LONDON — In a scene of William Friedkin’s movie Cruising (1980) Al Pacino, who plays a straight New York officer who is under cover to investigate a series of murders linked to the gay S&M scene, goes in a sex shop. Puzzled by a display of colored handkerchiefs, he asks a sales assistant what they are for. The obviously bored reply is a very detailed one: “A light blue hanky in your left back pocket means you want a blow job; right pocket means you give one. The green one: left side says you’re a hustler; right side you’re a buyer. The yellow one: left side means you give golden shower; right side you receive.”
The hanky code discovered by this fictional officer was in a fact widely used in the US during the 1970s by gay men looking for casual sex. Men with colored hankies in their jeans pockets could be spotted in numerous gay clubs and in the streets of major urban areas.
Around that time, Hal Fischer, who had moved from Chicago to San Francisco to study photography and was getting involved in art criticism, was experiencing the vibrant gay community of the Castro and Haight-Ashbury districts. In February 1977, Fisher started to work on a series of black and white photographs documenting the “signaling devices found in the gay community”, as he later described his research. Combining images with text and captions printed into the photographs, Fisher consciously employed semiotics (the study of signs and symbols) to deconstruct some of the codes used by the San Francisco gay community to find and select sexual partners:
Traditionally western societies have utilized signifiers for non-accessibility. The wedding ring, engagement ring, lavaliere, or pin are signifiers for non-availability which are always attached to women. Signs for availability simply do not exist. In gay culture, the reverse is true. Signifiers exist for accessibility.
The resulting series of photographs is often witty, with a subtle irony coming from the contrast between the erotically charged nature of the pictures and the clinical style of the captions, reminiscent of a medical book.
After describing in great detail the meaning of a red handkerchief, the author feels the need to warn his readers that “red handkerchiefs are also employed in the treatment of nasal discharge and in some cases may have no significance in regard to sexual contact.”
Fischer’s self-described “Jewish humor” involves a good dose of self-criticism, and critique of the very methodologies of semiotics itself, which by the late 1970s, had been well embraced by artists and academics.
Fischer’s pictures were first exhibited in San Francisco’s Lawson de Celle Gallery in 1977, and then published by NFS Press the following year, in a book titled Gay Semiotics. The publication was successful and had a wide circulation back then, but once it went out of print, it became a rarity, until a second edition was released in 2015. In the meantime, the pictures had been included in exhibitions at MOCA, Los Angeles, and SFMOMA, San Francisco.
The current show of Fischer’s photography at Project Native Informant, in London, includes different bodies of works from that period and confirms a renewed interest in gay life in the 1970s, the hedonistic pre–AIDS crisis era characterized by sexual freedom. A further sign of a resurgence of interest in Fischer’s work is the recent music video for the song House of Air by Australian musician Brendan Maclean, which went viral on YouTube before it got removed. (Please note this video is NSFW.) The clip unapologetically borrows Fischer’s aesthetics, adding color — both literally and metaphorically — to it.
A series of portraits of men exemplifying what Fischer calls “archetypal gay images” is also included in the show. In this series, the photographer identifies five basic archetypes, derived from the erotic imagery established in gay magazines, connecting them with specific elements of American culture. If the origins of some of these are almost cliché, like the “cowboy prototype,” some others are less immediate. For instance, Fischer links a “natural prototype,” illustrated by an attractive naked man surrounded by conifer, with the American folk tradition. In particular, he mentions the 19th century idea of a virile individual in communion with nature that is expressed in literature by Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain, and in figurative art by Thomas Eakins.
Following a similar intention, some pictures illustrate the gay street fashion of men hanging out in Castro, revealing a great deal about gay subculture. While these portraits today may remind one of the street style photography of fashion blogs or American Apparel ads, their main source of inspiration is, quite evidently, August Sander’s ambitious project People of the 20th Century. Adopting the rigorous documentary approach of the New Objectivity, the German photographer famously spent decades, from the early 1920s to his death in 1964, taking an exhaustive visual record of German people, from beggars to industrialists. People of the 20th Century became an invaluable document of pre-Nazi Germany, its portraits divided into categories meticulously showing, in the words of its creator, “all the characteristics of the universally human.” With little textual information — the only indications about the people portrayed are in the titles which name their profession — the photographer invites one to read the images through the clothes and poses of his models.
In the same way Sander travelled around Germany looking for human archetypes, Fischer went out in the street looking at his friends, identifying different types coded through clothes, from the “forties funk” to the “hippie” and the “uniform man.”
Fischer is very generous in labelling every prominent element in the look of these types: the satin gym shorts of the “jock,” the boots of the “leather,” and the Levis jeans of the “basic gay,” which all contribute to shape the different characters. Poses are also telling: there couldn’t be more difference between the flirty attitude of the “jock” and the hyper-masculine posture of the “leather.” Keeping a levity that never fails to make the work enjoyable, sexual identities and desires are thus collected, anatomized, and classified.
Gay Semiotics never intended to be a complete catalogue of gay archetypes. It is, rather, a celebration of a delimited group of people acting in a particular time and space.
Fischer gave up photography in the early 1980s and although he has been asked to revisit his project, he has refused. Documents are pertinent only if they relate to a defined experience. Yet, it is the nature of signs to shift in significance.
Approaching today’s gay communities — anywhere in the world — with intentions similar to Fischer’s would be a fascinating exercise. The expanse of meaning always waits to be unfolded.
Hal Fischer: Gay Semiotics continues at Project Native Informant (Morley House 3rd floor, 26 Holborn Viaduct, London) through April 1.