Hardcore fans of Charles Gatewood's photos will be perplexed by his newest exhibition. Where are the images of tattooed penises, pierced labia, bloody breasts, and muff shots? Where's Gatewood's famous snapshot of a dead fetus — the one that shows a heart outlined on the would-be baby's unformed skin? None of these are at Robert Tat Gallery, but what's in this "Greatest Hits" collection is enough to draw a lofty conclusion: Gatewood is one of America's most underrated photographers.
Underrated because it's easy — with celebrity images saturating the culture — to overlook Gatewood's early work with the famous. Underrated because it's easy — with the passage of time — to lose sight of Gatewood's "Wall Street" series from the 1970s, when he captured the eerie starkness of life in the shadows of New York's financial center. Underrated because the transgressive, underground behavior that Gatewood has documented for so many years is now out in the open. Way out (Google the words "tattooed penis" and you'll find thousands of photos).
Gatewood was ahead of his time. At age 68, he's still taking memorable images from his base in San Francisco, but he admits that even his best-known work — like the one of Bob Dylan holding a cigarette in 1966, or William Burroughs looking strangely pensive in 1972 — are often remembered without his name attached. People recall the photos; they just don't realize that Gatewood took them.
"I'm trying," says Gatewood, "to reclaim my pictures."
Gatewood's "Wall Street" photos may be the biggest shock at Robert Tat Gallery. Between 1972 and 1976, Gatewood hung out on corners near the New York Stock Exchange. Most of the people he photographed — walking to or from office jobs that required them to dress the part — Gatewood doesn't much identify with. He's counterculture; they were nine-to-fivers after the almighty dollar. Gatewood, though, was living close by, so their union was one of convenience — and lasting artistic expression. Gatewood's shot of three people crossing the street, their faces and bodies enveloped by darkness against the backlit brightness of the outstretched pavement, is mesmerizing. It's the kind of indelible image you might find in Robert Frank's The Americans or The Family of Man, two historic books that offered a sociological look at the world around them. Gatewood cites The Family of Man as an influence, and his images of fetishists, exhibitionists, and sexual experimenters can be considered an extension of that quest to normalize a group of distant people — in this case people Gatewood identifies with.
The fetus in Gatewood's famous photo was inked by the tattoo artist called Spider Webb, who also gave Gatewood a permanent mark: a poppy, which Gatewood says is on his posterior. At his apartment in Bernal Heights, Gatewood surrounds himself with his more salacious work. Much of what's there would be rated X. Robert Tat Gallery has the G, PG-13, and R stuff, highlighted by the image from 1970 of a young wife undressed on a waterbed and stroking herself. Her husband, a musician Gatewood knew, is standing over her and watching. So are scores of other people — all fully clothed.
Some of the people whose excesses Gatewood admired met an early demise. The 500-pound woman named Katy Dierlam, who happily posed nude for Gatewood in 1982 at his then-home in Woodstock, passed away from health problems. The hard-drinking squatter Lonnie, who let Gatewood photograph him amid the squalor of his New York room in 1972, died a horrible death. The stories behind Gatewood's photos are full of biblical highs and lows. People don't hide in a Charles Gatewood photo. Even those shrinking behind sunglasses (Dylan) or the darkness of the afternoon (Wall Street walkers) reveal some of their character, whether or not it's clear at first glance.