Documenting Gay power and Pride in 1980s America

Documenting Gay power and Pride in 1980s America
New photo book ‘Castro to Christopher: Gay Streets of America 1979–1986’ is an epic story of creativity, community, strength, joy, and resistance on two coasts.

After dropping out of high school in 1973, photographer Nicholas Blair left his New York City home, hitchhiking across two continents before landing at his brother’s San Francisco apartment: a rundown storefront with a converted stable in the back that would soon become a commune for artists, musicians, poets, and performers.

“When I arrived in 1975 the hippie revolution had become seedy and was in serious decline, but for me it was still a cultural paradise,” Blair says. “I was only 18, so everything was eye-opening. The rent was $200 a month so that it left us plenty of time to hang out, play music and make art. There were no rules in the commune, and no judgments were allowed.”

Through his brother, Blair met Larry Bair, a photographer who took him on as a protégé. “We quickly became buddies and would take trips together up and down the west coast,” Blair says. “Larry was like a sommelier for locations. We might find ourselves walking around downtown one day, then perhaps on Haight Street, or at a nude beach, or in the Castro. We delighted in being out in the world, observing life, and the interplay of light and form.”

But it wasn’t until 1978, after a 10-month sojourn abroad, that the decisive moment had come. Shortly after Blair returned to San Francisco, an ex-cop named Dan White entered City Hall and gunned down Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay elected official, in broad daylight.

AIDS Candlelight Memorial, San Francisco

The violence rocked the city and Blair began attending political events to support the community. “After the protests, it was as if someone had taken the cork out of a bottle of champagne,” he remembers. “There was an explosion of energy, excitement and a sense of freedom for people who were finally able to be out and their true selves. LGBTQ people were migrating to San Francisco by the thousands.”

In the eye of the storm, Blair focused his lens of the extraordinary grassroots movement taking shape before his eyes. He soon landed a weekly photo column at the Bay Area Reporter, which he dubbed “From Castro to Christopher Street", which chronicled a transformative era of queer life at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic.

Castro Street Fair, San Francisco;
Christopher Street, New York City

Now Blair revisits this chapter of LGBTQ history in Castro to Christopher: Gay Streets of America 1979–1986 (powerHouse Books), an epic story of creativity, community, strength, joy, and resistance on two coasts.

“I photographed the first candlelight AIDS vigil in San Francisco in May 1983,” says Blair, who would lose his mentor and close friend Larry Bair to the disease after a six-year battle with the virus in 1990.

“If it was not for AIDS, who knows what might've happened,” Blair says. “I feel lucky to have been able to witness this period of time when the culture was just coming into it's own. Now, the battleground has migrated to small towns and rural communities of conservative America where people are still putting their life on the line for their ‘inalienable rights.’"

Pride March, New York City

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