G.L. Mitchell talks with photographer
Robert Giard about his new book,
Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and
The images above were selected from among the more than
500 portraits in Giard's extraordinary archive.
GLM: What led you to launch the "Particular Voices" project?
RG: In June of 1985 I was in New York City for the Lesbian and Gay Pride March. After the march the people I was with suggested we go to the Public Theater and get tickets for The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, a play about gay men and AIDS. We saw it that evening. The combination of marching that day and seeing this strong piece of theater stirred something in me and eventually led to my wanting to do something with my photography that was more directly related to my being gay.
All of these experiences--the gay experience, the issue of gay identity, how to align one's creative efforts with gay identity-- were on my mind. At the same time a friend, the late George Stambolian, was editing the first in a series of anthologies of new gay fiction for New American Library. In connection with that, he was meeting a number of gay writers, getting to know them and passing their books along to me. At one point he suggested that I do some portraits of these people when they came to visit him. I began to photograph some of the writers that George was meeting: Robert Ferro, Michael Grumley, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Felice Picano, George Whitmore, people like that. I wrote to Larry Kramer and William Hoffman (who wrote the drama As Is, which I saw a few weeks after The Normal Heart) and asked each if I could take his portrait as a gay photographer taking a portrait of a gay writer.
Prior to this I had done quite a lot of portrait photography but not on a specific theme. I liked the fact that this work brought together three very significant aspects of my life: that I was gay, that I was a portrait photographer and that I had a longstanding interest in literature. By early 1986 I had photographed about thirty people. Then I realized that I was planning my life around the project. I was spending almost all of my time organizing it. That was its inception.
GLM: Could you elaborate on the relationship between the gay writer and the gay photographer?
RG: The most significant aspect is that in some crucial respect I am on the inside where they are. As far as they are concerned, I am an insider. I have certain experiences in common with them. As different as we may be, there are some common experiences and feelings and perceptions that as gay people, we share. We are both part of a gay minority that has experienced a certain hostility, or oppression, from mainstream society. There is another important element in my approach to the portrait: I've read their work, so I have an understanding of them as writers. I have some sense of what it might be like to be engaged with literature and the word. These two factors, my interest in literature and the fact that I am gay, enhance the degree to which I can comprehend them. I hope these two factors sensitize me to "take" certain cues from the subject and try in some way to leave room for the subject to participate in being photographed. Too often the portrait situation becomes an opportunity for a photographer to impose his or her style, and, while I want to make a statement of my own in the portrait, I don't want it to be merely the occasion to assert my style, to make a formal statement.
GLM: Is identification as being gay a problem with any of your potential subjects?
RG: The project is called "Particular Voices, Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers." Since I write the person in advance, sending them a statement about my intentions, potential subjects know that if they say yes to being photographed, they are saying yes to being identified as a gay or lesbian writer. I have no hesitation about placing them in a position to make that decision; people are free to say no. Some, of course, have no problem with being photographed because they are already highly identified in their work or in their public lives. With others I cannot anticipate what the response will be, and with some of these there is a problem: my request becomes the occasion for them to make or remake a decision. A few people have said no for a variety of reasons--some of them, in my opinion, honest and thoughtful; others, more evasive. Usually the problem is the categorization issue; they don't wish to be recorded as a gay or lesbian writer. It may be presented as "I think of myself as just a writer, not a gay writer."
Personally, I've never experienced a mutual exclusivity between the two. Why not be both? A gay writer may be a writer who embodies an aspect of that identity in his/her writing or a writer who "happens" to be gay or lesbians. After all, it would be a pretty desiccated literature in which there was no connection between our deepest loves and desires and how we express ourselves.
GLM: The project has a broad reach. Was it always so inclusive?
RG: In the beginning, because of the specific circumstances, I was photographing only gay men. About a year into the work, I realized that if this was to be more than a set of isolated pictures the scope of the project would have to be more ambitious. I began to read more writing by lesbians, and to establish contact with writers like Joan Nestle, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Irena Klepfisz, and Juanita Ramos. I knew that I did not want the series to reflect a bias toward white writers or the Northeast. I wanted all segments of the population to feel represented. Since that time, I've photographed about five hundred writers: men, women, white, African American, Latino/a, Native American, Asian American. I continue to work to achieve this goal.
Furthermore, I didn't want this series to feature only gay celebrities. I hope the archive makes clear that significant writing, while not widely known even to many gay and lesbian readers unless they happen to subscribe to a particular magazine or follow small press writing, is being done, appearing in a variety of places, not only within the New York City publishing mainstream.
GLM: Is it correct to say that a central assumption behind your work relates to visibility, that gay and lesbian writers are not sufficiently recognized?
One of the reasons why some gay and lesbian writers write--not the main or sole reason necessarily--is the same as why I am doing this project: to make it concrete and evident that gay and lesbian people are in the world, are diverse, and have significant accomplishments. They are people to be reckoned with. Through them the gay and lesbian experience goes into the record and becomes part of history.
Photographs courtesy Vance Martin Fine Art Photography.
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