Published  14/10/2021
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Phyllis Christopher – interview: ‘We had come out, people were dying, we had nothing to lose, so we just wanted to have the best party’

Phyllis Christopher – interview: ‘We had come out, people were dying, we had nothing to lose, so we just wanted to have the best party’

The photographer talks about her coming of age in 1990s San Francisco, where, despite the Aids crisis, lesbians, in the post-lesbian feminist era, largely wanted to come together, have fun and create visibility

Phyllis Christopher. Photo: Kate Sweeney.

by ANNA McNAY

Phyllis Christopher (born in Buffalo, New York) found her feet as a photographer in the San Francisco LGBTQ+ scene of the 1990s. Working as photo editor for the lesbian magazine On Our Backs, she was inundated with women wanting her to photograph them, often in quite erotic setups. But Christopher was also busy documenting the protests and parties, the Aids rallies and her friends. Through this, she contributed significantly to the creation of a lesbian visual language and lesbian visibility more generally.



Phyllis Christopher. Lex, San Francisco, CA, 1997. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

Now based in Newcastle, UK, having moved due to falling in love, she still runs workshops for the LGBTQ+ community, which, she says, is where her heart lies. With a major retrospective of her archival images about to open at Baltic, and the publication of her first monograph, Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988-2003, by Book Works, Christopher is about to bring that visibility to the fore once more.

Christopher spoke to Studio International earlier in the summer about what the LGBTQ+ scene in San Francisco in the 90s was like, some of her less conventional workdays, and why the fight isn’t over yet. 

Anna McNay: Your exhibition, Contacts, and the publication of your first monograph, Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988-2003, draw on your extensive archive of documentary photography, participating in the performance of queer and lesbian identities and feminist politics. Can you transport me back to your San Francisco of the 90s – for it very much was your San Francisco, your scene? Paint me a picture of the life you were living there, and what was happening in terms of queer and feminist politics at the time.

Phyllis Christopher: The San Francisco of the 90s, for me, was this amazing lesbian bubble of really fun women, it was a sex-positive party. I arrived there in 1988 and did this work until about 2003, exactly as the title of the book says. It was a really special critical mass of queers from all over the world, particularly all over the country, who went to San Francisco, because it was back in the day when you had to leave your small town to be with other people and have a healthy life. I left Buffalo, New York, where I had gone to school. I had a supportive community there, both in the arts and in the lesbian feminist community, but I needed a bigger community, and there was no place like San Francisco at the time. Now, of course, the world has expanded, and there are wonderful communities everywhere. But, back then, a friend and I visited, and we just thought, no matter what, we’re going to move.



Phyllis Christopher. Michou & Cooper, Alley South of Market, San Francisco, CA, 1997. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

When you came out in those days, you said goodbye to your biological family, you lost a lot, you often lost your job, lost your friends, and it was a bit like that, moving. Looking back, at this age, I realise what I gave up, which was my biological family, because I lived across the country, but I never looked back. At the time, it was a complete joy to find my other family.  That’s what it felt like, it felt like family, and it felt like, every day, somebody was doing something new and interesting, and the most important part of it was this desperate feeling in the air from women, from lesbians, that they wanted to be photographed. There were exhibitionists there in droves. I’m not an exhibitionist, I’m rarely in front of the camera, so, for me, as a photographer, I was in the right place at the right time with my generation, documenting the amazing stuff that was happening. So, that was San Francisco in the 90s – we were creating a language. My work was, I think, mostly about trying to create a lesbian visual language, trying to find those visual signifiers in the way we dressed, how women were signalling to each other that they were lesbians.

AMc: Can you give any examples of that?

PC: The work got very involved in thinking about fetishes, or just fashion, such as flannel, in the American sense of plaid. Wearing a lot of androgynous wear, Frye boots, what kind of shoes a woman wore and what that said about her sexuality. Was she a high femme? Was she a capable butch? Was she an incapable butch? What are you signalling with your clothes? We talked about how sexy eyeglasses were, which was something really different from the view of the straight world, where they were not valued at the time. We liked the intellectual look.



