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Lucy Schiller

Documenting Life Amid the ‘Dragon’s Jaws’: Q&A with Thomas Alleman

“Leather Bar” (1986) by Thomas Alleman

From 1985 to 1988, photographer Thomas Alleman worked in a jimmy-rigged laundryroom-cum-darkroom to document the life, passion, and spirit of one of the most prominent and historic gay neighborhoods in the world—San Francisco’s Castro District—in the face of AIDS. His latest show, “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws: Gay San Francisco, 1985-1988,” runs at the Jewett Gallery in the San Francisco Main Library from December 1 though February 10. His photographs—stirring, necessary, and often deeply joyous—depict a brave set of San Franciscans propelled by a spirit that was unable to “be extinguished by something as dispassionate as a plague.” We spoke with the Los Angeles photographer over email about his work and his mission as a young photographer “accidentally” working in the midst of a growing crisis.

ZYZZYVA: Did you have a clear intention in your photographic approach during a time of real fear, silence, urgency, and stigma?

Thomas Alleman: Yes, I did have a clear intention. But it was more a pictorial, purely photographic intention, rather than an anthropological, historic ambition. I was well aware that we were experiencing a crisis of historic proportions, which would be remembered and lamented and studied for years to come, and that “ground zero” was the very community I was accidentally working in. A community, by the way, where a misunderstood, often reviled “sub-culture” had previously bloomed and thrived. So, any photographs anyone made under those circumstances were, and are, bound to be historically valuable and anthropologically revealing; I knew that, and that freed me from having to second-guess future historians. I lived in that culture because all my dearest friends did, and I photographed the events that my editors—who had a deeply nuanced understanding of what drove that culture—suggested I photograph. Given all that, I knew that my own mission was simply to photograph what was right under my nose, in a way that unconditionally reflected my personal vision, and then let history sort things out later.

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Brazil’s Complex Past, Recounted from a Deathbed: Chico Buarque’s ‘Spilt Milk’

Musician and author Chico Buarque came of age with the installment of a brutal military dictatorship in Brazil, one that was to last for more than twenty years until it toppled in 1985. A pioneer and experimenter within bossa nova, Buarque wrote subtle lyrics protesting the regime’s violent suppression of dissidents, songs that made it into his country’s popular consciousness. To this day Buarque is regarded in Brazil as a vital cultural stalwart, an artist who, since the early ‘60s, continues to examine his country and instill large social change. His most recent novel, Spilt Milk (Grove/Atlantic, 177 pages, translated by Alison Entrekin), which encompasses two centuries of Brazilian history through one man’s experiences, is no different.

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Rural Doesn’t Equal Empty: Lisa M. Hamilton’s ‘I See Beauty in This Life’

Lisa M. Hamilton’s “Almond Hulls. Lost Hills, Kern County” (2011)

I See Beauty In This Life, photographer Lisa M. Hamilton’s exhibition of her own work as well as images she pulled from the California Historical Society’s vast archives, attempts something seemingly impossible: in Hamilton’s words, to “cover a history dating from 2012 all the way back to a time when California was essentially nothing but rural” in about 150 pictures. This presents a gargantuan curatorial challenge. How do you address California’s geographical vastness, the scope of its industries, and the numerous complexities of its rural labor history?

“Rural” is different than “empty,” and the exhibition’s images nearly all emphasize the vast abundance of this land. Hamilton’s photograph of almond hulls piled into gravelly mounds (“Almond Hulls. Lost Hills, Kern County”) defeats any sense of a horizon, while an image from 1921 documents what seems to be hundreds of feet worth of sacks of C&H sugar. Even the trees, turned to props in jokey logging portraits, stretch both ways within the frame. Fields stretch and roll like oceans. Whatever you can say about California, it sure isn’t small.

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A Publishing World Gone Beastly: Howard Jacobson’s ‘Zoo Time’

Guy Ableman fixates on Amazon.com the way that he fixates on the runaway success of “The Girl Who Ate Her Own Placenta,” or on his mother-in-law, or his wife, or monkeys – with a gleeful sort of disgust. The protagonist, if you can call him that, of Howard Jacobson’s new novel, Zoo Time (Bloomsbury, 376 pages), is nothing short of feral. “Feral!,” Guy exclaims upon described as such. “From the Latin for an unruly beast. Guy Feral. Feral Guy.”

