Since the show’s late-February debut at the GLBT Historical Society in the Castro, the images in “SoMa Nights: The Queer Club Photography of Melissa Hawkins” have yielded a few surprises. Some of the unnamed nightlife figures amid the Club Kids and other nocturnal all-stars have been identified, for one. But as a document of a frenzied period when political activism combined with a deliriously transgressive approach to personal expression, the show is more than a lens into the era before everybody was a photographer. Simply put, many of Hawkins’ subjects are gone, and it’s important to acknowledge that loss.
“There’s this other sort of emotional sensation: This person who’s not alive now gets to have another moment,” she tells SF Weekly. “When I was going through all the contact sheets trying to figure out what would be fun to look at, it was sort of stepping back into that period and feeling a lot of grief.”
It was only at the opening that she learned definitively that some people did not make it out of the plague years — and some of them, like the artists and gender performers Michelangelo or Jerome (aka Jerome Caja), were quite famous in their time. Caja’s work is in the Smithsonian, and SFMOMA owns several of his pieces as well. But queer history is almost never taught, and even in our more enlightened age, icons can become forgotten alarmingly quickly. This is the GLBT Historical Society’s first show dedicated to a still-living artist, something that facilitates connections like a guy named Alex reintroducing himself to Hawkins at the opening. He lives in San Diego now, and they’d worked together as film processors at The New Lab, years after she’d initially taken his picture.
Hawkins absorbed the lesson to never throw away your negatives, and the few dozen images in “SoMa Nights” were culled from a collection that might approach the thousands, all shot during an eight-year period (1986-94) when Hawkins was a photographer for The Sentinel, a gay San Francisco weekly whose owner also ran The Rawhide on Seventh Street. Working by day at an E-6 film lab, she would run around SoMa at night, dashing from club to club. She and curator Marke Bieschke selected them for visual appeal but also for a “balance of men and women,” Hawkins says.
“And hopefully some people of color, because that was kind of difficult,” she adds, chalking that up in part to the predomination of “punk rock-y” DJs whose music attracted certain crowds. “The Box was the main club that was so beautifully, everyone-having-a-good-time-together, but some of the other spaces weren’t quite as mixed.”
Hawkins has lived in San Francisco since 1984. (“Rent control,” she says, matter-of-factly.) She chose SoMa over the Castro and the Polk because those neighborhoods and their respective heydays have already gotten a similar treatment. Plus, Hawkins insists, SoMa is special.
“We had a photography panel last night, and we were talking about how — because San Francisco is so small, geographically — it was a concentrated energy vortex,” she says.
SoMa had light industry and few residents, allowing people to be loud and weird late into the night, walking from The Stud to Club Uranus at The EndUp. As a reaction against the Castro clones, there was an ethos of all the art-school misfits being in it together in ways that seem strange today.
“This was such a mixed scene at Club Uranus,” Bieschke says. “You can tell there were women and trans people and definitely drag, and now you would not expect punk-rock drag queens to be at a circuit party. Even though a lot of the clubs were competing, the scene was a lot more fluid. There wasn’t the branding that excludes people.”
SoMa started with the leather scene, and then, Hawkins says, “my generation brought this more freaky, punk-rock, do-it-yourself drag-as-theater, not necessarily to do with any female impersonation.”
Leather culture hovers around the fringes of “SoMa Nights,” and Hawkins would go with friends to places like Ringold Alley, the one-block street that was notorious for cruising. (Up Your Alley, the mini-Folsom Street Fair in July, began there.)
“I went down it a couple of times. I was so lucky. I got to go everywhere most women didn’t go. I had great friends who would tell me wonderful stories about Ringold Alley,” she says. “South of Market was slutty-dirty-awesome-crazy.”
On Thursday, March 21, Hawkins and Lewis Walden (a DJ from Club Uranus, which lasted from 1989-92) plus Page Hodel, Gus Bean, Jennifer Junkyard Morris, and others will gather at “Nightlife Beyond Uranus,” another discussion at the historical society. With a debt to Jim Hopkins of the San Francisco Disco Preservation Society, who helped digitize lots of tapes from the 1970s and beyond, “SoMa Nights” has a video slideshow to go along with the trove of still photographs.
Video — with a giant heavy camera perched on some hapless person’s shoulder — seems quaint. But the relationship between club culture and technology becomes increasingly apparent when you spend any time with this exhibit. In the age of social media, no one needs professionals to document a look they spent hours getting together and which would otherwise go unremembered. Bieschke observes that his generation all has drawers full of “useless pics you took with a disposable Kodak, and you get a flash of an arm with a drink and maybe a face,” but Hawkins says her only competition was an older woman named Polly Polaroid who sold people pics of themselves for five bucks. And while comparatively fewer people were out of the closet in 1986 than today, the ethos around consent has shifted dramatically.
“I’m glad that my antics of a certain age weren’t put out there in perpetuity,” Hawkins says. “And I kind of wonder if overexposure makes it less interesting. … It’s a very encapsulated period with a finite number of images. People are looking into the camera most of the time, and we were very present, asking people if they were OK with it.”
A naughty image that circulated exclusively in a gay rag in San Francisco was fundamentally different from something tagged on Facebook that your aunt in Indiana can see, too.
Working in crowded bars around drunk people with lots of strobe lights and noise is hardly ideal, of course. Still, black-and-white film is more forgiving than color. Hawkins had a Minolta and a “workhorse” Nikon, plus she bought 100-foot rolls of bulk film to cut costs and even had her own photo booth shipped to San Francisco, where it took up residence at DNA Lounge for 10 years. All the same, it wasn’t easy.
“There wasn’t an autofocus,” she says. “It was all manual, so I would crank up the f-stop to get the best depth-of-field I possibly could with this gigantic Vivitar.”
SoMa Nights: The Queer Club Photography of Melissa Hawkins, through May 27, at the GLBT Historical Society, 4127 18th St. $5; 415-621-1107 or glbthistory.org