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Dark Room: Handling queer photographs

Coinciding with Phyllis Christopher’s exhibition Contacts at BALTIC and the publication of her book Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988-2003 (Book Works, 2022), Ariel Goldberg, Languid Hands and Sam Dolbear contribute to a digital noticeboard reflecting on their own encounters with queer photographic archives.

Phyllis Christopher prints her photographs in home and community darkrooms, using various techniques to create unique analogue prints. Many of the works included in Contacts were hand printed for the exhibition and each image in her book Dark Room is reproduced from a print rather than a photographic negative. The way that Christopher’s photographs are made by hand resonates with the kinds of queer intimacy and do-it-yourself cultures that they show as well as how the images continue to circulate and are cared for. The digital noticeboard responds to Christopher’s photography and to issues of desire, consent, and labour that encircle queer photographic archives.

Ariel Goldberg

As soon as Phyllis Christopher moved to San Francisco in 1988, she continued to contribute (following the initial publication of her work by Susie Bright) to On Our Backs, the sex positive magazine that promised on its cover to be ‘Entertainment for the Adventurous Lesbian.’ During the late 1980s and 1990s the magazine tiptoed to documenting emerging discussions on trans life in the Bay Area. During Christopher’s time with the magazine, there were two 101-style feature stories focused on answering questions to the uninformed, mostly about trans masculinity: ‘Some Girls Will be Boys’ by Marcy Scheiner, with photographs by Honey Lee Cottrell and Kathleen Aird and in January/February 1995, ‘How Shall I Address you? Pronouns, Pussies, and Pricks – Talking to Female to Male Transsexuals,’ by Cherry Smith with photographs by Loren Rex Cameron. I revisit these feature stories – which at times use radically different language and frameworks to our current language around trans experience – against a backdrop of other traces of trans cultural work that appeared in On Our Backs. Christopher was a freelance photographer at the magazine as soon as she moved to San Francisco, providing images for such stories as: ‘Daddy’s Little Girl: The Pleasures of Being Naughty’ (May/June 1991) and ‘Mistress of Iron’ (July/August 1992). Christopher also became Photography Editor at On Our Backs from 1991–1993. What role did the magazine’s editors and frequent contributors, like Christopher, play in directing the emergent discourse on trans life within a lesbian magazine?

Ariel Goldberg’s publications include The Estrangement Principle (Nightboat Books, 2016) and The Photographer (Roof Books, 2015). They are a 2020 Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant recipient for their book in progress Just Captions: Ethics of Trans and Queer Image Cultures. Goldberg’s writing has most recently appeared in Afterimage, e-flux, Artforum, and Art in America. Their research and writing has been supported by the New York Public Library, the Franklin Furnace Fund, SOMA in Mexico City, and Smith College. Goldberg has been a guest curator at The Poetry Project and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. They teach across multiple universities in the New York area.

Sam Dolbear

In 1992, Phyllis Christopher took the photo titled ‘Cartoonist Kris Kovick, San Francisco, CA, 1992’, and initially published this work in On Our Backs magazine. My contribution provides a panoramic reading of this photograph, which features the photographed hand of Kris Kovick, poised with a pen above a page of a blank sketchbook, along with an ink drawing of a hand, and the inscription ‘Do Lesbians Cruise Hands?’ I begin with this photograph and return to it throughout, folding in various histories of hand-reading and hand-printing, touch and tracing, cruising and sexuality, intimacy and the archive. I seek to place the hand within a photographic, as well as a broader sexual, social, and historical context.

Sam Dolbear is a fellow at the ICI Institute of Culture Inquiry in Berlin. He completed his PhD at Birkbeck College University of London in 2018 with a thesis entitled ‘Names Written in Invisible Ink: Walter Benjamin, friendship and historical generation’. He subsequently became a visiting fellow at the Institute of Modern Language Research, exploring two figures of exile in London: the radio-producer and composer Ernst Schoen (1884–1960) and the sexologist and palmist Charlotte Wolff (1897–1986), about whom he is currently preparing publications. He has taught and published widely, including in Flash Art, Artforum, and Radical Philosophy, and was a founding member of the audio-radio collective MayDay Radio.

Languid Hands

We discuss our own encounters with queer photographic archives through a loose and sprawling conversation regarding intimacy, DIY cultures, desire, consent, materiality, labour and the notion of archival sensoria through the work of Ajamu X (the 2021 exhibition ‘Ajamu: Archival Sensoria’, Cubitt, 20 May – 11 July 2021, and the publication AJAMU: ARCHIVE, Ajamu X, 2021). We will put these encounters into conversations touching on the work of Phyllis Christopher (‘Contacts’, BALTIC, and Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988-2003, Book Works, 2022).

Languid Hands is a London-based artistic and curatorial collaboration between Rabz Lansiquot (DJ, filmmaker and programmer) and Imani Robinson (writer, artist and editor). Languid Hands are the Curatorial Fellows at Cubitt, London until Spring 2022 and the curators of Frieze LIVE 2021. Their practice explores collaboration, curation, black study and experimentation across exhibitions, moving image, text, performance, publications and public programming as well as peer-led artists development and artist residencies. Their 2019 film Towards a Black Testimony: Prayer/Protest/Peace was commissioned by Jerwood Arts for the group exhibition Jerwood Collaborate! and has been worked with as artist moving image, ongoing curatorial prompt, and theoretical framework for thinking through blackness, testimony and the failures of forum and evidence.