These, however, are feral times. The publishing industry has, in Guy’s view, dissolved and reconstituted itself into a gelatinous mass of insipid children’s literature, vampire-studded bodice-rippers, absurd online reviews, “Twitting,” and “blagging.” Physical books languish outside the timid, tepid minds of the populace, replaced by 140-character updates and digitized fluff. “Readers had changed,” Guy thinks. “Expectations of the book had changed. In a word, there were none.”

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Brother’s Keeper: T. Geronimo Johnson’s ‘Hold It ‘Til It Hurts’

Upon bringing home his newly adopted son, who is black, to his other son, Achilles (also adopted, also black), the white father in T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It ‘Til It Hurts (Coffee House Press, 342 pages) announces, “Don’t need blood to be brothers.” Johnson’s violent first novel, though, effectively proves the opposite, but in a different sense: tearing through Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina, the morgues of Atlanta and the stilted subdivisions of Maryland, Achilles Conroy finds familial love in the most harrowing situations.

If Achilles’s younger brother, Troy, is “fearless and light, like a rock that floats,” Achilles is an anchor desperately trying to hold him in place. He follows Troy through high school extracurriculars and then a military tour in Afghanistan. When their father dies and Troy disappears, presumably to look for his birth parents, Achilles trails after him again, anchoring in New Orleans.

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A Paperboy Finding His Way Out of Bleakness: Per Petterson’s ‘It’s Fine By Me’

The Norway of Per Petterson’s newly translated 1992 novel, It’s Fine By Me (Graywolf; 199 pages; translated by Don Bartlett), will be familiar to readers of his 2007 bestseller, Out Stealing Horses. It is a country marked by pervasive solitude and backbreaking work, by deeply buried familial troubles and the quiet, occasional help of strangers.

In 1970s Oslo, young paperboy Audun Sletten prides himself on his checked pants and ubiquitous sunglasses. The latter provides him distance from the surrounding bleakness: alcoholism runs rampant (most notably evident in Audun’s absent father), and death seems close (his younger brother, we learn, fatally crashed a car). On the playground, his school companions take sides on the Vietnam War, and girls shimmer on the horizon, not important enough yet for Audun to crawl toward.

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Beauty Amid a Community’s Pain: Susan Straight’s ‘Between Heaven and Here’

Between Heaven and Here (McSweeney’s, 232 pages), the capstone of novelist Susan Straight’s Rio Seco trilogy, is set in Sarrat, a Southern California community as economically bone-dry as the creek separating it from Rio Seco. It is in Sarrat where a band of Louisianan refugees, their banter laced with Creole and their memories peppered with sugarcane, sharecropping, and floods, has taken root. And it is in Sarrat, with its fruit pickers and prostitutes, where one of that Creole community’s most beautiful members, Glorette Picard, is murdered.

Straight has created a portrait of a city immediately familiar to anyone versed in the landscape of California’s Inland Empire, that stretching expanse of strip malls and orange groves. Straight’s Rio Seco is a successor to Steinbeck’s migrant camps, striated with a similarly buoyant dialogue and underlined, always, by an ache. Everyone seems to be foraging for something. Glorette seeks out sex for crack and twenty dollars for her son Victor’s instant ramen. Victor, brilliant and college-bound, searches compulsively for another SAT word to memorize so as to keep out of trouble.

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Struggling to Survive, Not to Please: Thomas Cobb’s ‘With Blood in Their Eyes’

In his latest book, With Blood in Their Eyes (University of Arizona Press, 210 pages), novelist Thomas Cobb’s roster of main characters is small: brothers John and Tom Power, hired man Tom Sisson, and the two festering eyeballs of the title. Framing a real-life 1918 Arizona standoff between the Powers and the law within a much larger exploration of Southwestern societal change, Cobb (whose novel Crazy Heart was turned into a critically acclaimed movie starring Jeff Bridges) crafts a breathless escape story and stops just short of the historical record’s unhappy ending.

Years before the shootout that would leave them homeless, fatherless, and with only two functioning eyes between them, John and Tom Power eke what they can as cowboys and miners in this particularly brutal part of the desert. They have little interest in the workings of the world outside their cabin high in Rattlesnake Canyon, but that doesn’t stop change from happening. Mormons have saturated Graham County’s political office, and as a result, both Prohibition and an illegal whiskey trade are in full swing. Barbed wire slices previously open grazing land into violently defended private property. And telephones make it nearly impossible to run from a crime.

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