27
May
15

Exhibition: ‘Hal Fischer, Gay Semiotics, 1977/2014’ at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Zürich

Exhibition dates: 8th May – 7th June 2015

 

I remember coming out in 1975, six years after Stonewall, that seismic event that was the out and proud culmination of the resistance to oppression that had been building since the Second World War. Pre-disco, pre-Heaven night club (opened in December 1979) young gay men like me went to pubs in the Soho and Earl’s Court district of London and to places like Bang! nightclub on Tottenham Court Road (opened 1976). I used to wear an earring in my left ear, keys on the left, handkerchiefs to all the fetish nights at Heaven, and speak a queer language that secretive gay men had to speak in straight places… Polari (or alternatively Parlare, Parlary, Palare, Palarie, Palari; from Italian parlare, “to talk”).

“Polari is a form of cant slang used in Britain by actors, circus and fairground showmen, merchant navy sailors, criminals, prostitutes, and the gay subculture. There is some debate about its origins, but it can be traced back to at least the nineteenth century and possibly the sixteenth century… Polari is a mixture of Romance (Italian or Mediterranean Lingua Franca), London slang, backslang, rhyming slang, sailor slang, and thieves’ cant… It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words (including bona, ajax, eek, cod, naff, lattie, nanti, omi, palone, riah, zhoosh (tjuz), TBH, trade, vada), and over 500 other lesser-known words.

Polari was used in London fishmarkets, the theatre, fairgrounds and circuses, hence the many borrowings from Romany. As many homosexual men worked in theatrical entertainment it was also used among the gay subculture, at a time when homosexual activity was illegal, to disguise homosexuals from hostile outsiders and undercover policemen. It was also used extensively in the British Merchant Navy, where many gay men joined ocean liners and cruise ships as waiters, stewards and entertainers. On one hand, it would be used as a means of cover to allow gay subjects to be discussed aloud without being understood; on the other hand, it was also used by some, particularly the most visibly camp and effeminate, as a further way of asserting their identity.” (Text from Wikipedia)

For example “vada the bona omi” was a “look at the good man”, “spark out on his palliass” was “flat out on his back”, and “he had huge lallies” which was “he had huge legs” (more terms can be found on the Polari – British gay slang web page). Another favourite was “trolling the Dilly” which means “to cruise or walk about Pica/dilly” where the rent boys (known as Dilly boys) used to line up against the railings looking for customers or “trade”. In this context “trolling” could be seen as a form of gay flâneur. Wikipedia states that Polari had begun to fall into disuse amongst the gay subculture by the late 1960s, but in my experience this is not true. Within my circle of friends it was still in constant use into the early 1980s. The language was very useful in pubs in London where sailors, ruff trade, and the theatre crowd mixed in Soho, were you could comment to a gay friend on a man that you thought attractive and anyone overhearing your conversation would not know what you were talking about.

All this must seem rather quaint now, but the archetypal images of gay men have not changed much over the intervening years. There is still the natural young gay man, the bear, the leatherman (or those that just wear leather for dance parties, just for show and not for attitude), the S/M scene, still the handkerchief code (still seen though rarely these days), the armband on the left or right for active or passive, still the gay jocks but now much more the gym preened bunnies. Everything old is new again… it’s just less heterogeneous.

Marcus

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Many thankx to the Fotomuseum Winterthur for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

All photographs by Hal Fischer from Gay Semiotics, 1977/2014, Courtesy Hal Fischer, and Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles © Hal Fischer

 

In 1977, Hal Fischer produced his photo-text project Gay Semiotics, first as a series of silver gelatin prints and then as a book published by NFS Press. The project explored the growing visibility of the male gay community in the Castro district of San Francisco, particularly its street style and so-called ‘hanky codes’ indicating different sexual preferences. Fisher’s series was one of the earliest attempts to explore a queer semiotics, offering a playful engagement with male self-fashioning and archetypes. Gay Semiotics is both a marker of the self-confidence and creativity of the San Francisco gay community before the emergence of HIV/AIDS and an important contribution to West Coast conceptual photography.

 

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Blue Handkerchief, Red Handkerchief
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Keys
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Leather Apparel
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Gag Mask
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Amyl Nitrite
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Earring
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

 

JBW: Gay Semiotics is an attempt to map some of the discourse of structuralism onto the visual codes of male queer life in the Castro. How did you come to structuralism?

HF: Thanks to Lew Thomas, in graduate school I began reading things like Jack Burnham’s The Structure of Art and Ursula Meyer’s Conceptual Art. Those were two key texts. Of course, structuralism came late to photography, when you consider that Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation came out in 1966. Reading Burnham, going on to read Claude Lévi-Strauss, all that was crucial. I learned about signifiers, and thought, this is going on all around me.

JBW: You’re doing several things in Gay Semiotics. On the one hand, you’re parsing a signification system that arose out of a nonverbal, erotic exchange, and you’re also deconstructing gay male self-fashioning and photographing “archetypes.” It is thus a photo-project about the history of photography and its long legacy of ethnographic typing.

HF: I can’t say I was conscious of it at the time, but one of the first photographers who influenced me was August Sander. I mean, I LOVED Sander. I still do. I probably was a fascist in an earlier life, because I’m definitely into types, and I’m definitely into archetyping. I don’t really think it’s that awful a thing to do; it can be very informative. I was also interested in the Bechers and the notion of repetition.

JBW: So the work is also about genre.

HF: Yes. It’s also about personal desire; it’s a lexicon of attraction.”

Extract from Julia Bryan-Wilson speaking with Hal Fischer. Aperture magazine #218, Spring 2015

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Signifiers for a Male Response
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Street Fashion Basic Gay
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Street Fashion Jock
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Street Fashion Forties Trash
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Street Fashion Hippie
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Street Fashion Uniform
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Street Fashion Leather
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Archetypal Media Image Leather
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Archetypal Media Image Urbane
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Archetypal Media Image Western
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Archetypal Media Image Classical
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Archetypal Media Image Natural
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Dominance
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Sadism & Masochism
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Submisison
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Bondage Device Cross
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Bondage Device Open End Table Rack
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

Hal Fischer from 'Gay Semiotics' 1977

 

Hal Fischer
Bondage Device Meat Hoist
1977/2014
Inkjet print

 

 

Fotomuseum Winterthur
Grüzenstrasse 44 + 45
CH-8400
Winterthur (Zürich)

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday 11 am – 6 pm
Wednesday 11 am – 8 pm
Closed on Mondays

Fotomuseum Winterthur website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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