Queer Photo Journalists Document Community History At SF Public Library

For many years, Rick Gerharter and Jane Philomen Cleland have been the photographers-in-residence at Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco's venerable LGBT weekly. They've covered scores of events: Pride Parades, street fairs, political rallies, openings at the Castro Theater, and much more. Their work now stands as an historical document of the queer community as it existed over the past several decades.

Gerharter and Cleland have now joined forces. Their new photo exhibit Daily and Transcendent: 25+ Years of Queer Photo Journalistic Portraits , is now underway in the Jewett Gallery on the lower level of the San Francisco Main Library. The show will remain on exhibition through Jan. 3, 2016.

Gerharter and Cleland spoke to SF Weekly about their work and about the exhibition.

[jump] “I love light and social justice,” Cleland said. “My father was a photographer. He loved light and he passed that love onto me. He and my mother were also socialists who worked for social justice.”

She recalled the family going on weekend photo walks. “We critiqued each other's work — I learned so much,” Cleland said. “I never wanted to stop. I didn't decide to be a photographer, I just am one. I am drawn to photography because the house I grew up in was full of photo folios.”

Cleland cited people like Lewis Hine, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange as among the photographers who inspire her. “These photographers confirmed by belief that if people knew and saw injustice they would feel inspired to work for social justice,” she said. “I hope I have made a small contribution to that body of work.”

“I hope people will walk away with a deeper appreciation of what photojournalists do,” said Gerharter. “It's a document of a time and a place — it reminds us of people who are part of our community and history.”

The community that Gerharter and Cleland cover has a glorious history, one filled with tragedy and triumph. That history includes Harvey Milk, The AIDS epidemic and the birth of marriage equality. It's a rich tapestry of amazing stories.

“I try to tell the story, whatever it may be,” said Cleland. “One of the great things we get to do as photojournalists is to document some of the best days. Celebrating the victory of defeating Prop 8, or the Dyke March, or the LGBTQ Pride Parade,”

Cleland added that sometimes the work can be quite emotional. “There is a picture of Margaret Cho busking money for homeless people in honor of Robin Williams,” she said. “Cho had a lot of despair about Williams; death, and she channeled it into something beautiful.”

“I try to capture something about the person,” Gerharter said of his subjects. “I use the environment that can say something about that person and add to an understanding of the subject.”

Cleland and Gerharter addressed whether or not the tech boom and skyrocketing rents are robbing San Francisco of its Queer edge.

“There's a lot less gay people here,” Gerharter said. “We're not the big thing anymore. First there was Harvey, then AIDS — we were the happening thing in San Francisco. We were the thing that defined the City at that moment. Now it's all tech.”

“In order not to be working sixty plus hours a week and to be able to spend time doing political or creative work, there needs to be affordable housing,” said Cleland. “Since San Francisco has given in to real estate profiteers it's unlikely that San Francisco's queer edge will stay sharp.”

In addition to the photo exhibit, Cleland and Gerharter will participate in a moderated panel in the main library's Koret Auditorium on Wednesday, Dec. 2 at 6 p.m. Moderated by journalist and activist Liz HighleymanCreating a Visual History of San Francisco's Queer Community will include photographer and historian Cathy Cade and journalist Tim Kingston on the panel.

Gerharter urges people to see the show and to attend the panel discussion. “You're a better person by knowing who came before you,” he said.     


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