Discovering the hidden histories of LGBTQ+ life, love and identity

Many photos of LGBTQ+ life have been hidden away for decades. Just making and keeping them was a huge risk, but finally we can see their joy and value.
A pair of hands tears up an old photograph. Underneath are a pile of similar, undamaged photos.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

Writer & Editor – Canon VIEW

When a box is marked ‘private’, it immediately tells you something of what’s inside. Even if not labelled, sometimes little archives of documents and photographs are tucked far away from prying eyes, in attics, cupboards, or even under floorboards. Their concealment suggests that the contents are sensitive in some way, or so personal that the owner wants to protect them. The action of concealment has an air of the illicit.

Yet these hidden collections are often the ones that have the most to say, if only you know how to listen. They may not tell stories which the owners are comfortable or willing to tell, but it is more often the case than not that discoveries are made long after that person has passed. Across the world, photographs taken by LGBTQ+ people of themselves, their lovers, their communities and friends throughout the 20th Century have been emerging from their places of safety. Archivists, professional and amateur, private collectors and historians have been restoring them to their rightful places of cultural, artistic and historic significance.

Flora Dunster is a writer researcher and lecturer at London’s Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. With Theo Gordon she is co-author of the forthcoming Photography: A Queer History. Through the book, she has selected the work of 79 photographers, using their images to explore identity, community, aesthetics, the act of making and circulating images and, of course, discrimination. “When you have a good photograph of yourself, it's worth its weight in gold. So, to see yourself mirrored in a way that's affirmative is obviously hugely important,” she says. “But also, potentially quite dangerous. In a lot of instances, if the photographs are found, they become proof of transgression.”

A red lightbulb hangs in front of developing photographs pegged on a line. The room is dark.

A makeshift darkroom was often the only way to safely develop photographs for LGBTQ+ communities.

By today’s standards, most hidden images wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. If anything, they’d be considered by turns sweet, fun, maybe a little sexy and romantic. But at the time many were taken, the penalty for same sex relationships and non-normative gender expression was high. Depending on where you were in the world, and the laws at the time, LGBTQ+ people could be sentenced to imprisonment, hard labour, or worse. Chemical castration and electric shock treatment are also well-documented forms of punishment, the former even administered to computing pioneer and famed wartime codebreaker, Alan Turing. Evidence of such ‘criminality’ needed to be hidden well. So well, in fact, that finding it is still a work in progress.

However, it is also incredibly important to understand that being able to create those images in the first place meant the photographers were already often in a place of some privilege. “It raises questions of class,” says Flora. “Working class people could not necessarily afford to spend their spare cash on a camera.” This essentially means that, to a point, the hidden LGBTQ+ stories are mostly those of people with some means. Or, like Bolette Berg and Marie Høeg, running their own photography business. The pair had a portraiture studio in their busy port town of Horten in Norway. The two women lived together, and Marie was known locally as an activist for women’s rights. When not working, they enjoyed a fun social life, documenting their ‘dressing up’ sessions with their female friends, privately taking aim at gender roles.

In the 1980s, 440 of their old glass negatives were found in an old disused barn in Oslo, where they had moved to set up a new studio in the early 1900s. Among the negatives was a box marked ‘private’ and inside were the photos – among them, pictures of the cropped haired Høeg dressed as a man, in some she sports a fetching waxed moustache, others dressed in a shirt and cap, smoking a cigarette and some depicted her pretending to be an Arctic explorer. “The photos weren’t circulated, but they were made,” says Flora, nodding to the fact that some critics believe ‘private’ should have stayed so. “As a token, or a memento. For you to access your own feelings or your own memories when that person isn't there. It's no different from heterosexual relationships.”

Black and white photo of Marie Høeg wearing in a suit and sporting a moustache.

Marie Høeg in a suit with a moustache. Image courtesy of Preus museum, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cover of ‘Photography – A Queer History’ by Flora Dunster & Theo Gordon. It features a photo of a couple wearing leather.

The cover of ‘Photography – A Queer History’ by Flora Dunster & Theo Gordon (courtesy of Ilex Press, part of the Octopus Group).

Of course, photography didn’t stay restricted to studios and cameras grew smaller and smaller over the course of the century. So, you might’ve expected a concurrent explosion in LGBTQ+ photography as they fell into wider use. But while it became easier to take photographs, developing them was a whole other matter. The options were taking your film to your local photographic shop or using mail order processing and waiting up to a couple of weeks for the results, running the risk that you would be reported to the police for ‘indecency’. Or black out the windows of your bathroom and create a makeshift darkroom. The few that persisted opted for the latter or had access to facilities in a friend’s studio or at college. There are even rumours of underground networks to provide the community with such support and services that were closed to them.

To get round the censorship imposed on LGBTQ+ images and the risk of being ‘outed’ in a dangerous time, some photographers employed a ‘coded’ visual language. You might be familiar with ‘pictorialism’ in photography, where the images put emphasis on their artistic qualities. “For instance, recourse to Greco Roman antiquity allowed for a lot of expressions of desire to be coded,” Flora explains. “So, in some Victorian photography you see pictures of young men posed as Roman youth, which are very thinly veiled erotic expressions.” The same applied to the athletic and bodybuilding magazines of the 1950s, such as Physique Pictorial and Vigour Muscle Magazine, which used poses in the classical art style to evade charges of obscenity. These vintage magazines are still considered desirable and are widely collected today.

From the late 1960s, however, “the instant camera made photography a lot more accessible for queer or gender non-conforming subjects,” says Flora. This isn’t to say that it was universally accessible, as while it was more affordable than ever before, it certainly wasn’t for everyone. Photo booths too started to spread, popping up in a variety of public spaces. Suddenly, the risky step of sending your photos to be developed, even if you could do it anonymously, was not necessary and a quick Google will reveal a wealth of wonderful stories of private polaroids, revealing queer communities in all their glory. Many of these tales involve stumbling over a box or two to discover the contents were something truly exceptional. For example, 9200 photographs of April Dawn Alison were found in photographer Alan Schaefer’s home after his passing. April was his feminine alter-ego, and she shines in every snap, whether dressed as a homemaker or a movie star.

"The reason I was attracted to this research area is because it's about possibility rather than the restriction. The fact that even when the world seems very enclosed or very set, people have always found other ways to live.”

And as laws changed in most of the world, culture shifted, and these images need stay hidden in boxes no longer. Wouldn’t that be a fairytale ending? The truth, however, is that a time of deep sadness and tragedy created another chasm in history and why so many images may never be recovered. A break in the upward trajectory of creating a true, representative, respectful and joyful archive of LGBTQ+ histories. “When AIDS started to unfold and people began to die of AIDS-related illness, many families took their personal archives and destroyed them,” Flora explains. “It led to people’s friends and partners trying to get into buildings to rescue them before they could be taken away. It was destruction on one side and archival tenacity on the other. [Robert] Mapplethorpe's estate was out there in the public and so will never be destroyed, versus these thousands of people who just had a box of photos under their bed”.

So, while Mapplethorpe’s work and that of other LGBTQ+ photographers, such as David Wojnarowicz, Herb Ritts and JEB (Joan E. Biren), is embedded into the public consciousness, there are many, many more photos that may never see the light of day. And with every box that is discovered, opened and shared we build a bigger, more complex and truer picture of what it was, and is, to be LGBTQ+ in modern history. In doing so, we not only honour their memories, but use them to shape the future.

Flora and Theo’s book Photography: A Queer History will be available from Winter 2024 and is published by Ilex Press, part of the Octopus Group.

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