Philly’s gay archival records go outside for ‘And Into The Streets’

An art exhibition in Louis Kahn Park features photos of Philly gay life circa the 1980s and ‘90s.

Listen 1:25
A close-up of a double-exposure photo printed and displayed in a park showing a shirtless man overlayed with a Pride flag.

Artist Rami George was drawn to the flawed, unused photos in the "Au Courant" archives while compiling material for their exhibit, "And Into The Streets." Here, an accidental double exposure puts a rainbow flag across the chest of a shirtless man. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Lorrie Kim briefly parked her car illegally at 11th and Pine streets in Philadelphia’s Washington Square West so she and her daughter could quickly jump across the street to Louis Kahn Park and get a peek of her accidental notoriety.

A portrait of Kim from 1995, when she was in her 20s, wearing a leather jacket and leather biker’s hat, is hung in the park as part of a collage of historic photos culled from a gay history archive held at the nearby William Way Community Center.

Different boards displaying photos are displayed in a park.
“And Into The Streets” is an exhibit compiled from the archives of the LGBT newspaper, “Au Courant,” by Rami George. It is on view in Louis Kahn Park at 11th and Pine streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kim had her daughter keep watch for the parking authority while she took a moment to consider herself from nearly 30 years ago.

“Hey, it wasn’t 30 years ago. It was only 28,” Kim said, correcting a reporter’s question. “It doesn’t feel long ago at all.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The jacket doesn’t fit anymore but Kim still keeps it in her basement.

“Can I have it?” her daughter Lily, 15, asked.

Lily Dominus, 15, points to a 1995 photograph of her mother, Lorrie Kim
Lily Dominus, 15, points to a 1995 photograph of her mother, Lorrie Kim, which is featured in Rami George’s “And Into The Streets” exhibit at Louis Kahn Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kim’s black-and-white portrait had appeared on the cover of the now-defunct Philadelphia gay newspaper Au Courant, the files of which are now held in the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, the city’s largest archive of LGBTQ+ related material dating back to the 1940s. It has about 2,000 linear feet of material, including periodicals, photographs, organization documents, and ephemera like lapel buttons and printed t-shirts.

Artist Rami George, the archive’s first artist-in-residence, has been combing through the collection to assemble an unofficial history of Philadelphia gay life. Their exhibition, “And Into The Streets,” is in partnership with the Wilcox archive and Mural Arts Philadelphia, installed in one of the only public outdoor spaces in the city’s so-called Gayborhood.

The images hung in cases scattered around Louis Kahn Park include street protests, celebrations, and people with arms around one another out in the street, sometimes with kids and pets. George said they were particularly on the lookout for images of trans people, disabled people, and people of color.

A board of photographs is displayed in a park.
For his exhibit, “And Into The Streets,” Rami George sought to represent the underrepresented, including people with disabilities and people of color. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I wanted to search for less-represented communities,” they said. “The archive is really great at preserving cis, white gay history, and they’re doing more work to uncover all the other histories. I was in there searching for those, as well.”

George, 33, is not native to Philadelphia and did not live in the city during the era of Au Courant, some of whose issues predate their birth. Exploring the images was not personally nostalgic but instead an intuitive wander through pictures of strangers. George often divorced the image from the news story it was meant to illustrate and selected pictures for how they visually resonated with them: the way a woman holds her dog; the defiant smile of a bald, Black woman in a bikini top; a blurred and chaotic kiss during an ACT UP protest.

A view from above of Rami George posing in Louis Kahn Park.
Rami George stands in Louis Kahn Park, surrounded by their exhibit of photographs from the archives of the LGBT newspaper “Au Courant,” called “And Into The Streets.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“History is really made up of individuals and stories and friendships. That is really the kernel of the project,” said Jameson Paige, a curator with Mural Arts who worked with George. “That becomes clear when you start to see all of the love between images that shows up not just in joyful ways, but also in ways of accountability and solidarity through protest, through public actions, through mourning.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Jameson Paige, left, stands next to a board displaying photographs in a park with Rami George, right.
Rami George (right) worked with Jameson Paige of Mural Arts Philadelphia to bring their exhibit, “And Into The Streets,” to Louis Kahn Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Every picture may tell a story, but as anyone who has worked in newspapers knows, not every picture gets used. Photos are commonly rejected for publication because they are technically flawed, or they don’t tell the story the reporter is trying to write on that particular day.

Those are the photos George gravitates to: the accidental double exposure, the fuzzy action of a street protest, the pets photographed for fun.

A close-up of various color and black-and-white photographs displayed on a board.
“Au Courant” was published in from 1982 to 2000 in Philadelphia. Its history is preserved in the John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives of the William Way LGBT Community Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I really love the mistakes and the errors and the snapshots and the light leaks and all the things that would never have actually been shared, at least publicly,” they said. “To gather those up and bring them into the space, I’m thinking about a poetic interpretation.”

At the time of her youthful portrait, Kim wrote for the Philadelphia Gay News. Now she writes books about Harry Potter.  Looking back at pictures of herself taken in front of the Chinatown gate in 1995, Kim sees the progress that has happened since then to advance LGBTQ+ rights, and how those advances are being clawed back.

She said gay rights have slid back to 1995 levels.

“2015 was the last year of a normal timeline,” she said. “That was when gay marriage equality got passed, there were starting to be some rights for trans [military] service people, there was a possibility with the 2016 elections that we would get things like maternity leave and subsidized higher education.”

A person plays the accordion in a park with a wall of photos visible in the background.
A man plays the accordion in Louis Kahn Park, where “And Into The Streets” is on view. The exhibit is compiled from the archives of the LGBT newspaper “Au Courant,” which published from 1982 to 2000. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

She said since the 2016 elections, the political tide has shifted against the LGBTQ+ community, and the next generation should be prepared to relive the love and struggle seen in these archival pictures.

“When I looked at all the young people who had grown up under Obama and then didn’t know what was hitting them, I told them: ‘Study what people did in the ‘90s,’” Kim said. “That’s what you’re going to have to do.”

“And Into The Streets” will be on view in Louis Kahn Park through August.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal