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Hal Fischer: Gay Semiotics

Words by
Jeppe Ugelvig

A monograph collecting the complete set of photo-text works by Hal Fischer (American, b. 1950, lives and works in San Francisco) has been recently published by Gallery 16 Editions, while a solo exhibition dedicated to the artist’s seminal series Gay Semiotics is on view at Project Native Informant in London

It’s paradoxical that in today’s image-saturated world, the practice of semiotics has largely declined. Meticulously deciphering the layered meanings and messages of consumer society’s bewildering visuality was a central concern for many of the prime aesthetic thinkers of 20th century, from Roland Barthes’ 1957 classic Mythologies to the artistic work of the Situationists and, later, the so-called Pictures Generation. Nestled in-between these was Hal Fischer, the self-proclaimed semiotician of American gay culture of the 1970s. With the same gentle sarcasm of Barthes, the photographer set out to portray the denizens of the world’s gayest city, San Francisco, through indexical means, producing a visual lexicon of homo aesthetics. A new book, The Gay Seventies, compiles all of the photographer’s quasi-anthropological photo projects for the first time. Of these, his most famous series, “Gay Semiotics,” aids the viewer in deciphering the complex sartorial codes among gay men: depending on placement and color, handkerchiefs, keychains, and earrings signify not only sexual preference, but can also communicate top/ bottom positions and various fetish predilections. (Although “in some cases,” it’s warranted, “it holds no meaning in regard to sexual preference,” as handkerchiefs are also “commonly used in the treatment of nasal congestion.”)

Even some fifty years later, the images still appear surprisingly contemporary: clean and heavily stylized, they resemble stock photography or many a recent fashion campaign, not least because of the imminent return of the ‘70s aesthetic both within and beyond urban gay culture. Fischer sports a rare photographic self-awareness in directly breaking down the techniques of aesthetic seduction he so perfectly replicates, as when discussing the stylized archetypal icons that make up what he calls “the gay media,” from “natural” and “leather” to “classic” and “urbane.” Taken as a whole, however, Fischer’s images read not only as a commentary of homosexual image production of the time, but rather, of all stylized imagery: “Any subject can be made ‘natural,’” he rightly points out, “when photographed under the proper conditions.”

The Gay Seventies also offers a welcomed encounter with several of Fischer’s lesser-known series, such as “18th near Castro St. x 24” (photographically monitoring a cruising bench in San Francisco’s gay district over 24 hours), “Boyfriends” (part-memoir, part-satire on the clichés of dating) and “Cheap Chic Homo,” a kind of go-to style guide, where Fischer once more hones in on the fashions that make up gay identity. These chapters make up a warm and aesthetically razor-sharp portrait of pre-AIDS San Francisco, which, as the artist himself reflects upon in a short essay at the back of the book, figured as the utopian epicenter for countercultural gay life up until the devastating outbreak in the early 1980s.
Just like the tragic fate of the now-gentrified city, the term “gay” has been so aggressively normalized and co-opted by the establishment over the past forty years that it hardly holds any signification worth speaking of. Instead, it’s been replaced by “queer,” which often employs much more diffuse and diverse aesthetic codes, ripe for interpretation and indexical categorization. Even so, the antiquated aspect of The Gay Seventies makes it all the more potent as a work of visual semiotics: a call for the importance in deciphering, articulating and critiquing the symbols and signs that make up identity anywhere, even when reduced to a single fashionable (or sexy) image.

Image courtesy of the artist and Gallery 16, San Francisco.

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