Capturing the Beauty in Queer Pittsburgh: An Interview with Photographer Caldwell Linker

Caldwell Linker, Sharon (Headquarters), 2011, Courtesy of the Artist

Caldwell Linker, Sharon (Headquarters), 2011, Courtesy of the Artist

Home to Steelers Country, Iron City, yinzers and Pittsburgh Dad, Pittsburgh is not immediately known for its vibrant and diverse queer community. While it is certainly an urban environment, Pittsburgh is not a hub for, as Kath Weston terms, the “great gay migration” like New York or San Francisco. However, photographer Caldwell Linker’s exhibition All Through The Night at the Andy Warhol Museum, on view until September 15, may change this perception of Pittsburgh through their capturing the range, the liveliness and above all, the beauty of Pittsburgh’s queer community.

Moving to Pittsburgh in 2007, Linker began photographing its queer scene as they had done previously in other smaller cities. Bringing a camera with them most everywhere, Linker presents their own community, the queer community as opposed to the more mainstream gay community, allowing for an intimate glimpse from the eye of a participant.

As a born and raised Pittsburgher who moved to New York when I first got the chance, looking at the salon-style hung wall filled with photographs at the Warhol Museum stunned me as the community Linker reveals closely resembles the New York LGBTQ community that I know. From the now well-known Ru Paul’s Drag Race star Sharon Needles to the other queens from the Haus of Haunt (Linker also released a book Haus of Haunt: Watch Children of photographs specifically of the Haus of Haunt) to Pittsburgh’s trans community, Linker’s photographs present a range of moments both celebratory and somber from crowded house parties to quiet moments on front porches to more troubling and traumatic moments as seen in “Veruca After Getting Beat Up (Veruca’s Shower).”.

More than one specific photograph though Linker’s fantastic photographic composition certainly warrants a closer analysis as well, the photographs in All Through the Night together reveal an archive of a community, which is not as heavily represented as those in New York or San Francisco. As indicated by many, from artist David Wojnarowicz to theorist Ann Cvetkovich, the archiving of queer bodies and queer communities is essential to the preservation of queer history. Through Linker’s lens, the queer community in Pittsburgh, one that is often ignored by mainstream gay histories, can be portrayed for both those within the community and outside of it.

I spoke with Linker about Pittsburgh’s queer scene, the importance of photography in preserving queer bodies and communities and how they would like to affect the viewer of All Through the Night.

Caldwell Linker, Silky (Black Street House, Front Porch), 2012, Courtesy of the Artist

Caldwell Linker, Silky (Black Street House, Front Porch),
2012, Courtesy of the Artist

Emily Colucci: All Through The Night features photographs of Pittsburgh’s queer scene. At least from my perspective, Pittsburgh holds an interesting position in terms of queer space. While urban, Pittsburgh is not normally thought of as one of those “metronormative” cities that queer individuals flock to like New York or San Francisco. How would you describe PIttsburgh’s LGBTQ scene?

Caldwell Linker: Pittsburgh doesn’t have a reputation as being a super queer hotspot, but there is definitely a “scene” here.  To me, and this is one of the reasons I think documenting it is important, it seems very typical of any number of cities of roughly the same size. The queer scene here, and in many other cities, has to keep being built. It’s not self-sustaining like in larger cities, or cities where queers are more likely to flock to. It takes work. People have to keep planning things and showing up at things, or it will go away.

One thing that Pittsburgh really has going for it is that it is still a relatively cheap place to live, and lots of folks have space, so there is a lot of room for people to do creative things that take up space. People aren’t all smushed on top of each other like in some larger or more expensive cities.  There is room to breath and room to create.  And it would be awesome if more queers moved here.  We are always recruiting for more creative people, people who like to plan things, people who like to go out, people who are single, people who want to work with other people on projects.

Politically, Pittsburgh can feel a little behind the times sometimes.  Since there aren’t a ton of folks flocking in here on a regular basis, it seems that ideas can get a little stale.  There are many subjects, such as disability issues, fatphobia, femmephobia, sex workers rights, and even on some levels trans rights and racism (although the discussions have really increased recently around the last two years) that people don’t seem to pay that much attention to around here, but are super important in other parts of the country and in other queer communities.

I think this is changing though, and as more people move here, with different ideas and priorities, that will change even more. Many people who live in Pittsburgh are from here, so when you don’t get a lot of new blood, things can get a little stagnant, but that too is changing.  There are a number of people who are really making big efforts to make the queer scene better and more exciting, and put a lot of work into bringing good bands, and DJ’s and whatnot, and throwing great parties.

EC: Looking at All Through The Night, the importance of archiving queer communities really struck me. I’ve never actually seen Pittsburgh’s queer community so represented. What do you think is the importance of the archive for queer culture?

CL: I feel like, in many ways, Pittsburgh is pretty typical of lots of cities where you have to put some effort into having a queer scene, and I think it’s typicalness makes Pittsburgh important.  Queer scenes in general are super important.  I’ve been documenting queer communities for much longer than I’ve been in Pittsburgh, and I didn’t move here just because I thought the scene was something that needed to be documented.  I moved here for other reasons, and just kept doing what I’d been doing for a long time, which is documenting what is around me, which is generally a queer scene of some sort. 

