“Well, you’re queer,” photographer-artist-musician-coolperson Lauren Tabak says to me, quite correctly, on the phone. “What do you think about when you’re putting together a look?”
I’m a ’70s kid who blossomed in the ’90s, so for better or worse, everything I wear is politically fraught, hopelessly ironic, and ever-shadowed by guilt. (Is this from a sweatshop? Am I appropriating anything cultural? Is this something Rosie O’Donnell would wear?) So basically, in all senses of that adverb, I’m a typical older gay person.
“When I came out, I pierced my septum so everyone would know,” Tabak, who’s of my general generation, told me. Ah, for the days when piercing a body part meant something.
Tabak has launched a series of portraits (on display at gallery-cafe The Laundry through March 30, opening reception Fri/17 6pm-8pm) that explores contemporary queer identity—how are we seen, how do we make ourselves seen, what does our constructed appearance mean—in an era of melting definitions and binaries, uploads and filters, apps and ad-targeting, liberation and backlash, branding and resisting.
“I was interested in, and became fascinated by, how people ‘flag’ their identities now,” Tabak said, referencing the ancient dress codes (colored handkerchiefs, bar t-shirts, items of clothing, etc) and the gay gazes/looks that used to be necessary to identify one another on the street, while swimming in a silencing sea of heteronormativity.
The series of striking portraits, representing a huge variety of folks, is a labor of love for Tabak, who said she started it at first to be able to hang out with friends and people she likes. (The portraits are shot in her home, and there’s been a lot of day-drinking involved.)
But soon the circle widened as she began to digest the sheer amount of individuality and originality in today’s queer looks. Compared to the “Castro clone” look of 50 years ago, which flagged a generation of gay men (and butch women), there seems to be an endless variety of styles that fall under the wondrously growing LGBTLMNOP umbrella. With such diversity, she became curious: How does queer visibility matter, here and now?
Each portrait is taken against a pink background (duh) and comes with an accompanying story from the subject about their llfe. (We’re debuting one portrait and story, Andrea’s, below.) For her show at The Laundry, Tabak will also include an audio element, in which you can hear each subject telling their own tales.
“Some stories are powerful and poetic, some are just funny, and some are totally unexpected,” Tabak told me. “One of my subjects, Miles, came in and I thought he was just another gay boy for a fun shoot—but it turned out he was trans, with an incredibly deep story about hiding himself. So this project also seems to be a way of bringing those stories to light, and maybe a way of keeping them in one place. I think of it as a referendum on the state of gay.” (One subject, Amaris, says in her story that the exodus of queer people from San Francisco makes her want to be as visible as possible, a beacon of queerness.)
So, I asked, in this moment of Instagram and Grindr, when everyone already shows their own Gayface to the world, how is this project taking a different and necessary approach?
“The people featured in Gayface aren’t just people I photograph, they’re my collaborators,” Tabak replied. “I’ll send them a bunch of proofs afterwards and we pick out ‘the one’ together. And then I’ll ask them why they like what they liked. Some of the time, they say ‘I look really hot’—which can be very affirming when someone else puts you in that light. But a lot of the time they say ‘I look like me.’ And I think that’s just such a wonderful alchemy to have happen in a collaboration like this.
“One thing I’ve discovered is that younger people don’t care as much about the heavier political meanings of how they’re presenting themselves to the world, like maybe someone from our generation would,” Tabak said. “They’re less about representation and more about ‘I’m just doing me.’ There’s an openness to that, which was unexpected. They’ve already claimed it.”
With so many flavors of queer at the moment, how will she know when the series is finished? “We live in a bubble,” Tabak says, again quite correctly. “My dream is to hop in an RV with my dog and travel the country, have these conversations with and photograph as many people as I can, and see how things are looking out there.”
Below is a debut portrait of Andrea, along with her story
Goldilocks and the 3 bears was my favorite book as a kid. I loved that this lost child found her perfect ”chair,” a safe space, a place she belonged, or so she thought.
This year I will have been out for half my life. The queer community I was born into was defined by gay and lesbian bars and the poster child was a blonde haired, blue-eyed lesbian comedian. While my curly hair is messier and darker than Goldilocks and my eyes are more gray than Ellen’s, I still pass for white. As a young queer I settled for this because at least I felt accepted, at least a part of me belonged as opposed to the whole of me feeling alone.
Both sides of my family migrated from Mexico to Stockton. We would visit San Francisco often and I was drawn to the outright defiance of conformity that pervaded the SF of the ’90s. A place where immigrants, artists and outcasts sought refuge, a city where community meant everything.
It’s taken me all the 37 years of my life to learn to silence preconceived notions around my identity. I embrace the power I hold, I am the legacy of my family’s courage and the “borders“ I am transcending for future generations are; toxic machismo, classism, homophobia, and racism. Growing up between two cultures meant that code switching was a means of survival and that has translated into how I navigate hetero/queer, genders/nonbinary, architect/artist, trauma/healing.
After two decades of living all over California, absorbing and immersing myself in the queer circles, latinx communities, and creative networks I finally find myself in San Francisco. My journey has taught me to unapologetically claim all the complicated layers of my existence. I have become uncompromising, and authentically me because I found my throne, it was in the mirror all along.
Through March 30
Opening reception Fri/17, 6pm-8pm
The Laundry, SF.
More info here.