In Pictures: The Rebellious Lesbian Scene of 90s San Francisco

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Renegades by Chloe Sherman
The Heist, 1996© Chloe Sherman

Chloe Sherman’s new book and Berlin exhibition displays her raw documentary photos of femmes, butches, punks and studs in the city’s vibrant Latinx Mission District

When she was in her early twenties, Chloe Sherman stumbled across a photobook and realised what she’d been looking for. It was 1991 and photographer Del LaGrace Volcano had just released Love Bites, a publication widely considered to be the first photographic monograph of lesbian sexuality from an insider’s perspective, which sparked controversy and censorship in both mainstream and gay media for its sex-positive portrayal of lesbian communities across San Francisco, London, and beyond.

“I would thumb through the pages and want to know these people,” Sherman tells AnOther. “This book was like my temporary bible. I hadn’t found a community I really identified with, so I was thinking, where do I go? San Francisco was featured, and so I headed there, seeking as interesting a scene as the one I saw in the images.” The New York-born photographer, who was living in Oregon at the time, visited San Francisco with a friend and moved to the city’s vibrant Latinx Mission District the following weekend.

It was there, in the pulsing heart of the city’s queer subculture, that she found her people. In the decade that followed, Sherman lensed her own world of femmes, butches, punks and studs, taking enough images to fill an entire wall cabinet with 35mm negatives. Now, Sherman has published Renegades. San Francisco: Queer Life in the 1990s, a book and exhibition travelling outside the US for the first time at f3 – freiraum für fotografie in Berlin. “I always knew it was a unique time that I wanted to capture and preserve. It was deliberate, but I could not have imagined how quickly this era would feel historical.”

Moving like “a spy in plain sight” as her friends described her, Sherman slipped in and out of view, using roll after roll of film in cafes, bars, bedrooms, tattoo shops, beaches and streets. She captured her friends mid-laugh, mid-stride, mid-dance, mid-drive, and mid-embrace, committed to preserving the “vibrancy, joy, tenderness, and resilience” she saw around her. “I always had my camera with me and I photographed copiously. Every night of the week there was a club, an event, a band, a place to go, and that’s what we did,” she remembers. “It was essentially my extended family, and that’s why this body of work became so expansive.”

As Sherman acknowledges, San Francisco had always welcomed the off-beat – the artists, misfits, hippies and renegades who headed west. But the 90s were a groundbreaking time in the city’s queer history. “It was scrappy and DIY and raw and experimental and alive,” she explains. “There was gender exploration. The community loudly and proudly embraced gender variation in a public way, before there was even a vocabulary for it.” In blowing up gender binaries, Sherman’s peers departed from the more essentialist feminism of the 70s and 80s, leading to “clashes” with older lesbians who rejected their embrace of masc fashion and expression. “We were a new generation, and we were creating a new jumping-off point,” Sherman reflects.

Joining the San Francisco Art Institute mid-way through the decade, like Del LaGrace Volcano before her, Sherman combined her appreciation of formal art with a raw documentary style, capturing the swirl of street and nightlife with a careful eye to composition, colour, and the flow of movement across the frame. “I was photographing the underdogs. A group of people not accepted in mainstream society, who weren’t in movies or on magazine covers,” she explains. “But to me, they were gorgeous, and I was dedicated to presenting this beauty in a formal way.”

Sherman never left San Francisco. But the city she fell in love with, particularly the working-class Mission District, has been gentrified almost beyond recognition since the tech boom of the early 2000s. “San Francisco has traditionally been very accessible, and as much as change is inevitable, it’s sad to witness what I find to be the most interesting people being priced out. Their absence leaves a void.”

Renegades. San Francisco: Queer Life in the 1990s by Chloe Sherman is published by Hatje Cantz and is out now. The accompanying exhibition is on show at f3 - freiraum für fotografie in Berlin from 30 June - 3 September 2023.