A lot was going on in the ′60s, in a “the whole world is watching” sort of way. That’s conventional wisdom. A lot was also going on in the ′70s — in the culture and society, in photography, in Boston. That’s a less conventional view. In the ′60s lines were being crossed that hadn’t been crossed before. In the ′70s, lines were being blurred that maybe hadn’t even been noticed as lines. That blurring wasn’t necessarily attention getting, but for some people it was life altering.
Some of those people or their work or both can be seen in two shows currently at Tufts University Art Galleries (TUAG) at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. They potently convey the a-lot-going-on aspect of the ′70s and beyond.
“As the World Burns: Queer Photography and Nightlife in Boston” and “Christian Walker: The Profane and the Poignant” run through April 21. Both shows inevitably, also satisfyingly, sprawl. Both nonetheless feel coherent. With “World,” it’s the coherence of a particular time and place and attitude. With Walker, it’s the coherence of a particular sensibility, one notably restless and searching. For a while, he shared that time and place and took that attitude in different, unexpected directions.
Curator Jackson Davidow organized “World,” along with the Tufts University Art Galleries’ Laurel V. McLaughlin. Davidow and Noam Parness curated “Christian Walker,” also with the assistance of McLaughlin. The Walker show originated at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art.
“World” takes its title from an 18-minute film made in 1973 by Mark Winer, then a student at Boston University. The film, shown in its entirety, serves as a kind of centerpiece for the show. The title takes off on the daytime soap opera “As the World Turns.” “Burns,” as a verb, isn’t altogether accurate, at least not as seen four decades later: “Smolders” would be more accurate. The transgressiveness on display now seems largely aspirational.
What we see are highlights from a day in the life of Bobby Busnach, a self-described “street hustler,” then in his teens. Busnach, who died in 2019, would go on to become a photographer and chronicler of the gay community in Boston and New York. The show includes one of his photos.
Did New York Dolls-era David Johansen have a kid brother? If not, his parents could have adopted Bobby. He has the pouty features and lion’s mane of streaked hair. You almost don’t notice the magenta James Dean T-shirt he’s wearing or white platform heels (almost). David Bowie and early Kool and the Gang (“Jungle Boogie,” not “Celebrate”) are on the soundtrack. Although the drugs of choice are champagne, marijuana, and nicotine (Bobby smokes Salems), the atmosphere feels very Quaaludes. Yup, it’s 1973, all right.
A revealing comparison for Winer’s short is Shirley Clarke’s celebrated 1967 documentary, “Portrait of Jason.” Jason’s also a hustler, but considerably older, far more sophisticated, and Black. Clarke’s film is hard to watch now because of the revulsion her subject inspires in this ostensibly hip filmmaker. What a difference six years can make. Despite how very much of its moment “World” is, thanks to the clothes and music and Super 8 film it’s shot on, it doesn’t feel all that distant in time — precisely because of how matter of factly the film accepts Bobby.
Bobby is louche and out of the ordinary but not so out of the ordinary as to seem exotic or “deviant.” A year later, guys who weren’t all that different from Bobby — in age, in background, even in interests — were throwing rocks at school buses. It was weird around here back then, and Bobby’s weirdness was the least of it. Deviant is as deviant does. Say this for the ′70s: It was the decade that made deviance seem obsolete conceptually.
This shift that was taking place is documented throughout the show. There are copies of such publications as Gay Community News, Boston Gay Review, Fag Rag, Bad Attitudes. There are safe-sex brochures (we’re now in the ′80s). Most of all, there are lots of photographs. They’re as likely to be in color as black-and-white. That, too, was part of the shifting that was going on: color being accepted in serious photography. Acceptance back then didn’t just involve people.
Among the photographers are Allen Frame, Jason Byron Gavann, Shellburne Thurber, Gail Thacker, Nick DeWolf, Angela Russo. Appearing in three of the photographs is Nan Goldin. The show includes a couple of postcards for exhibitions of hers. An SMFA grad, Goldin moved to New York at the end of the decade. Her slide show, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (published as a book in 1986), would become a defining work of the ′80s. All sorts of affinities — formal, thematic, even emotional — present themselves inwhat we’re seeing in “World.” Goldin can be seen, or felt, as the show’s presiding spirit.
