It’s a chilly December evening in downtown Salt Lake City. Outside A Cup of Joe, one of Downtown’s hipper coffee and tea shops, the thick snow swirls and slaps the windows – a dramatic contrast to the light, warmth and laughter behind them.
For this bleak month’s duration the coffee shop has been turned into a memorial of the gay movement’s strength, courage and power. On its walls hang 15 black and white portraits of such gay icons as Radical Faeries founder Harry Hay, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and poet and filmmaker Robert Broughton. Men who have one thing in common other than their incalculable contributions to gay rights in America: The powerful effect their lives and friendships have had on photographer and author Mark Thompson. The former editor of The Advocate calls this exhibit Fellow Travelers, or a collection of images of “like-minded companions.”
“[These are] brave brothers who are building a community, moving forward together,” Thompson said in an interview with White Crane, the gay men’s cultural and historical organization sponsoring the exhibit’s tour. “It is also a sly reference to the use of the phrase during the early days of the Cold War when people who were accused of being communist sympathizers were dubbed “fellow travelers.” It was a coded word used pejoratively, so I wanted to redeem that and give it a more positive application for today.”
Walking through the exhibit, Thompson shares stories about some of the portraits (some of which have appeared in his book Gay Soul, copies of which he signed at the Dec. 7 event) and the men behind them. As Thompson gestures to each portrait the first thing the viewer notices is the eyes, which Thompson says he has always paid special attention to when printing his photographs.
“It’s that old saying about the eyes being the windows to the soul,” he says. “If you’re present with someone, you’re looking into their eyes. It’s important to convey the essence of a person, not just their face.”
Thompson stops in front of Broughton’s portrait, which is one of the first in the gallery.
“I was this timid gay boy volunteering at a gay film festival,” he says, recounting the day he first met the poet. “After his performance, there was a reception. He saw me and walked through the crowd towards me, and they parted like the Red Sea. He took my face, kissed me on the cheek and said, “Don’t worry, everything will be alright.’ It was a transferal of spirit from an older gay man to another.”
Thompson stops next to the portrait of singer and early AIDS activist Michael Callen, a founder of the a capella gay group The Flirtations and one of the first Americans to speak to both houses of President Ronald Regan’s Congress about the importance of fighting this disease. Tenderly leaning close to the portrait of his deceased friend for just a moment, Thompson recounts the day he took this pensive and moving picture.
“Michael moved to LA near the end of his days,” he remembers. “One day I called him up and said Michael, I want to take your photo. Not to publish it anywhere. Just to take his photo.”
Callen agreed and invited Thompson over. An excellent chef, Callen prepared his friend a sumptuous Italian dinner and the two talked for hours – something Thompson said he typically does before taking a portrait.
“The day was wearing on and finally I said, “Michael, this is the moment.’ I wanted to take a beautiful picture of him. We tried a lot of different poses and finally I said, “Okay. Just look at me and go like this,” and Thompson rests his head on his hand to demonstrate. Callen complied, and Thompson snapped the picture. His friend died only a few months later.
“When I was putting together this show, I thought, I’ve got to include Michael, he was such a lovely spirit,” Thompson says, adding that he has also been living with AIDS since the early 1980s. “There was something about him, his spirit of action, the way he’d say we’re going to get through this together.”
A journalist by trade and study, Thompson said he has loved photography since high school, when he took a photography class with the grandson of legendary American photographer Edward Weston. But unlike the photojournalists of his time, Thompson only ever wanted to focus on subjects that had significance for him personally.
But Thompson said he didn’t think to much with his photographs, thousands of which he estimates he has taken in his lifetime, until 1995, when he retired from the Advocate. It was a tempestuous time for him, the year in which protease inhibitors were first released and also the year he lost his gay brother to AIDS. He remembers wandering the beach asking God what he should do next
“I said to God ‘I’m tired of making sentences,’ and a voice came to me and said, ‘The photos, dummy.’”
After that transforming experience, Thompson pursued his photography diligently. He also went back to school to get a second degree in clinical psychology. Although he has taken some time off to work on a photography book featuring 200 of his color and black and white images, he has worked in various AIDS clinics. He has also counseled youth at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, where he attempts to pass on a little of the encouragement Broughton gave him when he was a youth in need of support.
“I just want to get them to understand how precious they are, to make them think about what they have to offer the world,” he says.
Ultimately, Thompson hopes that his exhibit will help gay men and women of all ages learn about their history, and use that knowledge to better their lives.
“My motto with this show is you’ve got to take care of yourselves if you want to last,” he says.
Salt Lake City therapist and co-facilitator of the gay men’s spiritual group Queer Spirit Jerry Buie says that his organization is thrilled to help bring Fellow Travelers to Utah audiences.
“The idea of this exhibit was taking images from Gay Soul and seeing how we incorporate those into our identities as gay men,” he says. “Gay men don’t consider that they have a history, but they’ve all contributed in our own unique ways. To me that’s what civil rights is about. Once I know what I am, I don’t have to defend it. I just am it.”
The exhibit will run until Dec. 31 at A Cup of Joe (353 West 200 South
Salt Lake City). It is free to the public.