Robert Giard, Five Members of Other Countries, 1987. Silver gelatin print, 14 x 14 in. Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto.
In 1985, Robert Giard (1939-2002) embarked on an ambitious project that would captivate him for the rest of his life: photographing gay, lesbian, and queer writers across the United States. This series amounted to over 600 black-and-white portraits, 182 of which were featured in his landmark photo book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers (1997). With great care and curiosity, Giard, a white gay man from a working-class background, documented a broad spectrum of queer writers across lines of race, gender, class, and age. Variously circulating across queer cultural worlds, the pictures played a role in the consolidation of the field of queer literature. The series also reflected the crescendo of the AIDS pandemic and its many forms of devastation. For this reason, Giard’s images constitute a valuable archive of loss and resilience, one that resonates in new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On April 7, 2020, I discussed his photographic undertaking with Ariel Goldberg and Noam Parness, the curators of Uncanny Effects: Robert Giard’s Currents of Connection, which was originally scheduled to be on view until April 19 at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York City. Their show is the first to highlight the links between photographing and writing in Giard’s practice, delineating the vast networks of correspondence and belonging that he participated in and helped, in part, to create. Due to the current health crisis, Uncanny Effects is now open for virtual viewing on Instagram. The curators and I discussed how Giard’s work can enrich our understanding of the relationship between photography, writing, and activism during the 1980s and 1990s.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jackson Davidow: People either know about Giard’s work or they don’t. Why is this?
Noam Parness: Giard’s images are everywhere today. For instance, his photo of Audre Lorde was circulating on digital advertisements for NYC Pride last year. Or his Essex Hemphill photo is among the author’s most reproduced portraits. His photos are how people come to know these figures, yet many people have never heard of Robert Giard. His image practice was not swept up or consumed by an art market, as opposed to much work by his contemporaries.
Ariel Goldberg: I think Giard has fallen through the cracks because he made the photographic process more collaborative, foregrounding the relationship between the photographer and subject. He was always reflecting on ally-ship: taking a step back and thinking about what he could bring to debates on representation within queer communities. He was committed to photographing people who were not simply like him. He thought about difference constantly and wanted to be pushed and to be uncomfortable.
Because he was going into people’s homes, asking them to be part of his project, he had to be malleable, working with what he had. Conversely, with the work of Robert Mapplethorpe or even Peter Hujar, models met the photographers at their studios. Or the piers were a specific place where Arthur Tress and Alvin Baltrop were photographing. While backdrops could create consistency and recognizability in the work of such photographers, Giard’s backdrops inevitably varied.
The work itself also wasn’t flashy or sensational. It was honorific. And it was a documentary project by nature. His photographs that gained cachet and power in real time were of people who had just died; those were the ones that were favored and circulated most widely. If people know his work, it is generally because of the work’s function. His images were used as author photos by writers and publishers. Sometimes there are artsy author photos, but oftentimes the author photo is not thought of as art.
NP: In a journal entry from 1978, Giard conceived of himself as a photographer rather than an artist. This distinction reveals that he cared about the functional capacities of images for people rather than their potential hype in the artworld.
JD: Now that Giard’s photographs are increasingly taken up by the artworld, have these functional capacities changed?
AG: I often imagine Giard as at the edges of the New York artworld during his lifetime. He lived in Eastern Long Island rather than in the city, inhabiting a slower time-scape. His work now circulates in more fine-art contexts, often through shows at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto and Daniel Cooney Fine Art in New York. In the most recent exhibition of his Particular Voices series at Daniel Cooney for the 50-year anniversary of Stonewall, I noticed that the selection highlighted the more recognizable figures as well as racial diversity. When we began our edit for Uncanny Effects, we wanted to develop a different way to show Giard’s work that takes on iconicity while still challenging it.
