New Book of Hal Fischer's Photos Capture 'The Gay Seventies' of SF

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An image from Hal Fischer's 'Gay Semiotics' series, 1977, included in the monograph 'The Gay Seventies.' (Courtesy of the artist and Gallery 16)

Arriving in San Francisco in 1975 to pursue a master’s in photography at SF State, Hal Fischer experienced more than just a change of scenery. “After a few months in San Francisco, and a memorable Halloween with a young Marlon Brando look-alike, I gave up any pretense of bisexuality,” he writes. “I was gay and loving it.”

The occasion of Fischer’s delightful look back on the evolution of San Francisco’s gay culture is the publication of Hal Fischer: The Gay Seventies, a monograph of Fischer’s photo-text works published by Gallery 16. The book opens with Fischer’s landmark series Gay Semiotics (annotated photographs dissecting gay signifiers, “archetypal media images,” fetishes and street fashion). Part anthropological study, part lampooning of the “Castro clones,” and rigorously yet delightfully conceptual, Gay Semiotics remains as exciting to look at in 2019 as it must have been when Fischer first presented the images in 1977.

Hal Fischer, 'The Gay Seventies,' 2019; published by Gallery 16.
Hal Fischer, 'The Gay Seventies,' 2019; published by Gallery 16. (Courtesy of Gallery 16)

While Gay Semiotics is likely his best-known work, The Gay Seventies proves it was not an outlier in Fischer’s practice. In the 1978 series 18th near Castro St. x 24, Fischer stationed himself near a bus stop to observe 24 hours of street activity around a bus stop bench, capturing old neighborhood residents, young men sunning themselves, punks and weed-smoking teenagers. His narration of the timespan captions each hourly photograph in an entertaining and increasingly strung-out prattle.

And in Boy-Friends, portraits of what can only be Fischer’s sexual partners (their eyes covered with identity-concealing black bars) get sorted into a coded, highly personal classification system, with Fischer describing the beginning and end of each relationship. For “B76SF-55 The Gym Attendant,” Fischer writes, “I find it difficult to reciprocate his attentions, and we shift from unsuitable amours to casual platonics.”

In each of six series included in The Gay Seventies Fischer reveals slivers of himself (and his desires), while maintaining a documentary distance from his subject matter and a crisp visual style—a feat in the context of the massive social, political and demographic shifts that took place in 1970s San Francisco.

Fischer will discuss his work—and the context it emerged within—at a Gallery 16 book release on Saturday, Oct. 19, 4–7pm. Come for the freshly printed copies of The Gay Seventies, stay for a conversation between Fischer and SFMOMA photography curator Erin O’Toole.