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The Crack Magazine

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Buffalo Gal On The Streets Of San Francisco

Forget our culture of anodyne, flavourless selfies and take this opportunity to focus on what photography can really do. It can take you there while holding you at arm’s length, make direct eye contact while offering you the bigger picture, demand your pin-point concentration on a single moment yet surround it with the glorious incidentals of life as she is lived.

Phyllis Christopher is happily associated in my mind with The Crack and the North-East, but it takes an exhibition at BALTIC to remind me that she’s a Buffalo girl from New York State whose suburban roots in an industrial city chime closer to Gateshead than they do with the great adventure pictured here – San Francisco at the end of the 1980s. This was the moment when pleasure and protest were different sides of the same coin, when a sense of community meant being heard and being seen, and identity was an action-packed movement of inclusion and acceptance.

It seems a world away, but there was a pandemic then too, as AIDS began to bite while AZT, the drug developed by Burroughs Wellcome Inc., remained prohibitively expensive. Cue assemblies and marches, banners and badges and, of course, police intervention that brooked no nuance of context or intention. One placard, “Robert Mapplethorpe is the Messiah”, reminds us that the pioneering chronicler of New York’s gay male scene, whose iconic sexual images had established an agenda of confrontation by their infiltration of mainstream photographic culture, died early in 1989.  There was also a continuing crisis of identity, or maybe recognition. To be queer now involved being visible, a statement of glorious and unavoidable sexual fact, at a time when the strident strains of American conventionality were feverishly preaching suppression (not to say conversion) via the self-negating combination of violence and prayer. But San Francisco had been the gay capital of the States for decades, so whatever queer affirmation now spurted into visibility in its bars, clubs and on the streets was guaranteed to be anything but discreet.

This exhibition reflects that moment, when identity was created simply by being part of it, an ardently cacophonous, ragged edged party that wasn’t going to close down for anybody. And in Phyllis’s photographs (pegged up to develop in the bedroom/darkroom of her local apartment) the eye of the camera is a participant, a player as much as an observer. When the subject is a woman tackled to the ground by a cop, still she manages to make significant eye contact with photographer, camera lens and sympathy – we’re all part of this and it’s about us, not them. Casual moments of  tenderness or passion are unembarrassed by the photographer’s observation, quirks of expression aren’t smoothed down or censored, and the orgiastic party energy that pushes pleasure to a point beyond control to a moment detached from past and future and defined only by the music and the laughter, is certainly beyond any inhibition.

Indeed, looking at these images runs a soundtrack in the viewer’s head, of the beat and the riffs, the yells and shared jokes. They are, too, full of messages, stuck to guitars, written on placards, tattooed onto skin, scrawled on walls, as words spill urgently through this world of monochrome surfaces, scratching and modifying them, making a mark by mark-making. There is a cross culture of codes here, from Doc Martens to rhinestone bras, a collusive mixture of self-expression and dramatisation, especially where some of the subjects are overt performers (drag king Elvis Herselvis adjusts a quiff and emotes into a microphone). The power of performance, though, informs every glimpse of Phyllis’s San Francisco, with all her subjects creating and  playing out those roles that the time and place demanded and the camera recognised

Contacts: Phyllis Christopher, BALTIC, 

23 Oct 2021 – 20 Mar 2022.

In Conversation: Phyllis Christopher, Wednesday 8th December, 6pm. Join artist Phyllis Christopher at BALTIC as she discusses her work with Laura Guy and Lizzie Homersham. 

FREE: Booking essential. www.baltic.art/tickets

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