Nicholas Blair lgbt street photography Castro to Christopher

Nicholas Blair lgbt street photography Castro to Christopher

In the early 1980s, photographer Nicholas Blair took to the streets of San Francisco and New York City, capturing intimate moments between gay and lesbian people during political marches and early iterations of Pride parades.

Just over a decade after the historic Stonewall Rebellion, a young Blair began his street photography career documenting an unprecedented moment of LGBTQ visibility in American society: bold, public displays of affection, celebratory community events and rallies promoting gay liberation. In his debut photo book, “Castro to Christopher,” whose title references Castro Street in San Francisco and Christopher Street in New York City, Blair shares selections of what he calls “a very large coming-out party.”

“When I was living in San Francisco at that time and was witnessing what was going on around me, it seemed very unique and very special. And I think that holds true to this day,” Blair told CNN in a phone interview. “And now that we’re having so much political blowback against the LGBTQ community, it just seemed like it was important to get this work out.”

Performers in a Pride parade, San Francisco, 1982

People attend a Pride parade in San Francisco, 1982

People attend a Pride march in New York City, 1984

In 1978, shortly after dropping out of high school, Blair left his home in New York City and hitchhiked across Latin America — as far as Buenos Aires — before landing back in the US in a hippie arts commune in San Francisco.

It was there, shortly after the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to office in California, that Blair became acutely aware of the blowback the LGBTQ community was facing in response to their growing visibility, even in a city that had largely gained a reputation for welcoming queer people. He took his Leica rangefinder camera and began to document this dichotomy.

“I’d always looked at San Francisco as being a very libertarian place. We were in the last session of the hippie movement. We had long hair,” Blair explained. “And then all of a sudden, this murder took place, and it was a real wake-up call.”

Women ride a ferry in San Francisco Bay, 1980

Revelers — in costumes that appear to critique spending on the US military — on Halloween in Christopher Street, New York City, 1986

His candid black-and-white photography documents fleeting (but timeless) moments of self-expression, sexual tension and empowered activism. In photos taken at Halloween parades, he captured partygoers transgressing gender binaries in flamboyant, scantily clad costumes; at Pride events, he shot photos of couples holding hands, embracing each other and sharing kisses in public.

“There was an incredible feeling of joy, of energy, of humor, of just incredible social currents. It was just a wonderful place to be and hang out and photograph… and you just never knew what could be coming down the street,” Blair said.

“It could be a guy dressed up in leather with a little leather dog, or it could be three drag queens, or it could just be somebody taking out their laundry… and you would not necessarily know that they were gay unless you were kind of attuned to it.”

A street scene on Castro Street in San Francisco, 1983

On the beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1983

On Christopher Street, New York City, 1983

Notably, Blair was cognizant of including photos of queer women in his work, even if they weren’t as outwardly visible as the men during that time. “They tended to be not as ostentatious, a little quieter, a little more laid back,” he noted.

After some of his photos were published in the historic LGBTQ magazine The Advocate in 1984, Blair expanded his project to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Fire Island, New York, to capture the culture of these storied travel destinations still frequented by many LGBTQ people today.

Although he is not part of the LGBTQ community, Blair says the photo subjects welcomed him: “I was surprised that more people weren’t reticent about getting photographed, feeling like maybe they didn’t want to be outed. I don’t think anybody ever was upset at having me take their picture, and more often than not, they would want to be photographed,” he explained, adding that he still “thanks the gay community for presenting this opportunity to me.”

Police detain a man on Castro Street, San Francisco, 1979

A historic scene: The first AIDS Candlelight Memorial in San Francisco, 1983

Notably, one of the last chapters in his book captures the first large-scale AIDS candle vigil in San Francisco in 1983 — amid a community already in mourning, just a few years before the disease ravaged a generation of LGBTQ people. “If it wasn’t for AIDS, who knows what would’ve happened in terms of the gay liberation movement and people,” he shared, recognizing that so many people who died could — and would — have been artists, activists and leaders promoting the cause. “It really set the community back.”

It’s Blair’s capturing of the vigil in particular that helps cement “Castro to Christopher” as a vivid time capsule of gay life before marriage equality, HIV prevention medication and the boom of trans visibility.

In its pages, viewers are invited to reflect on the past while understanding how it has influenced our present. It is a tribute to a generation — in many respects the first — of LGBTQ people whose lives and experiences shaped queer life today, in remembrance not just of their painful moments but of the pockets of joy, celebration and resistance they claimed in their lives, their loves — and in the streets.

Castro Neighborhood, San Francisco, 1983