Phyllis Christopher. Priscilla & Elvis Herselvis, San Francisco, CA, 1991. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

I worked at a magazine called On Our Backs with some really good friends who were also interested in exploring these ideas. I photographed Elvis Herselvis a lot – one of the first, really fun drag kings I met. We were taking our cues from gay male culture, for sure, and this was our time to pick up the ball and party. Sadly, of course, it was also the height of the Aids epidemic. We were out protesting, but the lesbian community also came together and was having a party, and we were discovering each other. We had come out of a very serious lesbian feminist era of discussing politics and oppression, and we had all had enough of that. And then Aids happened, and we were young, and we were like: “Where’s the party?” and “We’re going to have it no matter what!” We had come out, people were dying, we had nothing to lose, so we just wanted to have the best party.

AMc: Were you the only photographer working for On Our Backs?

PC: I was the photo editor, so I was always looking for other photographers, and we were very aware of diversity at the time, very much like today. I was always looking for women of colour, I was always looking for differently abled women to take the photos, because we realised it was not enough that I take a photo of a woman of colour, it had to be a photographer of colour who did it. We went out all the time and handed out cards and talked to other photographers to try to get them involved.



Phyllis Christopher. Dee's Back, San Francisco, CA, 2003. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: That was one of the things that struck me from the small sample of photographs you have already selected for the exhibition – just how, even by contemporary standards, where it’s such a big thing, you really captured diversity.

PC: That’s good to know, because, by today’s standards, I was starting to think it wasn’t very diverse, but I wasn’t going to worry about it, because we had very sincere motivations, and we were quite politically aware that, even as white, working-class women – and the magazine was started and mostly run by white, working-class women – we had this tool, and this was pre-internet, that we were using to communicate to other lesbians, and we knew how powerful it was. San Francisco was always a little bit ahead of the curve in those days, so, diversity politics was huge, and inclusion was huge, in the early 90s.
 
AMc: It also struck me how it seemed more inclusive. Today, there is so much focus on minorities within minorities, and everyone defining their own little box.

PC: Yes, and I keep thinking that you have to worry about who your enemies really are. We’ve got some scary political things happening in the world – look at Poland, or Hungary, or Russia – and there are people fighting about language within the queer community. I know how important it is to evolve, but I wish there were more sense of humour, and more of an expansiveness to make mistakes when you’re speaking, because it has always existed, there has always been a younger generation coming up and saying: “This is how I feel, and these are the words I want to use,” but you’ve got to be a little lighter with it, I think.  And remember whose shoulders you’re standing on, right? When you’re young, you don’t realise that so much, but, looking back, I think about those women who, in the 70s, fought for women’s land, or the photographers who came that little bit before me, such as Tee Corinne and Honey Lee Cottrell – they did such a hard job, and they paved the way. Also, Debi Sundahl and Myrna Elana, who started On Our Backs, made that magazine while working full-time jobs, and there were no grants, there was no funding in America for a lesbian sex magazine. They had to sell ads. Every issue, we never knew if we had enough money to do it.



Phyllis Christopher. ACT-UP Protest at Burroughs Welcome Pharmaceutical Company, Livermore, CA, 1989. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: Were you already a photographer when you went to San Francisco? And were you documenting events as they were happening, or were your photographs more staged?

PC: The intimate ones were always consensual, and they would be spontaneous to a certain point, and then I would stage them. Eventually, people asked me to photograph them. I always say it’s as if sex were our sport, our point of interest in that era, that’s what we all did, and we all told each other what we were doing. If friends, or friends of friends, were into something new and interesting, they would come to me and say: “You have to photograph me.” Looking back, it’s a little bit unusual, but, in those days, it was like: “Yeah, of course I’m going to photograph you tying each other up in belts on Wednesday night, because you’re doing it in a really unique way, and you want to share it with the world. Of course you do.” But we were figuring things out, and that’s how we were doing it.

I was a photographer from a very young age, and I had done a fine art degree in Buffalo, New York. I wanted to be a photojournalist, and I was doing that in Buffalo, but when I saw San Francisco, there were so many leftwing publications and amazing opportunities out there, and I wanted to photograph for a variety of publications. It also happened to be the gay publishing boom of the 90s, all these amazing writers and editors were creating publications and giving work to gay and queer photographers. I went to every publication trying to sell my photos. But, mostly, I wanted to work for On Our Backs, which had existed in the 80s, and which I knew about already. I sent work to them early on, when I was in school, and they liked it, and they published it, and so when I went out there, I showed them what I was working on, and they said: “You know how to take photos.” Their office was amazing because women would take their vacations and go to San Francisco and, in the back of their minds, on the agenda for the week of their vacation, was: “I’m going to be photographed for On Our Backs.”