Caldwell Linker, Cara and Sarah (Gay Prom, Operation Sappho), 2011, Courtesy of the Artist

Caldwell Linker, Cara and Sarah (Gay Prom, Operation Sappho), 2011, Courtesy of the Artist

EC: David Wojnarowicz once wrote, “A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history,” which I think you undoubtedly do in your photographs. What do you think is the role of photography in archiving and preserving queer bodies and communities? 

CL:I would like to think that I don’t preserve an alternate history.  I would like to think that I accurately represent what is going on around me.

One of the most important things to me when working on All Through the Night was authenticity.  I wanted it to feel like an authentic representation of what I’ve been a part of for the past several years.  I didn’t want it to be exploitative, but authentic.  I intentionally left out some more “shocking” or controversial photos because I didn’t want it to be “OOOO, look at my freaky weirdo queer friends”.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to put the pictures through a heteronormative lens and try to make things palatable to “outsiders” (folks not familiar with the queer community). It was a fine line to walk.

As far as how I see my role in archiving and preserving queer bodies and communities, I take what I do very seriously in many ways.  Many years ago, I sat down and tried to figure out what I could do as my part of the overall struggle for equality, what I will call “the struggle”  (not just LGBT rights, but overall equal rights for many disenfranchised groups).  I suck at going to meetings, don’t like chanting, not so great at showing up at the post office or writing letters to Congress people, have pretty poor follow-through, and generally lack many of the skills that make a good activist.  So I decided to document as my form of activism. To me, it is something that is important both now and hopefully in the future.

As for now, when you are dealing with a group of folks, and my folks are primarily queer and trans folks and other people who don’t fit neatly into genderboxes, you are dealing with lots of folks who are regularly told by the outside world that they are wrong and ugly, that their love is not acceptable, their bodies are wrong and ugly, etc.  I like to give folks pictures that show them how wrong society is, that they are beautiful, their love is beautiful, that their bodies are just fine, and that, in general, at least parts of their lives are pretty awesome.  To me, that is part of my activism.

EC: Your work reminds me a bit of Nan Goldin’s due to your intimacy with your subjects. These are your friends and this is your community. Who/what are your artistic inspirations? 

CL: I am continuously inspired by the folks around me.

I have to admit I am a bit of a coward when it comes to looking at other artwork, and this is something I am hoping to change.  All too often when I look at other people’s work, I get down on myself that I’m not taking better pictures or more pictures, that I’m not doing enough with my art, that my technique could be better, or my equipment could be better.  It’s something I am trying to change because I am sure that if I can get past the negative aspects, looking at other folks’ work could really be beneficial to me.  Also, I didn’t go to art school, so I have had much more limited exposure to lots of artists than some folks.

Growing up I used to love Life Magazine books, the big ones with the red spine and ecru covers.  I would look at those all the time, so I would imagine I am fairly influenced by that, the documentary photography found in Life Magazine.

I’m also influenced by photos from the second wave feminist movement, early gay liberation movements, and civil rights movement.  I would see the pictures and notice the pictures that didn’t seem to be taken, and wanted to make sure that those pictures were taken of my community.  People don’t always know what’s going to be important and who is going to radically change other peoples’ world views. Since I am surrounded by so many people who are important and have amazing potential to effect change in world views, I err on the side of caution and try to photograph as much as can, cause you never know what’s going to be important later.

As for Nan Goldin, I have a weird relationship with their work. I got introduced to them pretty early on, and their work had a profound impact on me.  What they said about their work was so eloquent, and it was what I was trying to figure out how to say.  Also, their photos were the kinds of pictures I was trying to take.  That being said, I found that their images got stuck in my head really intensely and wouldn’t leave. When I was taking pictures, I would find myself taking pictures because they were similar to one’s Nan Goldin had taken, or I would actually not take a picture because I felt it was too similar to something I had seen of hers.  Since then I have done a lot of avoiding their work because it was too hard to get out of my brain, and I felt was playing too big a part in my decision-making.  Probably not the best choice, but it’s the one I made.  There are a number of my photos that I feel are definitely an homage to particular photos of hers.

Caldwell Linker, Veruca, After Getting Beat Up (Veruca’s Shower), 2010, Courtesy of the Artist

Caldwell Linker, Veruca, After Getting Beat Up (Veruca’s Shower), 2010, Courtesy of the Artist

EC: All Through the Night portrays a community from the ups and downs, celebratory moments to more disturbing photographs like “Veruca After Getting Beat Up (Veruca’s Shower).” I found the whole show very moving since I felt like I got a glimpse into the Pittsburgh scene. How would you like to affect your viewers?

CL: I would like to inspire queer folks to keep doing what they are doing, keep loving, keep throwing parties, keep defining their own lives and their own terms for their lives.  I would like folks to maybe think a little more about some of their assumptions about lifestyles and bodies. Maybe being fat doesn’t equal being unloved and ugly.  Maybe sex work is a valid career choice that should be supported by friends and community just as much as any other job.  Maybe wearing dirty clothes and not washing your hair all the time doesn’t make someone a bad person.

I also hope that folks feel some of the things I am trying to portray, isolation, inclusion, love, joy, sadness, triumph, tragedy, etc.  Of course I want people to walk away with some basic ideas of human dignity and equality, like “it’s bad to beat up gay people for being gay, and people who do that should have to face repercussions”,  and “gay love is okay, gays should be able to get married and live their lives as quietly or as loudly as they like.”

I also hope folks find some beauty because for me there is so much beauty in the people I photograph, and the things that people are doing to support each other, and support themselves in this, at times wonderful, and at times difficult life.

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