A Fellow Traveler…and His friends
A White Crane Conversation with Mark Thompson
Bo Young: I think most people, when they think of Mark Thompson, think of a
writer, not a visual artist. When did you start taking pictures?
Mark Thompson: Although I am not known for taking pictures, photography has
always been a secret muse for me. I started taking pictures in high school. I attended
a very progressive, artsy-liberal campus in Carmel, California, during the 1960's where
many alternatives were offered. I remember taking a photography class there, and one
of my fellow students was Edward Weston's grandson. Weston, of course, is one of the
consummate photographers of the 20th Century. I greatly admired his work, and in
fact could walk a short ways down to Point Lobos and see where he took many of his
famous images on my favorites beaches.
Also not too far from my school was the legendary Friends of Photography gallery
where Weston's peers such as Ansel Adams and Wayne Bullock showed their work. So, I
was very inspired to frame and capture my own point of view.
Later, when I moved north to study journalism at San Francisco State University,
I continued to take pictures — only now my focus was the burgeoning Bay Area gay
liberation movement. Soon, I began my professional career as a journalist and
editor at The Advocate, and the pen and tape recorder became my first tools of choice.
Plus there were many other very talented photographers on the scene. So I used my lens very
selectively, photographing mentors and friends, rather than parades or protests
which were then so abundant. Later I focused on documenting the Radical Faerie
movement as they were the closest group I could find that mirrored my own hopes and dreams.
The faeries were my own authentic tribe.
Bo: Question: The portraits that accompanied the interviews in Gay Soul were
yours, too, weren't they? Are these part of the Fellow Travelers work?
Mark: The portraits in Gay Soul (published in 1994) were taken by me to
illuminate the speakers and their words. I am reusing six of my favorite images from that book
in this collection of 15 "guides" — or gay elders, if you will — and dozens of never
before-seen color images of the radical fairies taken over a 15 year period. My
black-and-white portraits of early AIDS activist and singer Michael Callen and photographer
Robert Mapplethorpe are among the pictures that have not been previously exhibited.
Bo: What does the title "Fellow Travelers" mean to you?
Mark: Fellow Travelers for me means being in the company of like-minded
companions: Brave brothers who are building a community, moving forward together! It is also
a sly reference to the use of the phrase during the early days of the Cold War when
people who were accused of being communist sympathizers were dubbed "fellow travelers." It
was a coded word used pejoratively, so I wanted to redeem that and give it a more
positive application for today
Bo: So who are the Fellow Travelers?
Mark: Just about everybody who reads this magazine, who has ever attended a
radical fairie gathering or a Gay Spirit Visions retreat, or has done anything to
achieve healing and authenticity as a sublime, radiant, self-actualized and purposeful gay man who
loves others like himself.
Bo: Well, we certainly hope so...but you haven't taken pictures of everyone who
reads this magazine (I'll be out for my sitting!) Who are some of the Fellow Travelers in
Mark: "Fellow Travelers" is divided into two sections: Guides and Tribes. Some
of the iconic individuals, or "guides," who have influenced or touched upon my life in
significant ways include James Broughton, Ram Dass, Harry Hay, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Paul
Monette. There are many others, of course. The Tribes section contains dozens of pictures
taken at various Faerie gatherings held across Western lands during the 1980s and early
'90s. Some of the images from the first Black Leather Wings Radical Faerie gatherings
will probably be controversial to some readers.
Bo: Controversial how?
Mark: The book concludes with powerful images of the Sun Dance and Kavandi
rituals, which involves ritual body piercing. Not everyone may understand the cultural
context for doing this and therefore be put-off. I hope not, as I do my best to explain the
background of these ancient practices and their relevance to the gay men conducting them in
the photos. As seen here, spirit and the flesh are truly one.
Bo: We're running four of the photos in this issue...Harry Hay, Clyde Hall,
Essex Hemphill and Robert Mapplethorpe. Tell me about the portrait of Harry Hay.
Mark: The picture of Harry Hay was taken one glorious summer day in 1987 in the
pasture of Wolfcreek, Oregon. Harry and I sat for several hours while he told me the
story of how the Mattachine Society was first formed in Los Angeles in 1950. It was a really
terrible time for gay people and Harry would sometimes get teary eyed with his story-telling,
stopping a moment to wipe his eyes and say, "Never again, Mark. Never again." Finally,
just as the sun was setting low behind him, the perfect moment for a picture came — so I
took it. All of my photos have been taken at the end of a long day of conversation with the
individual. The pictures and talk were all part of a discerning process.
Bo: Discerning…how? Explain.
Mark: The process of discernment is a sifting through known facts and questions
to arrive at some new truth, answer, or insight. In this case, the questions mainly dealt
with issues of meaning and purpose for gay men who are often left bereft of either, due to
the homophobic society we live in. The tragic consequences of this catastrophic loss
are widely seen in our community. I have often found the process of discernment to
be a good part — a real beginning — of the emotional healing work that needs to be done in
our lives. It certainly has been that way for me.
On that note, let me add that a critical part of discerning this book came out
of my collaboration with Los Angeles graphic designer Mark Harvey. He was somehow able
to sift through and organize almost 30 years worth of images, and then craft them into
an elegant and cohesive book. He also inspired me to write new text for the volume,
which will be published as a limited edition art book. Mark has been a joy to work
with, and the book would not be possible without him. The entire four month-long process has
been a refreshing reminder of how well gay men can work together when we really set our
minds to it.
Bo: I think I wasn't clear about my question on "discernment", though I love
where you went with it. I was asking specifically about how you used discernment in your
photography...you say it is a critical part of getting these beautiful
pictures...can you describe how?