Phyllis Christopher. Terese, Ocean Beach, San Francisco, CA, 1999. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

When I eventually moved there and ended up being the photo editor, a typical day might see two women march up unannounced from the street and say: “Look at my amazing piercings, look at my tattoos, look how great I am, don’t you want to photograph me and my girlfriend?” I would be like: “Of course I do,” and then that would turn into a photospread for the magazine. I always go back to the economy of it. I was a working photographer, so I took assignments for money. On Our Backs paid very little, but it did help. It created the culture, and it launched careers. It helped the career of Lea DeLaria, whose last big role was as Big Boo in Orange Is the New Black – the very large, white butch lesbian. There was a whole bunch of lesbian comedians and performance artists who had no other place to be published, so it wasn’t just sex, but they would talk about sex. It was the only place you could be candid and talk about real life. 

I moved to San Francisco to be a photographer and totally lucked out because I was a lesbian involved in this scene that everybody was so excited about.

AMc: Do you distinguish between lesbian and queer? Which would you use to describe your work?

PC: That’s been a minefield for 30 years. I remember, during the era of Queer Nation, which was an LGBT visibility group in the early 90s, we were comfortable with the word “queer”, because it felt new and all-encompassing, and people had such problems with the word “lesbian”, because I think they felt pigeonholed, and it’s also a noun, not an adjective, you’re “a lesbian”. If you said you were “a queer”, that would sound a little condescending, wouldn’t it? “You’re a gay” – you don’t say that. I guess people say, “You’re lesbian”, but it seems more like a noun to me. And I don’t know anyone who has not struggled with that word. But because “queer” now seems so dissolved – it seems as if everybody says they’re queer, and I’m glad they’re saying they’re queer, I’m sure they feel they’re queer, but did your parents kick you out of the house? No. If you’re saying: “I’m queer, but I’m a cis female living with a cis male, and my parents are totally supportive, and I’m financially supported,” then no. Are you a trans kid living on the street? I’m not a gender warrior. I don’t really want to have political conversations. But, personally, at this point, I’m just going to take the word “lesbian” again, because I feel as if women – lesbians – have fought so hard. Being a butch lesbian in the 70s or 80s was a hard road, and lesbian sexuality is at the bottom of a pile of sexual values and funding. It’s a miracle that I have this book and this show at the Baltic. I have wanted it since the 90s. I knew this body of work should be a book, but it wasn’t the time for it, the publishers didn’t know what to do with it, and it started feeling a little lesbo-phobic, because gay men were getting all their books published.



Phyllis Christopher. Alley South of Market, San Francisco, CA, 1997. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: Why is now the right time?

PC: About five years ago, a lot of young people, and older academics, too, started calling me up and wanting to come over and talk about the work. I think it’s become a hot topic in academia, the era of the late 80s and early 90s and queer studies. From what I can tell, people are actively studying “the queering of things”. This was slightly news to me, because I had stepped away from academia many years ago, and I was just working as a photographer and living the queering of things. I think it is happening now because two women, who must be in their early 30s now, discovered On Our Backs at a book fair, read one issue, and were blown away. They were like: “What is this lesbian sex thing?” And they loved the old graphics. They couldn’t find any more copies anywhere, but it turned out that one of them is a good friend of my partner, and so they found me that way, and we created a show around On Our Backs, and then people started thinking about that a little bit more. On a small level, that’s what has happened in my life, and, on a larger level, people seem to have become interested in this era of activism.

AMc: Are the book and the show linked?

PC: Very much so, yes. The book is more all-encompassing. Laura Guy and Lizzie Homersham, who are editing it, and the designer, Rosen Eveleigh, in fact the whole team at Book Works, had a hand in editing the selection of photos, and I really think they are the best from that body of work. Then Laura and I did a slightly different edit for Baltic, which is more about performance, performing for the camera, creating a community out of performance, and exploring life through a camera. We picked more performative, posed photographs, and ones of drag king photos and protests.



Phyllis Christopher. Marcus, San Francisco, CA, 2001. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: Was there any level of censorship?

PC: There has been no censorship as far as the book or the show are concerned, no.

AMc: Back in the 90s, your audience was very specifically lesbian readers of On Our Backs and any of the other magazines you were published in, so, again, presumably, there would have been no censorship. Did your work ever get seen beyond that bubble, as it were, though, and was there ever a negative reaction?

