Thomas Alleman

June 2 – June 29, 2018
Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws

“More than all that, though, I was a great, great admirer of Sylvia Plachy and the groundbreaking “New Photojournalism” she and others were producing for the Village Voice in New York, and throughout Western Europe. In the Fall of ‘85, I went searching for a San Francisco version of the Voice, and found it in a scrappy, very design-y, very political weekly tabloid called the Sentinel, which reported on the Gay community and used my kind of pictures nice and big, and often.

“I began freelancing for the Sentinel in early 1986, shortly after the death of Rock Hudson brought sudden national attention to the scope of the AIDS epidemic. Almost overnight, the international media descended on San Francisco, shining a spotlight on the crisis’ perceived Ground Zero, the Castro District. Correspondents and cameramen parachuted in from everywhere, making their way to the hospitals and hospices that were filled with gaunt, desperate (young) men.

“But the Sentinel and the other gay publications I worked for—locally and, later, nationally—chose deliberately to turn their gaze from the stark documentary images of individual carnage that the “straight press” pursued. Their own readers, they knew, were already too aware of bedside vigils and funeral arrangements; they didn’t need their “hometown” weekly to recapitulate that dreary, daily horror. Instead, we maintained our focus on the community at large, and reported on the public, communal response of that very diverse group to the descending nightmare.

“But not every drumbeat was martial, of course. Often it was syncopated and disco-y, and I watched countless partiers dance do it with a shimmy and a bounce, and with life-affirming joy. Indeed, I had a ball, in bars and pavilions and on street corners in the Castro, photographing gala parties and “scenes”, drag shows and leather festivals and Halloween extravaganzas. In quieter moments and milieus, much-deserved attention was also paid to the artists who were creating a home-grown, alternate gay culture that spoke directly to the experiences and aspirations of Castro audiences: I made intimate portraits of writers, dancers, directors, painters, and actors.

“The Castro had been an incredibly vital place in the 1970s and early 80s, perhaps as Harlem had been during its famous “Renaissance” in the 20s. A group of people, who for countless years had been marginalized, cast-out and despised, came together to live in a neighborhood where they built their own very vibrant culture. Because of San Francisco’s legendary openness and “tolerance”—which was often real, and sometimes an illusion—they were mostly left to live in sufficient peace; because of their advantages in education and numbers, and driven by ambition and anger, they carved out a political presence that couldn’t be ignored, which beckoned others from around the world, furthering their security and allowing the culture to flower even more fearlessly.

“People who’d lived through those years—and folks who came to the Castro in the 80’s to join the party—didn’t forget the joy and promise of all that. They were still the same beautiful, brilliant, lovers-of-life that they’d always been. But many of them died, and others were heartbroken and horrified and very afraid, and the spirit of the tribe suffered from that toll. Still, that “liveliness”—that passion—was so essential, so much a part of the community that it just couldn’t be extinguished by something as dispassionate as a plague. So, while many of the pictures in this exhibition demonstrate a community in lamentation, many others are about anger and resolve, and most are about love and life. And disco and drag.

“During those years I shot black-and-white film in great bulk, and processed negatives in my kitchen sink and made prints in a darkroom on the back porch, holding back the daylight with curtains of felt and ribbons of duct tape. And then I threw those negatives into folders and drawers, wiped the slate clean, and raced away down Mission Street to deliver my pictures to editors and designers, waiting anxiously.

“Twenty-five years later, I finally rehabilitated that menagerie of celluloid, which had long lived in banker’s boxes and fruit cartons, moving from apartment to house to garage a dozen times. In early 2008 I began searching-out and organizing those rolls of film from my sojourn in gay San Francisco; I started making electronic contact sheets on a flatbed scanner that summer, and edited throughout the winter of 2009. That April I started scanning what I thought were the best of those pictures, and once a year since then I revisit those contacts to cull what I might’ve missed the last time; just last summer I found three very important frames that I’d somehow overlooked on all those other editing forays.

“I hope these photographs, from San Francisco’s gay community in the mid-eighties, remind viewers of that moment in our social history—so long ago, and so very recent—when the first wave of the AIDS epidemic crashed onto one of our country’s most vibrant neighborhoods. And, while that tribe convulsed with well-earned fear, heartbreak and anger, some still found the courage and the will to celebrate the dream of life they’d come to San Francisco for, and they danced in the dragon’s jaws.”

Thomas Alleman was born and raised in Detroit, where his father was a traveling salesman and his mother was a ceramic artist. He graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in English Literature.

During a fifteen-year newspaper career, Tom was a frequent winner of distinctions from the National Press Photographer’s Association, as well as being named California Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1995 and Los Angeles Newspaper Photographer of the Year in 1996.

As a magazine freelancer, Tom’s pictures have been published regularly in Time, People, Business Week, Barrons, Smithsonian and National Geographic Traveler, and have also appeared in US News & World Report, Brandweek, Sunset, Harper’s and Travel Holiday. Tom has shot covers for Chief Executive, People, Priority, Acoustic Guitar, Private Clubs, Time for Kids, Diverse and Library Journal.

Tom exhibited “Social Studies”, a series of street photographs, widely in Southern California. “Sunshine & Noir”, a book-length collection of black-and-white urban landscapes made in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, had its solo debut at the Afterimage Gallery in Dallas in 2006. Subsequent solo exhibitions include: the Robin Rice Gallery in New York in 2008 and 2013; the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, OR in 2009 and 2015; the Xianshwan Photo Festival in Inner Mongolia, China, in 2010; and the Duncan Miller Gallery in Los Angeles, February 2013. “The American Apparel” debuted at the Redline Arts Center in Denver in 2015. Finally: Fifty-three of Tom’s photographs of gay San Francisco, shot between 1985 and 1988, debuted at the Jewett Gallery in San Francisco in December, 2012, under the title, “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws”.

The workshops Tom teaches at the Los Angeles Center of Photography include “The Photographer’s Eye” and “Photographing in the Social Landscape.”