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.