We also made a point to try to talk to the subjects who are still living to see how they feel about their portraits. We found that some people’s relationship to their images had changed. Most spoke effusively of Giard as a kind and attentive photographer. Others requested their images not be exhibited for undisclosed reasons. In our edit alone, which includes roughly 40 portraits, we learned of three individuals who did not want their pictures in circulation. We felt that it was our duty to notify the galleries and the Estate about the requests of these people.
NP: As curators, we’re really interested in de-iconicizing and flattening the usage of particular images, looking at the breadth of his practice. He photographed people who were already known alongside emerging writers. Figures we might know quite well today were often much more marginal back in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the people we spotlight are still relatively unknown or perhaps haven’t published anything in 25 years. As our exhibition functions in an art market, we have felt a tension between embracing icons and shining light on more obscure individuals.
AG: People use the portraits of Sylvia Rivera or Stormé DeLarverie as Stonewall veterans who are people of color. They check all the boxes in a way that only gives Giard more cultural capital. However, this phenomenon reinstates the problem of creating a narrative of queer liberation that erases other people whose names and stories we don’t necessarily know. Collectivity is a harder story to tell. One of the most meaningful things to have come out of this exhibition is getting to talk to less familiar people from Giard’s portraits. We used the inclusion of their photos—because we liked the way they looked—to get to know their writing. We’ve also been able to get in touch with some people who are alive, like Colin Robinson, who was a member of the Other Countries collective.
JD: When I saw the show, my mind kept circling back to Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s influential notion of queer world-making from the 1990s. They posit that queer culture emerges through world-making practices that constitute queer publics and counterpublics.1 And publics are often theorized in relation to the printed word—books, journals, magazines, and so forth. How did queer photography—and Giard’s oeuvre in particular—serve the project of world-making in the years after Stonewall? Did his portrait series help shape the emerging discourses and practices of queer literature?
NP: Though Giard’s main aim was to create photographs, I think that his practice helped create a queer literary network in some capacity. These networks of authors and artists were arguably pre-existing, but his photographs helped bring them into focus. The images were always functional. He provided many authors with photos, and his images circulated on book and magazine covers.
AG: He would photograph someone, and they would say, “here’s a list of ten other people to photograph.” It was like a chain letter.
NP: In his archive, we found these lists of names, phone numbers, and addresses. Many authors he didn’t know but could reach out to, whose work he could read.
AG: Giard’s pictures helped people feel real when they profoundly felt, and were told, that they didn’t exist. He was mirroring the wave of queer, lesbian, and gay literary production that was happening at a grassroots level, such as Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, Firebrand Books, and Naiad Press. I think his work was most meaningful for emerging writers for whom there was no New York Times story. It’s powerful when someone says, “I want to take your picture and put you in my own little mini-canon.” It can give somebody the feeling that they’re important enough to keep making their work when their lives were depressing.
My interest in photography is about the act or the encounter—the thing that is not the photograph itself. And I think he was making a world.
JD: His sitters also had literary practices that were amazingly eclectic, queer, and postmodern. For him, writer as a category encompassed poets, cookbook writers, academics, cartoonists, archivists, editors, playwrights, and, of course, people who wore multiple hats.
In a way, Particular Voices can be considered a counter-archive to some of the more professional and institutional trends in gay and lesbian literature and writing from the late 1980s onward, as exemplified by the Lambda Literary Awards or OutWrite Conferences for Gay and Lesbian Writers. Though he does capture parts of these developments.
AG: OutWrite would have been a really great opportunity to take a lot of pictures—and he did photograph at the conference in the early 1990s. His work teaches us about the texture of these literary publics. There was a lot of conflict regarding racism and sexism within emerging queer theories of that time. I’m grateful because his photos can lead us to the nuances.
JD: I’m intrigued by Giard’s emphasis on the domestic as a queer space of writing and reading. Part of the project, conceptually speaking, was coordinating a visit to each person’s place of residence—at times, quite laboriously. The domestic as a setting is arguably in opposition to the public cultures that queer people, including many writers, were then obsessed with intervening in, sexually and politically and otherwise. Why did Giard concentrate on the domestic?
