Thursday, 20 May 2010

The Fairoaks Project: Visions of a 70s Bathhouse

This is really exciting. The drkrm/gallery in LA is showing a series of Polaroids called The Fairoaks Project. The photographs are from a San Francisco bathhouse of the same name taken in 1978. The gallery describes the photos/exhibition:

'In celebration of Gay Pride Month, drkrm/gallery proudly presents an extraordinary, never-before-seen glimpse into pre-AIDS gay sexual culture. The Fairoaks Project is an exhibit of Polaroid photographs taken by Frank Melleno during the spring and summer of 1978 at The Fairoaks Hotel, a San Francisco bathhouse.

Situated in a refurbished Victorian building near a black ghetto, The Fairoaks was known for its laid-back and racially integrated ambiance. Bold and unapologetic, Melleno’s images capture an aspect of gay life rarely seen in snapshot photography: sexually candid encounters that are playful, spontaneous and often affectionate. The dark storm of drug abuse and pandemic disease that would soon overtake the community is not visible in these celebratory pictures.

Melleno’s collection of Polaroids was put in a box shortly after they were shot and have not been seen until now. Many of the images contain nudity and frank erotic scenes, but they also capture men dressed in festive attire and engaged in other aspects of the counter-culture lifestyle the Fairoaks promoted. Many artists lived at the hotel, and ongoing therapy-support groups and monthly theme parties enhanced the Fairoaks’ reputation as a neighborhood center for gay men as much as a bathhouse.'

The photos represent a pre-AIDS time in the history of queer community. There are no bathhouses today in San Francisco as a result of AIDS and the policies followed by city officials. These photographs therefore take on a heightened relic like quality, depicting acts that might now be regarded as radical but were then defined as ordinary. This is despite our transformed socio-legal/socio-political attitudes. This makes for a rather captivating exhibition.

See more about the Fairoaks Project here. I can't make the LA exhibition but I have ordered the book (link on the gallery page) and I'll hopefully be able to see some of the pictures that are in the Chronotopia exhibition at SOMArts in San Francisco next month. More details here.

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