Project Native Informant

Hal Fischer

Gay Semiotics and Other Works

Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow

Hal Fischer is an American artist who produced his most significant work in San Francisco in the late 1970s. He was one of the first artists to apply a conceptual approach to gay-themed photographs and GoMA was the first UK institution to acquire the iconic works Gay Semiotics alongside two other series – 18th near Castro St x 24 and Boy-Friends. These honest and groundbreaking works were created when gay men in San Francisco were celebrating gay liberation, despite the fact that homosexuality was still illegal in many US states. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s would bring this era to an end.

Alongside these collections works Fischer installed a further loaned work – A Salesman – first shown on a billboard in 1979. After working as a photographer for about 10 years Hal Fischer focussed on his writing as an art critic for a number of years and went on to a 30-year-long career as a museum consultant. He also helped establish San Francisco Camerawork as a nonprofit gallery. The publication of Hal Fischer: The Gay Seventies coincided with the opening of this exhibition.

Fischer’s book Gay Semiotics, published in 1978, describes these 24 photographs as ‘a photographic study of visual coding among homosexual men’. It was a pioneering work, combining text and images to explore and celebrate the urban gay male culture. Referencing and blending notions of observation and labelling, Fischer’s images are purposefully irreverent and funny. The banal presentation of information references mass media and serves to demystify rather than sensationalise.

In 18th near Castro St x 24, 1978, over a 24-hour period Fischer photographed a bus stop bench in the centre of the Castro, San Francisco’s gay neighbourhood. Taken from the same spot every hour on the hour, each image and text pairing acts as a window into the artist’s experience over the 24-hour period. This performance-based work creates an immersive journey for the viewer, as we experience not only the ebb and flow of life in the Castro, but also gain insights into the artist’s world.

Boy-Friends, 1979, consists of 10 photo and text ‘portraits’ of men the artist interacted with over a 4-year period in the mid to late 1970s. None of the images were taken specifically for this series—they are images found or ‘appropriated’ by the artist from his existing negatives. Each image is accompanied by text giving it a reference number and generic title instead of a name, continuing Fischer’s interest in labelling.

A Salesman, 1979/2015, was originally sited on Market Street at the entrance to San Francisco’s Castro district. It was commissioned by the Eyes and Ears Foundation and was one of 7 billboards created by Bay Area photographers for a 1979 exhibition.

Fischer’s salesman references Burt Reynolds’ groundbreaking nude centrefold picture that appeared in the April 1973 issue of Cosmopolitan, a popular women’s magazine. The phone number and title, conveying no obvious commercial message, were contradictory to the usual informational function of a billboard. Installed at a time when naked men were not seen in mass advertising, A Salesman generated a great deal of public response and media attention.

A Salesman was presented on an outdoor billboard in San Francisco in 2015. Fischer noted that there was very little public reaction, demonstrating perhaps that the male nude is now a common occurrence in mass media and popular culture.

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