The Amazon Trail
By Lee Lynch
Photo: E. Mulligan
The first photograph I ever took was of a stack of magazines, tied in a bundle and left by a curb. That old Kodak Brownie box camera had a viewfinder at the top and a plug-in flash attachment which used one blinding bulb per shot. I held it at waist level to arrange the scene I wanted.
I used black and white film because that's what we had back then. This would have been in the late 1950s.
I come across that picture now and then and it brings the whole story to mind. I was walking with my friend Joanie Reilly to our Girl Scout Troop meeting in a church basement in Queens, on a treed street of one-family homes. I was somewhere between 10 and 12 years old, president of my troop, though I knew nothing about leadership, and butchily awkward, though I only knew that word from school yard taunts I didn't understand. The photo inspires memories of sister scout Dolores, a nearly silent girl with long, thick black hair; and Marsha Kassen, who I had a crush on; and our leader Mrs. Lederman, who I also had a crush on and whose husband taught the photography badge. The day, the people, the place are all so clear to me because that shiny little square of paper keeps them fresh.
The most recent picture I took was of six balloons my sweetheart brought home on my birthday. Three were Mylar and said "Happy Birthday." Three were plain orange because she knows I have developed a passion for orange, a reaction to living for years on the beautifully gray, green and blue Oregon coast. A couple more years in Florida and I'll be hoping for green and blue balloons.
The camera used for the balloon picture is a digital with no viewfinder, only a screen on the back to frame the shot. It's got a 10X optical zoom, video and sound capability and all the other modern bells and whistles. Like the balloons, the camera was a birthday gift from my sweetheart, who knew I was pining for an upgrade from my 2X digital zoom which took me two years to learn to use after all the simple point and shoots since my Kodak.
With that first camera I took pictures of my girl Suzy when we were 15, 16 and 17. I wish I'd taken a lot more, so I'd have a visual record of gay life in the early 1960s. The gay kids then were spectacular: courageous and defiant, but not as tough as they looked. I couldn't shoot them because they would have been scared their mommas would see them in their gay world and gay clothes with their gay lovers. Or the cops, for that matter, as we were illegal: queer young delinquents making out on the streets, lying our way into the gay bars, reading movie plots in the Village Voice so we could say we'd gone to the movies when we went home to Queens or the Bronx or Jersey. Suzy and I survived to take pictures of each other at the 1993 March on Washington. I sometimes wonder how many of the others made it.
I didn't take pictures in college, but after I graduated, and my brother gave me his old 35mm Argus C3, I got into arty pictures of my girlfriend, trying to capture for posterity loving images of her and our surroundings. I also started to explore light and line, fell in love with photography, photorealism and eventually with a photographer, but that's another story.
When the tilt-a-whirl of life delivered me into the women's movement, my archival instinct was awakened. I have photos of an all-woman theater group from New York performing in New Haven and of the Women's Liberation rock groups from New Haven and Chicago. I took no pictures of my first pride march in New York because, again, I knew the consequences of outing. It was okay to shoot lesbian-feminists doing feminist things, but not lesbians doing lesbian things. As a consequence I have shots of stoned dykes just sitting around in an orange room and shots of French doors in our living collective, when I would love to have pictures of the women I lived with and their lovers and their political actions.
Things are different now. My sweetheart and I took the new camera with us to a conference. One or the other of us documented every event we attended, except for the dance, where we were too busy dancing. We shared pictures on line with others who were there, hundreds, perhaps thousands of photographs of one lesbian event. Our images are ineradicable, just the way it should always have been for gay people. My sweetheart and I do the same whether we're meeting friends for dinner or setting up our new house or out for a walk on the beach. Just as I write to document our stories, I want pictures to assure our visibility for the gay kids of the future who will want to study these still early days of our relative freedom in their gay history classes in their gay high schools and their college gay studies classes.
What a great birthday gift: the new camera is now embedded like a war correspondent in my backpack and will snap up images of the rest of our gay lives.
© Lee Lynch 2008
Lee Lynch, Author of Sweet Creek from Bold Strokes Books
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