Mark: The pictures usually came at the end of a long day of being with the
subject. After much stimulating conversation the "perfect moment" would arrive in which to take
the picture. I use only natural light, so I had to be quick and adaptable — very
discerning — to try and capture the soulfulness of the person in just a shot or two.
Bo: Assotto Saint and Essex Hemphill, are both featured in the exhibition and
book. I became familiar with both men's work, primarily their poetry, in the late
1980's through the publication of Joseph Beam's seminal anthology, In the Life. A few years
later they were featured in Marlon Riggs' equally groundbreaking documentary, Tongues Untied.
Assotto and Essex were key figures in this important new movement of black voices within
our community. They spoke truth that many still did not want to hear: That the gay
world could be as racist as any other. I still remember bars in the early Castro
Street scene that did not welcome men of color.
Their work was so curious, fresh and alive — but tragically short lived because
of AIDS. Beam died in 1988. Marlon and Assotto in 1994. And Essex a year later. I
appreciated Essex's fierce determination to stand up and say his piece, no matter what! As
he famously did the day he denounced Robert Mapplethorpe as a racist at a gay writer's
conference in San Francisco in the early '90's. And the sweet lyricism of Assotto's work
always had a special appeal for me. I flew from my home in California to Manhattan one day in
1991 just to photograph him. His lover of many years had just died, and while deeply
mourning he brought a tremendous sense of vivacity to our time together. Good gay poets
have always captured my heart and soul — most certainly these two beautiful and
Dan: What were your impressions on Mapplethorpe? You mentioned Hemphill's
critique of Mapplethorpe's depictions of the black male form in his essay "Does Your Mama
Know About Me." I'm wondering what you feel the significance of Mapplethorpe's work
and life bear for gay men today? He seems to be remembered more for the outrage visited
on his work by the public than for his life or work.
Mark: Robert really liked to cultivate his bad-boy persona as it fueled the
controversy that always surrounded the work — and, not incidentally, promoted sales. I found
another side of Robert the day we met, though. Someone very charming, sweet-natured, and
thoughtful about what he was doing. He was, admittedly, ambitious, but so what? It takes a
lot of chutzpah to make a successful career in the arts. I took many photos of Robert
that afternoon, but the one I choose was the most softly -focused of the group
because that softness best represented the person I found. We had a lot in common, and he
really let his guard down for me. I think his work remains important for several reasons, one being that it
captured an era when gay male sexual exploration was a significant part of our experience. He
came to prominence in the 1970's, a decade during which we saw the sexual revolution
really come home. For example, at the beginning of the decade no one had heard of things
like fisting (which he elegantly photographed) but by the end of the '70's there were clubs
nationwide devoted to it. Some of Robert's photos still have the capacity to shock today, but I think he
was less interested in other people's reactions and more in capturing what he called "the
perfect moment" of any experience. He liked to photograph black men, he told me, because
he was fascinated with the myriad ways light reflected off their skin tones. People
forget, too, that he is considered the greatest photographer of flowers. Nobody could do more
compositionally with a tulip in a vase than Robert. So what was the link between his pictures of taboo sex and tulips? What else is a flower in bloom, he replied with a chuckle, than a throbbing hard-on. For Robert — and
especially the shy inner boy part of his nature I connected with that day — everything was
about the birds and the bees.
Bo: Finally…of the portraits we're running in this issue, the one I have one of
the closest associations with is Clyde Hall. We've been friends a long time. Have you danced
Mark: Clyde Hall's exemplary work as a spiritual leader in our community is what
motivated me to ask him for an interview and photo. He is someone whom I only
met for a day, but whose authenticity and integrity as a person left an indelible
impression. Our memorable day together concluded with me literally hanging out of a second story
window of the house Clyde was a guest in; one hand clutched tightly on the sill, the
other stretching the camera back as far as I could in order to catch the last rays of
the setting sun on Clyde's face.
One aspect of Clyde's story I find so fascinating is his revival of the Naraya.
It is a ceremony I look forward to doing one day. "I live
a Spirit-filled life," Clyde told me. "If you try to talk yourself out of living a life
with Spirit, you get into all kinds of trouble." And I believe him!
Bo: You and I have been having this conversation for some time now...and these
beautiful portraits bring it up once again.
Why should anyone care about who these men are or were? Why should any young gay
man, or any gay man, of whatever age, for that matter, look at these very
different men...old, black, white, Indian, living or dead, and various combinations
thereof...some of whom were in interpersonal conflict when they were alive, and see anything that
should mean anything to him? Why are these faces important? What's the connection?
Mark: Each of the men portrayed here and in the Fellow Travelers exhibit and
forthcoming book have created important legacies in the form of literature, art, recordings,
and ongoing work that exists to enhance our lives. See these photographs as portals
of discovery, rather than just black-and-white pictures. If a reader tries a Google
search on each of these lives they will be amazed. Delve even further into the work itself
and you will be illuminated, entertained, and in some way transformed — as was I.
My collection of photographs is not meant to be encyclopedic or encompassing, in
any way, of the countless artists, teachers, and spiritual leaders of the gay men's
movement. Rather these are portraits of some of the men who helped to liberate me,
personally. As Edward Weston so profoundly illustrated, the universal is best captured in a
grain of sand.
Fellow Travelers will be exhibited at Cup of Joe's Coffee Shop in Salt Lake City
from December 1-31, 2007 with an opening gala and opportunity to meet Mark Thompson
and Clyde hall on December 7, 2007 from 7-9 p.m. at Cup of Joe. Mark Thompson can
be reached at:
For additional information regarding the SLC showing
© White Crane Institute 2007
All Rights Reserved. Reprints or excerpts may be used with permission