Photos Exploring What It Meant to Be Gay in 1980s New York

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Stanley Stellar Night Life Kapp Kapp New York
Mr NYL, 1987© Stanley Stellar

Stanley Stellar speaks to Miss Rosen about his photographs from the 1980s, which are on show now in New York

As a young gay boy growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Stanley Stellar always felt alone. “I didn’t have any friends,” he tells AnOther. “I would go up to the roof of my building, sitting there by myself, and thinking about the future. My greatest joys were looking at stacks of magazines. Images became my friends.”

After studying graphic design at Parsons in the early 1960s, Stellar began his career as an editorial art director designing magazines and coffee-table books. “I’m a child of all media,” he says. “Inside my head are all the images of the second half of the 20th century. I was very aware of what was being done and who was doing it, along with the history of photography. After seeing so many other people’s work I wanted to take my own pictures.”

In 1976, Stellar got his first professional camera and set forth on a mission to document Manhattan’s West Village, which was flourishing during the early years of the Gay Liberation Movement. “When I came out, the gay world was on the street. If you were a young gay man you had very few choices as to what to do, how to meet people, have sex or friends. I found Greenwich Avenue and Christopher Street; for so many years that was the spot,” Stellar says.

“I was invited to gay men’s apartments and seeing what their lives were like. It made a real impression on me; I needed to record us in ways that were not necessarily commercial. Images of men in society meant GQ or porn magazines on 42nd Street – that was it. I wanted to do what I had not seen.”

In 1981, Stellar became staff photographer for The New York Native Christopher Street Magazine, and That New Magazine, amassing a series of photographs documenting the city’s radical gay scene, a selection of which are on view in Stanley Stellar: Night, Life. The exhibition brings together works made between 1981 and 1997, celebrating the queer community and its fight for survival during the Aids crisis.

Stellar remembers the moment he realised the work he wanted to make. He had been walking down Canal Street when he spotted a man with a tattooed arm. “I took a picture of his arm and walked away. He said to me, ‘I got birds, too.’ I turned around and he lifted up his shirt and over each nipple was a tattooed swallow,” Stellar says.

“That picture told me what my vision was. I knew I was doing something hardly anyone had done ever before – I was making an image that was homoerotic. That was a very bad word used to mock me, put me down, and make me feel less than human. This image was homoerotic in a way that I could show it to people. It wasn’t anybody’s penis. It wasn’t ‘Oh Stanley you’re a queer fag taking these bad pictures.’ Society didn’t let me look at men. You could look at women all you want but don’t look at a man.”

But Stellar looked, and then looked some more, creating a singular archive of images that are equal parts homoerotic and historic. “My view is the view from inside. I take you to that time and place and my truth that I see in the world,” he says. “I was in this gay world that most straight people didn’t know anything about. You had to be in it to know it existed and that gay men were more than the clichés published in the media calling us pansies and fairies. We were humans and it was news to all of us.”

Stanley Stellar: Night, Life is on view at Kapp Kapp Gallery, New York until August 9, 2020. Kapp Kapp will be donating 10 per cent of the gallery’s proceeds from the show to the Marsha P Johnson Institute.