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.
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.”
The jacket doesn’t fit anymore but Kim still keeps it in her basement.
“Can I have it?” her daughter Lily, 15, asked.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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