Photographer Phyllis Christopher Takes Us Inside Her Dark Room to Discuss Process, Pleasure and Protest
by Chael Needle
A photo by Phyllis Christopher focuses on a sticker, attached to clothing, it appears, that reads, “Fatter than Barbie / Butcher than Ken.” The credo in the photo is playful and yet seriously disruptive, celebrating pleasure, sexual agency and pride beyond hetero norms. Without a grammatical subject, it might describe one woman (“I am”); it might describe a sorority (“We are”). Or both. Like her other photos, it invites a commitment from the viewer to pay attention to the importance of lesbian representation, queer practice, and self-definition within a society that predominantly confines our bodies within unequal binaries and hierarchies. A new photography book, Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988-2003 (Book Works), brings together works by Christopher that frame the intricacies of politics and pleasure during a time when supporting lesbian visibility, woman-centered sexuality and affection, and grass-roots activism were crucial to the survival and sustenance of queer women and wider, intersecting communities, as well.
In an excerpt from the talk, “Heart, Hand, Art: Erotic Moments From a Sexual Revolution,” Christopher states about Dark Room: “To pose for a photograph was a political act that required courage. It was still possible to lose a job in many professions for being a lesbian. Many of us felt we had lost so much and this fed into our extreme re-thinking of relationships and lifestyles. There is a freedom in a subculture of women who have been disowned by their families and shut out of mainstream culture.”
Dark Room, edited by Laura Guy and Lizzie Homersham, features newly commissioned essays by Susie Bright, Laura Guy, and Michelle Tea, alongside an interview with Shar Rednour.
The black-and-white photos document a thread of empowerment, whether ACT UP activists are putting their bodies on the line as police wrestle them to the ground or women are walking to the beat of their own drum at a Dyke March or women are articulating their desiring selves at the Ecstasy Lounge, in alleyway trysts, in pick-up beds beneath an open sky, wearing tank tops that show off tattoos, tongue rings, tutus, laced-up boots, boxer shorts, belted jeans, pearl necklace bondage, all worn in that sartorial dance of self and community.
Although the book represents a look back, the issues that come to the fore are ones with which we still engage—the fight for reproductive rights, the need for collective action around HIV/AIDS and health justice, and the evolving expressions of sexuality, gender identity, and presentation.
Once based in San Francisco and, since 2013, based in the U.K., Christopher served as photo editor of On Our Backs, the groundbreaking lesbian erotica magazine from 1991–1994. The magazine was the first made by and for lesbians and Christopher brings this same community-based collaborative sensibility to all of her photographs.
Christopher’s work has previously been anthologized in Nothing But The Girl: The Blatant Lesbian Image by Susie Bright and Jill Posener; Photo Sex: Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age by David Steinberg; and Art & Queer Culture by Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer. A 2020 finalist of Queer|Art’s Robert Giard Grant for Emerging LGBTQ+ Photographers, Christopher has been widely exhibited, most recently in “On Our Backs: An Archive” (The NewBridge Project, Newcastle, 2017) and “Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance” (Nottingham Contemporary, De La Warr Pavilion and Arnolfini, Bristol, 2019). New solo exhibits in the U.K. include “Heads and Tails” at Grand Union, Birmingham, and “Contacts” at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. Together, these exhibits represent Phyllis Christopher’s first major retrospective.
A&U recently had the opportunity to correspond with the artist about Dark Room.
Chael Needle: What was your aim in compiling Dark Room and how did you approach the process?
Phyllis Christopher: My aim in compiling Dark Room was to tell the story that my friends and our generation experienced in the nineties in San Francisco. Well, I hope that’s what the book does—a snapshot of that decade through a lesbian lens.
I’ve wanted this body of work to be collected into a book for many years now. Most publishers I approached did not understand the political nature of the photographs, whether sexual or street protest; Book Works really understood this from the start. I’ve worked on many photo stories in my life but I think this is my strongest body of work because I was photographing my own culture at a time when we were having to become increasingly politicized in order to live healthy lives—an era in which you had to leave your small town and move to, in my case, San Francisco, in order to find a queer community.
The book contains images of street protest along with lesbian sexual imagery. It was important at the time to photograph sex; it was the only way we were going to see ourselves reflected back. Mainstream culture was devoid of lesbian imagery and the women who posed for these photographs understood this and posed for the camera in order to validate our everyday lives.
That is a good point to emphasize—the political nature of both the sexual and the protest images, whether you were representing activism around reproductive justice or AIDS activism. Was there something in particular you wanted to foreground in your protest images?