In some ways, the most affecting photographs in “World” weren’t taken by people who considered themselves photographers. Jim McGrath was a bartender. Pat Gozemba is an academic and activist. McGrath’s snapshots and Polaroids of the clientele at bars where he worked, and Gozemba’s photos of a 1983 reunion at a lesbian bar in Lynn, Fran’s Place, are like pages from a family album. Like such pages, they’re moving and unfussy and familiar in feeling.
Christian Walker (1953-2003) has photographs in “World” as well as his namesake show. Born in Springfield, he came to Boston in the ′70s and graduated from the Museum School in 1984. In a nice touch, his student ID card is on display.
The show includes a lecture Walker gave at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography in 1991. Photography, by its nature, is unavoidably voiceless. It’s good to have it here given a literal voice.
The man heard from is both appealing and slightly wary. One of the most striking things about Walker’s work is a sense of apartness. Like voicelessness, that’s another thing innate to photography as a medium: A photographer always remains on the other side of the lens. But Walker’s apartness is more than that. He mentions in the lecture that he was one of three Black students at the school and the only one studying photography. It wasn’t just the lens he was on the other side of.
Walker’s first titled series, “The Theater Project,” consists of 32 photographs taken in 1983 at the Pilgrim Theater. The Pilgrim was an old vaudeville house in what had become the Combat Zone, the downtown red-light district. Walker has a set of pictures of the Zone in the retrospective.
The Pilgrim screened porn. Even though it wasn’t gay porn, gay men went there for sex. Walker would go there with his camera. What we see in the images (there are 15, split between the two shows) are balconies, stairways, restrooms, patrons. What we feel are longing and rot: the intersection of desire and decrepitude. The darkness feels natural, like a haven, the stray irruptions of light like a violation.
Evocation and emotion matter vastly more than description does, though that has its place, too. There is nothing theatrical here. The graininess of the pictures underscores a combination of furtiveness and evasion (by the patrons, not Walker), concealment and release. The most remarkable thing about these remarkable images is how they are in no way voyeuristic, or they’re voyeuristic only in the way that looking in a mirror can be.
After graduating from the Museum School, Walker moved to Atlanta. He’d started as a painter, and a number of his series involved layering pigments to photographic images. He experimented with scale. Race relations were an abiding concern, as indicated by such series titles as “Miscegenation,” “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” and “Another Country” (a nod to James Baldwin). That last series, from 1990, involved re-photographing and enlarging archival images, some of them famous, like Marion Post Wolcott’s of a segregated movie theater. Obscenity is as obscenity does. The Pilgrim profited from one kind, Wolcott’s from another. At least the Pilgrim let people sit wherever they wanted.
Walker was an outsider, but by no means marginal. He showed at the Whitney. Atlanta’s High Museum of Art acquired his work while he was still living. He and Carrie Mae Weems were among the few contemporary photographers included in Deborah Willis’s acclaimed 1989 exhibition, “Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest.”
At some point in the ′90s, Walker moved to Seattle. He spent a period of time there homeless. It’s believed he died of a drug overdose, though that’s uncertain. Such biographical details are extraneous to his art, except that with the sense of distance in Walker’s work there’s also, however paradoxically, a sense of person: that restless and searching sensibility. Having heard that voice in the lecture, you want to know why it was stilled.
Both of these shows are intrinsically historical. But they’re also intensely immediate and, in a very real sense, as much about now as then. This makes sense, actually. What’s more immediate or less past tense than identity, desire, community, and, yes, acceptance?
AS THE WORLD BURNS: Queer Photography and Nightlife in Boston
CHRISTIAN WALKER: The Profane and the Poignant
At Tufts University Art Galleries (TUAG) at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, 230 the Fenway, through April 21. 617-627-3518, artgalleries.tufts.edu/exhibitions
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.