Between 1979 and 1986—after Stonewall and before the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic—there was a period of exuberant and burgeoning gay life in places even then known as “gay paradises.” There were others, but the best known were San Francisco’s Castro District, New York’s Christopher Street and Fire Island, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.
The joy—and pathos—of these tragically lost worlds is beautifully and vibrantly documented in this collection of compelling portraits and street scenes photographed by Nicholas Blair. As a teenager lured to San Francisco from New York—via hitchhiking to Buenos Aires—Blair lived in a hippie-style arts commune just across town from the Castro. With a Leica rangefinder camera loaned to him by a childhood friend, Blair began honing his craft as a photographer amidst the explosion of LGBTQ life that was rapidly eclipsing the hippies as the most visible (and photographable) counter-culture movement of the day.
Blair’s revealing, evocative, and celebratory photos are a window into the outburst of pent-up celebration and (occasionally) riotous ebullience of theretofore closeted persons who had suddenly felt the door of tolerance opening a crack, and who were now leaning in, hard, to live life openly as their true and genuine selves.
Perhaps most ironic, viewed from today’s perspective of intersectionality, is how extensively, especially in the San Francisco images, the “hippie” background dovetails with, for example, the vibrant flamboyance of many of those in the Pride Parades. How many degrees of separation are there, really, between Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence?
If the specter of AIDS were not hanging over these photographs, it would be as if they were showing us a parallel universe where full equality under law for LGBTQ people could have come so much sooner.
As they stand, these historic images are time capsules of a few places in America, where, for the very first time, and for a very short while, it was okay to be gay.
Castro to Christopher : Gay Streets of America 1979–1986
photographs by Nicholas Blair
introduction by Jim Farber
Hardcover, 10.4 x 8.8 inches, 160 pages
$45.00 US / $60.00 CAN