A retrospective of the work of photographer Hal Fischer, an alumnus of the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, showcases the scope of his career and examines his development as an artist.
“Hal Fischer Photographs: Seriality, Sexuality, Semiotics” runs through Dec. 22 at Krannert Art Museum. The exhibition includes Fisher’s most well-known work – photographic series that focused on gay life in 1970s San Francisco, a period of gay liberation preceding the AIDS crisis.
It also includes early work by Fischer that has never been shown, including photographs he made as an undergraduate student at the U. of I. and those he took shortly after arriving in San Francisco. Those early photographs show Fischer’s experimentation with techniques and subject matter that he used throughout his career, said Tim Dean, the guest curator of the exhibition and an Illinois professor of English whose research looks at the politics and ethics of sexually explicit visual representation.
“The constant interplay between word and image is a preoccupation that informs all Fischer’s work,” said Dean, who is particularly interested in the vocabularies available at different historical moments for talking about sex.
“There are interesting continuities. The well-known series have so many points of origin in the work he was doing as a very young man here at the U. of I., including his humor,” KAM director Jon Seydl said.
Fischer earned a BFA at the U. of I. in 1973. He received a distinguished alumni award from the School of Art and Design in 2019. When he was studying art at Illinois, the photography program had a strong emphasis both on traditional fine art photography and on alternative processes, Fischer said. Both are evident in his photographs.
In early work from San Francisco, Fischer manipulated images through bleaching and solarization, and usually added text and diagrams drawn in ink directly on the print. In many images, including a bleached and collaged print of a beach scene, he overlaid a grid on the photograph.
“In my very early manipulative work, it’s not words (that were added), but there’s the idea that I’m just not satisfied with the image alone. I’m doing something to it,” Fischer said.
While he was making photographs, he also was writing art reviews – thinking and working in both images and words. His photographic series “Gay Semiotics” combines text printed into the photographs to note the meaning of items his subjects are wearing, such as an earring, handkerchief or keychain.
“There’s a whole strategy there,” Fischer said. “I’m dealing with loaded subject matter and making photographs that were very influenced by media images. They are deliberately kind of banal. The text is a strategy to say, ‘This is really what’s going on in this photograph,’ and to use humor to defuse it and give it a punchline. I was celebrating gay life in the 1970s, but I was putting it out there in a way that was accessible.”
Dean said Fischer’s photographs play the visual codes of gay men against the conventions of photographic communication.
“He’s conscious of and skeptical of the way photography has been co-opted by the advertising industry, and the way an object can be framed in a certain way to make it especially alluring and desirable. He’s very critical of that, and of how the gay culture encouraged men to advertise themselves in certain ways through camera angles, clothing and hairstyles, even before Instagram,” Dean said.
“Boy-Friends” uses snapshots Fischer took of men with whom he’d had an amorous interaction. Fischer said he chose shots to describe a particular type of interaction; the accompanying text encapsulates each experience. “Boy-Friends” was created at a time when photographers were starting to look beyond fine art photography – at snapshots, advertising, fashion and other utilitarian uses.
“There’s a tension between capturing the individuality of (the subject) and making the individual into a type. For example, what you see in the ‘Boy-Friends’ series in the censorship bars over the faces of all the guys: Each is an individual, but he’s also blocking you from seeing them,” Dean said.
Fischer described his work “18th near Castro St. x 24” as a “durational performance piece.” He photographed a bus stop bench each hour for 24 hours from a fixed perspective, and he uses the accompanying text to record his observations and commentary about the visitors to the bench.
Fischer stopped making photographs in 1980, pursuing his career as an art writer and a museum consultant. Fisher, who collaborated closely with Dean in putting together the KAM exhibition, said he hopes it will be useful for students to see the trajectory of his work and how it developed from his student days to the height of his career.
Fischer and Dean will discuss the exhibition in a sold-out gallery conversation Sept. 23 at 2 p.m. KAM will host a public opening night reception Sept. 24 from 5 to 8 p.m.
Fischer also will be at KAM on Nov. 6 for a symposium of international scholars who will discuss his work. The symposium is made possible by the Terra Foundation for American Art. It is free and open to the public.
Dean and the English department’s Creative Writing Program organized a related poetry competition for poems that use Fischer’s photographs for inspiration. The poetry will be published in Ninth Letter, the program’s literary arts journal.
This article was originally published on the Illinois News Bureau website. Read the original article here.