PC: There was actually a lot of censorship from the community back then. With every issue of On Our Backs, there would be angry segments of the community, who didn’t want to see SM, so then we would do more of a vanilla issue, and we would get: “Where’s the SM?” “Where are the women of colour?” “Where are the differently abled women?” “We want to see more contemporary women.” “Those are bad haircuts!” “Why don’t you have women who …?” We were trying to please the most diverse bunch of people in the world, whose only commonality was lesbian sexuality.



Phyllis Christopher. Party, Los Angeles, CA, 1999. Giclee print. © Phyllis Christopher.

But, more seriously than that, the issues were also censored by the printers quite frequently. We would think we had found a printer who didn’t mind, and then someone on the line at the print shop would turn out to be a born-again Christian that week, and so they couldn’t deal with one picture, and the whole thing would have to be redone. The magazine was always stopped from going to Canada and to the UK, because there were different censorship laws, and it was also the case that if you posted something in the mail, there were different laws that applied to the sexuality that was portrayed. There were some ridiculous misunderstandings. For example, we used Christmas lights to tie up a friend of mine, because she wanted to be this beautiful high femme for a Christmas ad in the magazine, and the printers said: “That’s non-consensual bondage, and we’re not going to print it.” At the time, the climate in the US was dictated by [the Republican senator] Jesse Helms, and they were defunding the national endowment for the arts, because certain photographers had photographed their naked children. It was so out of context. There had been a Robert Mapplethorpe show, and the conservatives had become hysterical about that and said: “We’re not going to fund anything queer. This is obscene work. Take down the Mapplethorpe show.” He had received an NEA [a national endowment for the arts], and so that affected everybody. It became an environment where people were starting to become really afraid of publishing so-called non-consensual bondage, even when it was obviously consensual.



Phyllis Christopher. Leslie Mah, Tribe 8, San Francisco, CA, 1995. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: That ties in with my question about intimacy versus erotica versus pornography. Do you see these as distinct categories?

PC: I never had a burning desire to create pornography. Maybe I did create pornography, I don’t know. The joke about pornography is that it’s just erotica with bad lighting, and my lighting is really good. But I had an interest in the lesbian visual language, identification of a culture whose inherent commonality is sexual preference, so that’s one of the reasons that the work tended to be sexual. I was interested in capturing moments between women, and the culture that was being created in the moment. Some of my work did get a little graphic, and, for aesthetic reasons, I haven’t put some of that in the book, because it just doesn’t appeal to me, I don’t think it’s a strong photo, and I think my work looks like pretty paintings or fashion photography compared to what you can Google in about 10 seconds now, or even compared to common straight pornography in the old days. It was always very, I thought, playful. I always had an interest in making lesbians look beautiful, because they are, and culture was telling us that we were ugly. Certainly, during that era in San Francisco, I worked on various pornographic videos for friends, but that wasn’t really my work.



Phyllis Christopher. ACT-UP Protest at Burroughs Welcome Pharmaceutical Company, Livermore, CA, 1989. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: You said before that you don’t normally like being photographed yourself, so am I mistaken that you’re in some of the photographs in the book?

PC: No, there’s one self-portrait from a series from the mid-80s. All the erotic work grew out of female nudes I was taking, and, at first, I did some self-portraiture to liberate myself from any body issues I might have had. Then my friends saw these photographs and said: “Photograph me!” I was amazed people wanted to be photographed, and we did all sorts of unflattering angles and wide-angle photography. I thought they were very interesting and artsy, and that’s the stuff I started sending to On Our Backs. It formed my aesthetic around photographing women. But I don’t photograph myself any more, no. In fact, not since I went to California and there were so many amazing people to photograph.

AMc: Although you were very much a documentary photographer, or photojournalist, do you see your work as art as well?
 
PC: Yes. I feel mine is a very artful way of doing photography. I definitely feel more like a photographer/photojournalist, but this work, especially over the years, felt like an outgrowth of either my loneliness, depending on what I was going through at the time, or my joy, or lust, or whatever, but it was definitely coming through me, and there was a rapport with the subject, a like-mindedness, and an agreement on where we were going with the images.



Phyllis Christopher. Dyke March, San Francisco, CA, 1999. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: Also, it was all analogue work, and you hand-printed it and tinted the images, so it’s not like today where you can go in and just click away ad-lib.

