misogyny, AIDS, homophobia, transphobia—seemingly intractable problems and crises. But Lola Flash’s photography, activism, and even teaching point to the only possible means of finding solutions: creative thinking, active engagement in public life, and seriously educating people to accept the realities of the social, political, and natural world instead of indulging unreal fantasies that excite them and interior demons that incite many people to fear and bigotry.
Lola Flash, it seems, is quite a teacher even outside the classroom.
For more on Lola Flash, visit lolaflash.com. For those traveling to England in the near future, Flash’s latest exhibition, titled “Lola Flash” opens April 25 and runs through August 24 at Autograph, Rivington Place, London EC2A 3BA; website: autograph.org.uk.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.