Gabby Camboa and Lauren Geiger at the final High Fantasy, the Tuesday night event at Aunt Charlie's in the the Tenderloin. Marissa Leitman
Gabby Camboa and Lauren Geiger at the final High Fantasy, the Tuesday night event at Aunt Charlie's in the the Tenderloin. (Marissa Leitman)

‘I Could Die Here’: Photographer Marissa Leitman on Self-Discovery at Aunt Charlie’s

‘I Could Die Here’: Photographer Marissa Leitman on Self-Discovery at Aunt Charlie’s

In 2012 Marissa Patrice Leitman started going to Aunt Charlie’s, a narrow hallway of a bar in the Tenderloin district, for High Fantasy, the lawless, now-defunct Tuesday drag night, with a hulking film camera and a long flash cord. Her documentation of the neighborhood’s last working-class gay bar in the years since shows intimate, sustained attention to a site of revelry and tenderness, release and hurt. The freelance photographer and cofounding director of artist-run performance space Hit Gallery developed a style in tandem with her deepening relationship to the bar’s community, showing how the boundaries between audience and performer eroded in riotous and sometimes subtle collective acts of self-discovery.

The pictures, some of which recently appeared in a book published by Nighted Life, compose There Will Always Be Roses in San Francisco, the latest in a series of Aunt Charlie’s-themed exhibitions at the Tenderloin Museum. Ahead of the show, which opens Thursday, Oct. 3 and runs through Sunday, Nov. 3, Leitman reflected on photographing the High Fantasy drag scene, and how it changed her own life. The conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

Brittany Newell performs at High Fantasy, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin.
Brittany Newell performs at High Fantasy, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin. (Marissa Leitman)

Can you tell me about your introduction to Aunt Charlie's?

It was in a stalker way: I knew about it before I moved to San Francisco from musicians and drag performers. On my first night, Colin Self performed. Sometimes it’s dead-ass empty, only old regulars. Other times people are slammed against the railing—it was one of those nights.

How did your first impression live up to your preconceived notion of the place?

It was ten times smaller than I thought, but it met the rest of my expectations. I was totally mystified. It had this esteem, my idea was of a cool, beautiful, glamorous place, and it is that.

You didn’t start going for a photography project. What attracted you to the community?

At first it was the façade, everybody acted like a celebrity. Whether or not they had much materially to show, they had the attitude. Later I liked how they would also just let you be. As glamorous and grandiose as it might be, it also has a familial, humble vibe. That comes from the bar historically—it’s the oldest gay bar in the Tenderloin, people there lived through AIDS.

High Fantasy specifically has traditional, older queens and also younger queens. There’s shade and arguments but not much judgment about whether one generation is better. And there’s drag kings and women who perform as drag queens. There’s no rules and everybody’s interacting. … At the last one, I thought, "If there was an earthquake that’d be fine, I could die here."

Matia Emsellem at High Fantasy, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin.
Matia Emsellem at High Fantasy, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin. (Marissa Leitman)

How did you earn the trust of the people you photographed?

I have photography ethics that drive me crazy—I won’t take pictures of people I don’t know. I went to a drag show last night in L.A. to see my friend, and I was getting stink-eye from people who thought I was being pretentious by refusing to take their picture. I’m trying to break some of these rules. I take pictures out of admiration—determining or admitting what I’m attracted to.

You have a conspicuous camera.

I purposefully use really big cameras. It’s a Mamiya C330 that makes me look like a steampunk or some kind of Victorian fetishist. It has an extended flash cord, like 20 feet long. I’m not very graceful with it either. I’m stumbling around with this giant cord wrapped around my neck.

In this setting some people are excited by the camera, right?

It’s a drag bar so there’s no shortage of vanity, and over time people become comfortable with the object, it has more presence than a point-and-shoot, a ritualistic way of presenting itself.

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Marissa Leitman, self-portrait.
Marissa Leitman, self-portrait. (Marissa Leitman)

You mentioned your practice being about determining your attractions. How so?

I wonder how much it’s been sexually, I want it to be more. I have taken 50 pictures of someone I later realized I’m in love with. I’m honest but heavily in denial. Or I’m really emotional, but not good at admitting vulnerability and affections. I struggle to make eye contact even though I’m loud. It’s definitely a romantic thing, it helps me admit romance that’s sexual or not.

So you’ve learned a lot about yourself through Aunt Charlie’s, it sounds like.

I think everything. It’s a social boot camp. It’s small yet really glamorous, you have to interact with everybody, and everyone’s performing and expecting you to perform. That coupled with you’re next to the Tenderloin working-class community so there’s a genuine roughness. … Like you asked me earlier, sometimes I do look at photos and realize sexual attractions. But also you begin to understand how the presentation of sexy or sexuality happens—I do photos about that.

When you say "perform," you don’t mean doing a set, right?