PC: Right, yes, it was a much slower process. A photoshoot in those days was a 24-hour ordeal. Well, it was many days long, actually, because you would get the assignment, you would set it up, and then you would do the photography, which was much slower and more thoughtful than you can be with digital, and then you wouldn’t know what you had, you wouldn’t sleep that night, really, and then the reason I shot in black and white was partially because I prefer the way it looks, but partially because I then had control over processing it. I wouldn’t have to send it to a lab, which might object to something. I had total control.

I always had a darkroom set up in my house, and my current partner has reminded me how it was such a dedicated practice that I would frequently lose friends and girlfriends. The work was very time-consuming, and I would move from one assignment to the next. I would do a photoshoot, which would take hours, do the processing the next day, do the proof sheets, choose the images, print them, hours and hours of printing in the darkroom, way more than I needed because I had to see them large to choose. I developed a particular printing technique with selective focusing, so some parts of the photograph would be in focus during the exposure period of printing them in the dark room, so it became very technical and very time-consuming, wonderful, very immersive, but not sustainable. I think by the time digital came along, I probably needed a break.



Phyllis Christopher. Dancer, Club Ecstasy, San Francisco, CA, 1991. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: Do you work with digital now?
 
PC: Yes, I do. Of course, for the Baltic show, I have gone back into the darkroom and printed everything.

AMc: Do you still have a darkroom, or did you have to create one especially?

PC: I have one in my house, and I found one to do the larger photographs.

AMc: Are you still an active photographer today?

PC: Well, for the past two years, I have been working on the book and my two shows – the one at Baltic and one at Grand Union in Birmingham – so I have been very much in retrospective mode. But, last month, I did some portraits of the gay community in Newcastle, for a project about the gay community of my generation – so the gay community that was politically active in the 80s and 90s – talking to the current generation. I photographed both the younger people and the older people. I also work with gay youth groups – that’s my favourite thing. I have done a lot more workshop-oriented photography since I moved here, because there are a lot of communities up north who don’t have a lot of access. They’re old mining towns. It has been amazing. I love that work, helping people take photographs, especially queer youth.



Phyllis Christopher. lissaivy & angus ann, San Francisco, CA, 1999. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: Is your work still primarily related to gay, lesbian and queer themes, then?

PC: It is. A lot of the workshops aren’t, but that’s where my heart is, yes.

AMc: What made you move from San Francisco to the UK?

PC: Guess! What could make you move from San Francisco?

AMc: A partner?

PC: Yes, love. The laws in the US were far behind those in the UK. I fell in love, and we couldn’t live in the US. But, to cut a long story short: I absolutely love it here, and it was such a blessing in disguise, because it was a hard transition, but San Francisco had become unaffordable, like all big cities, and everybody I knew had left, every photographer I knew. Really, it was heartbreaking, their careers were falling apart, because everything went digital, and people didn’t need photographers so much. They were asking the writers to use their iPhone to get a shot.



Phyllis Christopher. Protest Against Anti-Gay Christian Fundamentalist Preacher Larry Lea, Halloween Night, San Francisco, CA, 1990. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: Is your partner from the UK originally?

PC: Yes, that’s why we moved here, or else I probably would have found a way to stay in San Francisco.

AMc: And is that why the end point of the Baltic exhibition and book is 2003?

PC: On Our Backs ended in 2004, I think, maybe it stuttered back and forth, but I felt, when the internet became more readily available, that the work was over, there was no need for it. People were communicating, and they had resources. It just felt as if a different era was beginning. I was fumbling to master digital photography, and I went way into debt, as did all my peers, trying to get the right equipment and figuring out if I could even be a photographer any longer in this era when everything was changing. It just felt like that need wasn’t there any more. However, unbelievably, I’m hearing from young women, especially the generation that experienced Section 28, that they felt really isolated and had no information. And there are some young queer kids now who still feel like that, so I don’t know if they’re not finding resources online, or what the needs are, but the needs are still out there. I’m not saying for sex photography necessarily, but for community.



Phyllis Christopher. Jackie & Shar, for ‘Public Sex’ book cover, San Francisco, CA, 1993. Silver gelatin print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: Definitely. Did you come up with the exhibition title Contacts?

PC: I might have, but I’m going to have to say Laura and I came up with it. I don’t know, she might have come up with it. I think we might have together.

AMc: Is there a deliberate reference there both to the contact sheets and the contact with the people?

