Krannert Art Museum acquires Illinois alumnus Hal Fischer’s conceptual photographs

A Salesman: Installation, 1979 (printed 2018) Carbon pigment inkjet print ©? Hal Fischer Gift of Robert and Sonia Carringer 2018-18-2

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Photographer and University of Illinois alumnus Hal Fischer documented the gay community in 1970s San Francisco, creating a visual ethnography of that time.

Krannert Art Museum recently acquired the three portfolios of photographs Fischer produced. It is the first museum with a complete set of his work. One portfolio will be featured in “Art Since 1948,” a new long-term installation of works from KAM’s collection of modern and contemporary art that will open Aug. 29. Fischer will return to campus Sept. 12 to receive a distinguished alumni award from the School of Art and Design.

“There was a historical moment between Stonewall in 1969 and the beginning of gay liberation, and the moment at the beginning of the ’80s when AIDS appears and decimates the gay community,” said Tim Dean, an Illinois English professor who researches in gender and sexuality studies. “Fischer is working in the decade between those two moments, producing a visual record of the experimentation that gay men in the urban enclave of San Francisco were engaging in.”

Hal Fischer, Signifiers for a Male Response from Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Visual Coding Among Homosexual Men, 1976. Carbon pigment print, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Fischer’s iconic series of conceptual photographs is being rediscovered, said Amy Powell, the curator of modern and contemporary art at KAM. Renewed interest in his work began after it was included in “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980,” a series of exhibitions in 2011-12 on the art of Southern California and its influence. Fischer began reprinting his earlier work in 2015.

Terri Weissman, an art history professor who teaches courses on photography, said Fischer’s photographs illustrate a shift beginning in the mid-1960s when many photographers began making work that was more overtly conceptual or theoretically oriented.

“It’s emblematic of a particular moment in photography’s history when photography and language come together, and when many photographers think of themselves more as artists who use photography rather than ‘art photographers,’” Weissman said.

“Artists were thinking about the relationship between image and symbol, language and meaning. Hal Fischer’s work is really at the center of that,” Powell said. “It’s very much playing with categorizations, and also drawing on photography’s ability to document and categorize.”

Fischer’s work shows the paradox of photography in that it purports to depict its subjects in an objective or neutral manner, when in fact it is invested with political, cultural and social meaning, Weissman said. His portfolio “Gay Semiotics” depicts the codes gay men were using, such as wearing an earring, handkerchief or keychain to signify a particular meaning. The text on the photographs notes the intended meaning, giving the portfolio the feel of an instruction manual.

“Fischer has said it was a moment when it could be dangerous for a gay guy in San Francisco to approach a straight guy. You had to know how to read these codes,” Weissman said. “It’s a deeply political message, but he presents it with this humor.”

“Street Fashion: Jock” from “Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Visual Coding Among Homosexual Men,” 1977
Courtesy Krannert Art Museum

The text points out that a particular article of clothing – seemingly sending a message to a person in the know – could also be just a piece of clothing. A photo of men wearing keychains attached to their jeans includes text that dryly reads: “Keys are also worn by janitors, laborers and other workers with no sexual signification intended.”

Dean described the photographs as provocative, witty and funny.

“One of the things I really appreciated was the guy had a sense of humor about it all. A lot of it is tongue-in-cheek and irreverent,” he said. “It was a moment of gay liberation, a moment of sexual experimentation, a moment that gay people were still extraordinarily oppressed, but he’s having fun with it all as he’s doing it.”

Dean is interested in what the visual codes in the photos say about representation and identity, and how people connected before online dating sites existed. He said he’d like students to think: “How do I signal, in my online profiles, what kind person I want to hang out with, what sort of person I want to be friends with. We are hyperconscious about curating an image online to impress people. Thinking historically about those photos can lead students to think about how they conduct their own lives.”

Fischer’s portfolio “18th St. Near Castro” – featured at Art Basel in Switzerland in June – is experimental work in which he photographed a bench every hour for 24 hours at 18th and Castro streets in San Francisco and recorded the neighborhood community.

Editor’s notes: For questions about Krannert Art Museum, contact Julia Nucci Kelly at jkell@illinois.edu. To contact Amy Powell, email alpowell@illinois.edu. To contact Tim Dean, email dean@illinois.edu. To contact Terri Weissman, email tweissma@illinois.edu.

Source: Illinois News Bureau

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Krannert Art Museum acquires Illinois alumnus Hal Fischer’s conceptual photographs
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Krannert Art Museum acquires Illinois alumnus Hal Fischer’s conceptual photographs
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Photographer and University of Illinois alumnus Hal Fischer documented the gay community in 1970s San Francisco, creating a visual ethnography of that time.