NP: In part, this was a practical question, for he was pursuing a national project. And if he didn’t photograph the subjects in their homes, it would usually be nearby. The domestic was a space where people could feel comfortable. He wanted people to feel at home in the image. Part of the process of traveling required him to stay with some of the people he photographed. So, for instance, he stayed with Tee Corinne and Beverly Brown on the West Coast when he was photographing them.
AG: He didn’t use a lighting kit, so he had to figure out where there was natural light. He would also ask people where they wanted to be photographed. The environments and possessions situate the subjects. For example, there is an image of Allan Bérubé with lots of vintage radios. Some backgrounds are striking, while others are minimalist, as in the portrait of Maurice Berger.
JD: Beyond these practical concerns, what was the significance of portraying a writer in a domestic environment? I’m thinking not only of the writer’s perspective, but also the reader’s.
AG: I think the domestic environment makes the writer more normal, relatable, and human for the reader.
JD: Giard writes in his photo book, “[m]y project is as much about reading as it is about writing, as much about readers as it is about writers.”2 This quotation reminds me of Fran Lebowitz’s well known claim that the great tragedy of the AIDS epidemic was the death of not simply artists, but also their various discerning audiences.3 One can extend this to the devastation of queer literary publics. Did Giard see his project—and do you see his project—as concerned with the diminishing of queer readers and readership brought about by the AIDS pandemic? From a different angle, this phenomenon is also theorized by Sarah Schulman as the “gentrification of the mind.”4
AG: Queer readerships have not diminished—they just look different than they did. And there was actual loss, with writers dying very young, as well as readers and people who supported writing in non-visible ways. I agree with what Lebowitz says about the connoisseurs—people who went to ballet and knew about all the dance moves. I also agree with how Schulman bemoans queer life now: the post-AIDS cocktail, gay assimilative life, and all the class- and race-based privilege. But I could turn on Instagram Live now, and there will be trans and queer people reading their own writing out loud on multiple pages. The absence is the intergenerational dialogue that makes that visible, especially when new technologies are being used. The loss motivates the regeneration, and there’s a lot of people doing work that is maybe rooted in disability or racial justice, where the people are queer, but they’re not necessarily making work about or for a queer public.
JD: The title of the show, Uncanny Effects, is a reference to a phrase from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essential text, “White Glasses,” first published in 1992.5 This is a beloved, transgressive piece that the queer theorist initially wrote as an obituary for her friend, English professor and poet Michael Lynch, who was then dying of AIDS. In it, “white glasses” enable a mode of relating, complexly, across differences of gender, sexuality, and illness. Why did you draw inspiration from this text to build your own curatorial framework?
NP: Giard photographed Lynch twice, and we included a contact from the first shoot in the exhibition from 1984, before he began Particular Voices. We also know that Giard photographed Sedgwick in 1999, yet we have not found this image. Regardless, there was something deeply poetic about Sedgwick’s essay, and we thought that her embrace of white glasses corresponded to how Giard as photographer related to his sitters. At one point in Giard’s archive, we also discovered a Xeroxed copy of “White Glasses” in a catalogued folder, so we know he read it. The essay kept coming up, and we kept coming back to it.
We were also thinking about the term “the uncanny,” which has a lot of different meanings. But the way we grapple with it is as a way to think about the idiosyncrasies of queer life—and the envisioning of queer life.
AG: The title was trying not to generalize or define, but rather to let the details speak for themselves. We were delighting in the richness of someone who devotes themselves to being a documentarian. I also think about this with Joan E. Biren’s work.
My theories about queer life and culture are: let’s move away from a definitive definition that isn’t necessarily working and fails to represent everyone. Let’s think instead about the minutia: the quirky trinket, the weird vest, the artful decision that isn’t thought of as artful, how someone decorates their home or wears their beard or smiles. Tiny things. One of the great gifts of a photograph or a piece of writing that creates texture is that we can get to know someone or some fictional representation of them. However, I don’t think that Giard’s photographs always did that; there’s a lot of restraint and tension, too.