PC: Yes, it’s about respect. It just felt really profound when Baltic said: “You can have this room for all this lesbian work.” I was overwhelmed and grateful, and I said to Laura: “I want this to feel like a lesbian presence.” We’re having four big digital-print murals in the show, I think four feet by five feet, and then there are going to be a lot of 16in by 20in and 8in by 10in – actual silver gelatine photographs. It makes me think of the old days of hanging small pictures in a cafe, and here we are at Baltic, and it’s great. It’s like [lesbian photographer] JEB’s work – she was chiselling away, and she got her lesbian visibility happening. That’s what I felt like too. So, Contacts, yes, is about this family of queers, of lesbians, and we’re just telling our story. 



Phyllis Christopher. Dancer, Club Ecstasy, San Francisco, CA, 1991. Giclee print. © Phyllis Christopher.

AMc: Presumably, you have a massive archive. How did you go about selecting what to include, and do you have any favourites?

PC: For Baltic, we went with the idea of performance, as I mentioned. A photograph that always stands out for me is one I took of a dancer at a dance club – it’s called Dancer, Club Ecstasy, 1991. The woman has her hands hanging down and her belly on her belt – to me that is one of the sexiest bodies, and it has always been a favourite. It also feels very lesbian, very butch, and it’s the kind of body I’m attracted to, which you don’t ever see depicted. That was one of my goals – to show beautiful varying bodies. 



Phyllis Christopher. Flannel Fetish Tribute Shoot for On Our Backs, San Francisco, CA, 1991. Giclee print. © Phyllis Christopher.

The shot of three women kissing (Flannel Fetish Tribute Shoot for On Our Backs Magazine, 1991) is also very funny. There’s a lot of humour in the work, because we were making a respectful nod to lesbian feminism with the woman symbol. For me, that was a very sexy era, because that’s when I was just figuring out that I was a lesbian, when I was a little kid, and looking at pictures of lesbian feminists from the 70s, dressed in flannel with peace signs, hippies and so on. For this photo, I was working with a group of women from my generation, and we all said: “Oh yeah, that’s so hot, let’s make a denim jacket.” So, my friend Shar made that denim jacket with the flannel peace symbol, and we had a lot of fun. Then it got really silly because Stephanie, on the very right, is very femme, and she wanted to be all pretty with her flannel stockings. You can’t really see them in this picture, but there’s a whole spread of it. They just had this free-for-all, where they were rolling around making out and drawing woman symbols on each other. Again, we were saying: “Yes, we’re feminists, but we also want to have a party.”



Phyllis Christopher. Castro Street Fair, San Francisco, CA, 1989. Giclee print. © Phyllis Christopher.

Finally, the picture of the women on the phone booth (Castro Street Fair, 1989), is really performed, because they’re friends of mine, and they saw me there, and wanted me to take their picture so they could be in the newspaper. It’s hard to explain how important it was, but a bunch of women banding together and being present at a gay male street fair was a really inspiring sight. I saw them up on the phone booth, up high, taking their space, and my friend Carmen, the one with the sunglasses, staring at the camera, grabbed that other woman. They were conscious of the camera, but tried to act naturally, also. To me, that’s a great photo of lesbian visibility and performance. Everyone was very media savvy.

AMc: Final question! What do you feel is the key battle facing lesbians and feminists and queer people today? And do you see any artists who are actively working with this?

PC: Yes, Zanele Muholi. I mean, people in countries like that. South Africa is violent and horrific, as are many countries around the world. The fight’s not over. My work does not carry a huge political message, I’m just saying it’s important to have visibility out there, there is a world of horrible things happening, and it’s still very important. Our political climate could turn on a dime – look at Trump and all that bullshit. Just because we have come so far – I’m married and I have just adopted a child, and I can’t even believe how things have changed from the days of, “You’re gay, you have nothing, goodbye” – I’m very aware that things could change if we had some maniac in power. Look at how everything is divided, it’s so polarised. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if someone took control and tried to wipe some of this information away. That’s where I’m always going to be coming from, because it was done before our time, and it was wiped away. For example, Hitler marched all those art students out of the Bauhaus, and who knows the work that was burned and taken away? Not to get too heavy, but, just because there are lesbians on TV, and I’m married, it doesn’t mean it’s over.

Phyllis Christopher: Contacts is at Baltic, Gateshead, from 23 October 2021 to 20 March 2022

Phyllis Christopher: Heads and Tails is at Grand Union, Birmingham, until 4 March 2022

Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988–2003 is available for pre-order from Book Works

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