San Francisco in the 1970s at the Gage Gallery
After dodging half-naked and boisterous Blackhawks fans on Friday after the Stanley Cup victory parade, I visited the far quieter Gage Gallery to view the nostalgic and intriguing photo collection, San Francisco in the 1970s by local shutterbug Jerry Pritikin. Alone in the gallery and surrounded by walls covered with evocative black and white images, I was transported to a time of free love and political progress that defined the gay community in San Francisco during the 1970s.
Pritikin, a Chicago native, began shooting images of gay life in San Francisco after moving there in the mid-1960s. What started as a simple project to document moments in his life for family and friends soon became a far more personal and political undertaking. Trading in his Kodak Instamatic camera for more advanced equipment, Pritikin began documenting not only the physical changes in the historic Castro district but also the hostile political environment that was emerging. With anti-gay legislation being passed and anti-gay rhetoric becoming prominent in the public eye (thanks to figures like Anita Bryant), San Francisco needed a hero and that hero was Harvey Milk. As the beloved politician led the struggle for equality, Pritikin was there to intimately capture all of the moments, both good and bad.
Pritikin's relationship with Milk, however, was far more than voyeuristic admiration. After upgrading his equipment, Pritikin began to frequent Milk's photo store that also served as a community meeting place where individuals converged to discuss life, politics, and progress. Pritikin recalls that "people came in to pet Harvey's dog, talk politics, or just watch the never ending parade of good looking young men passing in front of Harvey's store front window. By osmosis I was involved in early gay sports and politics."
The permeation of politics into Pritikin's work is brilliantly captured in his various photographs. Rather than being completely political or personal, the images capture the moment at which politics were no longer a pasttime for the gay citizens of San Francisco but instead a means of survival and self expression. Earlier works highlight the free and jubilant atmosphere that defined San Francisco in the 70s. From naked hippies basking in the sun to debaucherous moments during gay pride parades, Pritikin gives viewers insight into an emerging subculture. Photographers can often intrude on the subjects and moments they capture, but for Pritikin, the photographs actually seem to document his friendships and life events.
While San Francisco's exuberant gay community is certainly a critical element to the exhibit, there are also more somber and heart wrenching moments in Pritikin's photographs. Oscillating between tragedy and triumph, the photographs seem to capture the duality of gay life in San Francisco. At the same time gays were celebrating victories like having a gay bar visible from the street, they were also facing political persecution. Pritikin captures moments like the White Night Riots and Harvey Milk's casket viewing with crisp images that are unforgettable. By sharing images of cars demolished during rioting and Dan White's trial, Pritikin not only reminds us of pivotal moments in the fight for equality but also those people that lost their lives in the process.
Though the loud and often salacious activities of Pride weekend certainly serve their purpose, Pritikin's exhibit seems to document a struggle in ways that a parade simply cannot. San Francisco in the 1970s stands as a solemn reminder of our community's past and our obligation to those leaders who came before us.