JD: Particular Voices is a positivist project, one that embraces lesbian and gay identity in a way that might be considered essentialist. As Giard worked on the series, “queer” as a non-essentialist framework of identity and identification was being theorized in the streets and in the academy. As curators, how do you historicize this tension?
NP: Giard started Particular Voices by photographing gay men, expanding it to lesbians; this is the narrative he provided in the beginning. But along the way he also photographed people who identified as bisexual, as well as people who would later transition and/or were trans (especially in the later work). His writings don’t tend to think about the politics of language. There is a learning process in his texts, particularly with regard to transgender writers who were creating new discourses about identity.
Before his death, he was working on a project in which he documented early LGBTQ activists and sites of geographic importance. This series went by multiple names. Though the Foundation on their website still use the title “Gay Sites,” as curators we opted for “Queer Views,” which we believe is the last name he used to think about this project in the early 2000s. Because the project never congealed into a hard body of work, some of it, such as the Sylvia Rivera picture, is assumed to be part of Particular Voices. His own terminology shifted throughout his practice, just as language shifted more broadly.
AG: I don’t think Giard was attached to essentialism. Instead, he was working with the faultiness of language. The categories that the project rested on were almost, at the end of the day, arbitrary. His goal was simply to photograph people who identified—and the language was always changing and evolving—as what we now think of as LGBTQ. There are problems and limitation to these categories; our representation in the show is very able-bodied, highlighting traditional forms of beauty and sexiness. This is something we’ve reckoned with after we made our edit.
Giard was working with the imperfections of identity-based categories as a way to stay connected to people. I think that any work that is using a category also has to take on the problems of categories, and in his writing he works through the problems. Not in a very queer-theory academic way, but, for instance, through writing about desire for his subjects who are cis men and sometimes butch lesbians.
JD: As of late, countless commentators have been debating the similarities and differences between the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics. Certain queer cultural producers such as Maurice Berger and Terrence McNally—both photographed by Giard—have already died as a result of coronavirus. In a sense, his photography is already a compendium of loss. Do you think that it has the potential to resonate in new ways today?
AG: Regardless of the social context through which we view Giard’s work, we can always find resonance because there’s so much visual information, evidence of connection, of communities, of tensions, of fraught histories. Many of these things are now lost or difficult to excavate. One thing I’ve been talking to a lot of people about is how to stay focused and make culture while reducing a capitalist mentality of incessant production. Giard was motivated by crisis to make these photographs. It’s similar for people facing the current crisis. Many artists are wondering if it’s selfish to make art right now. Giard’s work shows us that we must continue to document our lives and think of our stories as meaningful.
Ariel Goldberg’s publications include The Estrangement Principle (Nightboat Books, 2016) and The Photographer (Roof Books, 2015). From 2014-2017, they organized interdisciplinary readings at The Poetry Project. Goldberg has taught at Pratt Institute, Columbia University, The New School, and Rutgers. They were the 2018-9 Zuckerman Fellow, Curator of Community Engagement at the Jewish History Museum in Tucson. Goldberg’s writing has most recently appeared in e-flux, Artforum, and Art in America.
Noam Parness is an Assistant Curator at the Leslie-Lohman Museum. Recent collaborative curatorial projects include Haptic Tactics (2018, co-curated with Risa Puleo and Daniel J Sander), and ARCH (2019, co-curated with Daniel J Sander) among others. They are co-editor of the publication Queer Holdings (Hirmer Publishers, 2019).
- Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry, 24, no. 2 (1998): 547-566.
- Robert Giard, Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997), xiii.
- See Fran Lebowitz’s commentary in Public Speaking, dir. Martin Scorsese (Rialto Pictures, 2011).
- Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “White Glasses,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 5, no. 3 (1992): 193-208.