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LGBT and Photography - the inexhaustible fight for equality

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January 24, 2015
Studied Photography at IED in Milan, Italy. Passionate about art, frequent visitor of exhibitions, Widewalls photography specialist and Editor-in-Chief.

The Role of Art

Art has had a really simple task throughout history of human kind – to express the artist, evolve aesthetics and to celebrate the freedom of the artists’ mind. It is based upon pure emotion translated into the world through diverse mediums – words, images, sounds, movements, creating a remarkable collections of experiences and history. Speaking of great art and its artists, it is unthinkable not to talk about the LGBT artists, who have shaped the prosperity of art and society, especially in the past century. Their voices, channeled through art, have challenged general understandings of sexuality and gender and have established their key roles in a continuous fight for change and equality. As the members of the LGBT – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, these artists made a strong contribution to the introduction of their being to a wide audience and within museum and gallery walls. By being who they are and expressing through groundbreaking artworks, they broke the taboos and offered a better understanding of an oppressed part of society, contributing ideas in all spheres, including film, fashion, literature, music and even entertainment. Art has seen many personalities who have put a unique stamp on it, and the world at large – from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Hannah Höch and Michalene Thomas, Frida Kahlo, David Hockney, K8 Hardy, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, to Zachary Drucker and Isaac Julien.

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Wilhelm von Gloeden – Terra del Fuoco, c. 1895

The power of an image

When it comes to photography, it has always had a great, rather plain role: to document and capture moments of life. Before it became a narcissistic tool for selfies and a commercial success, it revealed the invisible individuals and groups and it helped them be seen and more importantly – understood. It followed the upheaval of many movements whose existence was heavily ignored and tyrannized, including feminism and African-American civil rights, which often intertwined with the LGBT rights movement. Photography gave testimony of parallel lives that were led simultaneously, protests, events and violence, but also the love of queer couples and the stories behind the curtains. Through its lens, it managed to redefine love and to propose a new, humble, beautifully human and quietly courageous definition of it. And while it was often condemned as blasphemy and even pornography, a part of it persistently moved from documentary to fine-art, changing the means of censorship and gaining much attention, be it because of the subject or its tremendous visual impact.

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The movement through the lens

Since its invention in 1839, photography has tackled all kinds of topics. In the first hundred years, it reflected the development of the society it lived in, where there was almost no mention of sexuality. Wilhelm von Gloeden was one of the first photographers who had taken male nudes at the beginning of the century. In the following period, artists gradually started taking more liberty. Berenice Abbott was a self-proclaimed lesbian whose work portrayed the urban landscape of New York in the 1930s. The development of technology and contemporary art avanguards introduced many boundary-pushing photographers. The groundbreaking portraits Diane Arbus made of marginalized groups, including transgenders and gay people, gave a new look at the underground lives and experiences, free of any kind of judgement. Duane Michals, although not gay himself, took gay-themed photographs during the 1960s. Robert Mapplethorpe, an American photographer whose perfectly executed black and white portraits and male nudes expressed an open and honest fascination with homoeroticism. Many photographers documented the cross-dressers meetings and transgender performances, works of immense value as part of queer visual history.

During the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s, photography was a powerful tool. To fight the crisis, activists created camera-ready images by organizing actions and memorials, like die-ins and the AIDS quilt – images that would easily convey the enormity of the illness and the urgent need for a response. One of the most significant artists of the period, David Wojnarowicz, incorporated personal narratives from his own life and others to create alternative histories depicted through his art. His work continued to be affected by both his struggle with AIDS as well as his political activism until his death in 1992.

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Michael Abramson – Gay Liberation, 1971

The new era

The new generation of artists also follows the steps of their older colleagues and highlights the community’s issues in a more contemporary manner. The strong compositions of Adi Nes, an Israeli photographer, explore the subvert themes of masculinity. David LaChapelle’s color explosions and stereotypical glittery open a new world of imagination, calling on sexual freedom and the rejection of gender categories. Laurie Toby Edison is a portrait photographer, famous for three series of nude environmental portraits of fat women, a very diverse cross-section of men and women living in Japan. Annie Leibovitz is one of the world’s leading female celebrity photographers. One of her works is a collection of portraits dedicated to writer Susan Sontag, with whom she was romantically involved, taken over a period of fifteen years. Catherine Opie creates shocking photographs of sadomasochist leather subculture of Los Angeles and San Francisco, while Zanelle Muholi, a South African photographer addresses lesbian and gay issues in Africa.

The inexhaustible fight for equality still continues to produce valuable works in regards to everyday life. Artworks exploring own self, gender transition, backlash, struggling of youth, stereotypes, but that also portray couples and families, prides, parties and initiatives are crucial in the attempt to reach tolerance and respect. And while the LGBT community faces far less serious problems than even just twenty years ago, it is certain that its artistic legacy helped establish their identity, and photography has played a big part in the process.

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