As far as the protest images I was trying to communicate that reproductive rights, information on how [HIV] was transmitted and LGBTQ+ rights were all connected. It was a time when the media did not discuss in graphic detail what kind of sex may transmit [HIV]. The frustration over this lead to the LGBTQ+ communities becoming quite outspoken about sex—and had a very big influence on the lesbian community. For one thing, we were frightened that we might be at risk, and we knew we would be low on the list as a group to get help or information—many women protested in the women’s contingent of ACT UP. That was one of the reasons that Madonna was so popular in the gay community at the time; she would stop her show and talk about condoms. Nobody did that then; it was thought of as unnecessary information that only pertained to queers who were dying, and the mainstream did not care. So this is why sexual imagery became a political statement. We wanted to show that we were all being sexual and that it was healthy and normal. On Our Backs Magazine did many articles about safe sex for lesbians—it was one of the only places you could find information. On Our Backs gave me a forum and started me out in the world of erotic imagery. So it wasn’t just that there had never been a platform for lesbian sex and visibility, it was also that few people were speaking about women getting the virus.
Did you learn anything new in the process of this assemblage?
I think I’ve learned that the images still hold up as strong photographs twenty to thirty years after they had been taken. Most of them have not lost their edge for me photographically, and thematically tend to speak to some of the same concerns that the LGBTQ+ community have today: “I’m young—I want to have a good time—stop labelling me and telling me I’m living my life the wrong way!” I’m very much interested in speaking to young people today—what are your concerns? Why do some of these photographs interest you now? Another reason that this body of work resurfaced was that there was renewed interest in the period of the late eighties to early nineties. Students working on their PhDs and younger photographers had not known much about this genre of work; they had not been shown or taught about lesbian erotic photographers while in school. Now I hope that photographers like Jill Posener, Honey Lee Cottrell, Tee Corinne, Joan E. Biren, Jessica Tanzer, and Leon Mostovoy, to name a few, are more well known and discussed at university.
And who did you study in terms of lesbian representation in photography? What photographers inspired you and why?
Preceding me by about five to ten years are my heroes…Tee Corinne, who always felt like a hippy godmother fairy. She created solarized images (a process in the darkroom that makes the images appear negative). She did this in order to obscure the identity of some of her models because this was the seventies through to the nineties, and you could lose your job for just being gay let alone posing naked. She also did some powerful images of a woman in a wheelchair having sex, so she was way ahead in the differently-abled movement.
When I moved to San Francisco, I met Honey Lee Cottrell, who worked as photo editor at On Our Backs in the eighties. Her work was more conceptual—and she posed as the first centerfold for OOB—“Bulldagger of the Month”! What a gorgeous idea—a butch centerfold, finally! Society tells butch women they are ugly and inappropriate—I love photographing butch women. My work had to do with glamorizing lesbians—feeling good about how we looked through all of the gender spectrum. By the time I started photographing, women were more courageous about being identified—there was a small economy of lesbian/feminist businesses in San Francisco, and if you worked in that support system you had less to lose, you couldn’t lose your job. Now everybody is all over Instagram with incredible lesbian sex images. It’s a satisfying thing to see. I love to see fearless women. We are just a few generations away from the bad old days of being thrown into mental institutions for being gay—that’s where I’m always coming from. I still remember being afraid, so I love to see young people, older people, everybody celebrating their bodies!
Gay male photography has always been a huge influence on my work for the predominance of fetish. Robert Mapplethorpe was super-inspiring to me as well as the imagery in Drummer Magazine, a gay male magazine. Mark Chester is a wonderful photographer who supported the artistic community by having shows in his house and has a book out right now called Street Sex Photos.
So, with years between now and then, the political moment to which you responded has passed. In what ways do you utilize photography as an activist tool today?
I have been in retrospective mode, working on the book and two shows, so the past couple of years have been predominantly in a teaching capacity. I work with people in the north of England who live in fairly isolated towns and with LGBTQ+ youth groups.
I ask people to document even the smallest details of their lives—to value things they think may not matter now. I certainly hope that economic disparity will be looked upon with as much horror as racism and homophobia are now; and with the LGBTQ+ youth groups we use the camera as a tool of self esteem: they see themselves reflected back in drag, or in variations of gender presentation that they find exciting. It’s a safe place outside of their biological families.
I’m still always wanting to document the gay community myself, too, and completed a portrait series this summer entitled “Handing On Our History.” It was in conjunction with an organization called Equal Arts, who recorded interviews by younger LGBTQ+ of the older generation—my generation. This is now being produced as a series of podcasts.
For more information about the work of Phyllis Christopher, visit: www.phyllischristopher.com. For more information about “Contacts” at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, UK, October, 23 2021–March 20, 2022, visit: https://baltic.art/phyllis-christopher.
For more information about “Heads and Tails” at Grand Union, Birmingham, UK through March 2022, visit: https://grand-union.org.uk/exhibitions/phyllis-christopher/.
For information about how to purchase the book, log on to: https://bookworks.org.uk/publishing/shop/dark-room-san-francisco-sex-and-protest-1988-2003/.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.