Yeah, in the way socializing is performing. There’s no real distinction between the performance that happens in the show and the performance that happens when you’re outside having a cigarette. It’s a queer thing: The performance is how you figure out who you are.

Mandy Coco on Election Night 2016, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin.
Mandy Coco on Election Night 2016, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin. (Marissa Leitman)

You were at Aunt Charlie’s on election night in 2016. What was that like?

We showed up early and started drinking out of dread. Everyone was drinking in a quiet, tense way—the room was full of ghosts. It was announced on TV before the show, which was designed like Hillary Clinton won, so it was sort of making fun of us. The picture I took of Mandy Coco holding the flag, she was performing “The Winner Takes it All” by ABBA as Hillary Clinton.

I told Barry [Duey, a bartender who died in 2017] I hoped Trump would get shot, saying it’ll be fine, someone will kill him. Barry said we’d get Pence, who’s worse. I had this understanding that this would be his last president. A girl outside was screaming. Older people were terrified in a dull, bitter way. It became a game: Pointing fingers at people who weren’t visibly upset.

In the picture Mandy’s screaming, mouth impossibly agape, and holding the flag like it’s a corpse. How do you know when to pull the shutter in the middle of a performance?

It’s luck. I’ve taken a lot of bad performance shots. That’s the only one I’ve ever really liked. I avoid them. I’m in a book club with a lot of people from Aunt Charlie’s, and we were talking one day about how drag history is always, like, the pictures are generally of the performance. Drag is more than that; it’s about how you pay attention to the culture—how you make fun of it, celebrate it, how you dress in context, exist in these places, and it’s extremely communal.

There’s a lot of flash in these photos, you’re using a square, medium format, and you reuse some approaches to situating bodies in the frame. How did you develop this style?

At first it was more messy. The shooting component is best when it’s as subconscious as possible. I noticed a few years ago that I was starting to think about shooting in terms of a style, which is never good because you feel restricted. Instead it should be about getting more access to things; looking at the world in new ways should come first, and then the art. So now a lot of the style kind of comes out in the selection process, you know, because I shoot a lot.

Pepto Dismal at High Fantasy, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin.
Pepto Dismal at High Fantasy, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin. (Marissa Leitman)

Another picture I really like has a drag queen with "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs slung around her neck—accessorizing with market speculation paraphernalia in this gesture of refusal.

That queen, Pepto, she went to [California College of the Arts], so her interaction with drag has been very camp, pretty punk. … I remember once in college where one of the criticisms I got went like, ‘Why don’t you take pictures of drag queens in the daytime?’ They wanted a serious portrait of a drag queen staring straight at the camera. They wanted an easy explanation.

What do you mean by ‘easy explanation?’

They wanted this serious after-hours, under-the-covers thing which, to me, a lot of these photos are in a way. But they wanted a backstage pass in a way that felt like bullshit, or not my job.

Do you mean they wanted to be shown how drag queens are also regular people or something?

They wanted me to normalize it. To me it’s best when it’s not. It’s not normal, it’s better. I was like, you want the pictures to be a reason not to go. You want to know everything before you get there. At the end you wanted your grand finale, your period, when that doesn’t really happen.

Mandy Coco dressed as Myles Cooper cleaning up glasses on a busy night at High Fantasy, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin.
Mandy Coco dressed as Myles Cooper cleaning up glasses on a busy night at High Fantasy, at Aunt Charlie's in the Tenderloin. (Marissa Leitman)

You mentioned Barry earlier. He’s one of the only people in multiple photos here. Who was he?

He was my best friend, still is. He bartended on Tuesdays for decades, and he looked like a truck driver. At the end of his shift he’d have a vodka cranberry juice and watch TV, telling stories about this '70s cult, some love-related sex hippie cult where he learned he was gay. He had two major lovers later, why am I forgetting their names? I have the list on some napkins.

You have Barry’s lovers written on bar napkins?

Yeah, it was the night we became concrete friends. Sharon, Pindar from the cult, a Mormon from Salt Lake City, pencil-dick Paul—then it gets to the end, his last two lovers. One of them died of a drug overdose. Barry was madly in love with him, but he was a nightmare. Barry was impressed that he could take care of plants, but one day he goes on the patio and there’s like seven dead plants. He realized that the guy bought a new plant whenever one died—on Barry’s credit cards. Apparently one time he stole a bus with Barry’s drag queen roommate, Colette.

Why is the show called There Will Always Be Roses in San Francisco?

Aunt Charlie’s had this old, disgusting carpet forever until they changed it to a brown carpet with roses on it. It felt like the biggest luxury, everyone felt so regal on the squishy, rose carpet. My friend Brittany ended up in a K-hole on the ground stroking the floor, with her long, stringy fingers and going, ‘There’ll always be roses in San Francisco.’ It stuck with me as a weird, elegant and also crazy debaucherous moment that sits with the mentality of the bar.

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