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November 27, 1998 marked 20 years since the tragic assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk at San Francisco City Hall. Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay officeholders in America. His influence forced indelible changes in America, energized the gay community, and redefined the lives of thousands of gay men and lesbians, not least my own. Yet this exhibition, Harvey Milk, Second Sight rather than reiterating the public image and deeds of the man, attempts to portray a personal portrait of him during the twenty years leading up to his rise to political office--before he cut his hair, donned a suit, and began his life in the national spotlight. Harvey Milk, Second Sight was curated from thousands of slides in the Harvey Milk Archives/Scott Smith Collection at the San Francisco Public Library.

For the sake of context, I will only touch upon Harvey Milk's fascinating and complex existence. Most of the legend surrounding Harvey begins with his successful campaign for supervisor in the San Francisco district elections of 1977. Although his term lasted only eleven months, his election was a turning point: he was transformed from an impassioned observer to a scrutinized subject and the voice of a community. Yet, the young gay martyr and hero had had a full life and a diversity of experiences before beginning his political life in San Francisco--as evidenced by the archive--as a closeted, struggling gay man trying to make a life for himself in a time of great oppression and social hostility.

Harvey Milk bought his 35mm Nikon rangefinder--a Nippon Kogaku--while serving in the Navy in the 1950s. Although Harvey made few images of his personal life early on, he began photographing more soon after his discharge. For Harvey, the subject that continued for many years to have the greatest visual appeal was men--men from behind, men close-up, men sleeping, men cruising, men parading, men relaxing. Scott Smith, later Harvey's long-term lover and the executor of his estate, would become Harvey's favorite model, often posing for an entire roll of film in a single setting under his obsessive direction. The many images of Scott to be found in the archive exhibit a heartfelt intimacy, friendship, domesticity, and desire, revealing the photographer's true love for his subject. Although there are a number of sexually explicit photographs in the archive, I have decided not to include them in the exhibition in the belief that some images belong solely in the realm of privacy and legend.

In documenting a unique and "unofficial" history, Harvey Milk's life, legacy, and photographic testimony are of particular interest to me. My interpretation of the archive is by nature a subjective one. I am presenting here a collection of photographs that move me, individually and collectively, and in some way closely relate to my own personal photographic archive. Most compelling are Harvey's photographic documents of domesticity and ordinary life--the miraculous moments that two men share in the forming of a sexual romantic relationship , the initial infatuation, the travels together--the signifiers of time shared and proof that true happiness can exist between two persons of the same sex. Harvey would host slide shows for close friends to see themselves or recent travel images. Like most Americans, he would edit the photographs most worth remembering and place them in photo albums. Although such albums exist in the archive today, most are in disarray and incomplete. Harvey's focus on unspectacular, everyday life, reflect a romantic, sultry aesthetic gaze toward men and sexuality. It is these domestic, intimate portraits that constitute some of life's essential gifts.

"Last night as I carried you to my bed I saw the day over and over--I needed no camera yesterday to capture glorious pictures- they are forever burnt into my heart."
Harvey Milk,
from a love note to Jack Lira,
January 24, 1977

arvey Milk did not intend, when he took these images, to create an archival document of the fifties and sixties gay urban male couple "experience" in America. Yet these are just the kinds of representations of gay life that I, as a youth in Boston, longed to see in mainstream culture. My own restricted view of the world was the one constructed for me by the media and the homophobic Irish-Catholic culture in which I grew up. With the onset of AIDS in the early 1980s, identifying oneself as gay became less desirable than ever. Harvey Milk, Second Sight is dedicated to all the young gay and lesbian people from Altoona, Pennsylvania; Braintree, Massachusetts; and right here in liberal San Francisco who are coming out of the closet and making the world a better place for all humanity. Thanks to the work and words of Harvey Milk, and the efforts of his supporters and followers, I did come out and it changed my world. Harvey Milk stood for all of us. We are his legacy.

see the photographs!

Many thanks to the follwing individuals for their assistance and support of this project:
Elva Smith, Daniel Nicoletta, Barry Harrison, Rosa von Praunheim, Gene Lee, Rupert Jenkins at The San Francisco Art Commission
and Tim Wilson, Susan Goldstein, and Jim Van Buskirk from the San Francisco Public Library

Harvey Milk/Second Sight is available as a travelling exhibition. Please contact Rupert Jenkins at the San Francisco Arts Commission; email: or call 415.252.2568.