Read Time 9 minutes

Unframed: Photography off the wall

Whilst its position on a gallery wall has been essential in legitimising photography as an art form, the medium’s agility outside of this context has long been its superpower.

Easy to reproduce, scaleable, printable … no wonder artists have harnessed photography’s endless possibilities to promote themselves or to campaign for a cause.

In 1979, Joan E. Biren [JEB] began making the rounds across the United States presenting ‘Lesbian Images in Photography: 1850–the present,’ a travelling event featuring a slideshow of more than 300 photographs made by queer women photographers. Flyers distributed ahead of a showing posed several questions to prospective audiences: 

‘Is there a lesbian sensibility in art? What can be learned about an emerging culture from its imagemaking? How have Lesbians been represented by photographers who are not women-identified?’

Taking a look at these questions, an understanding emerges as to what JEB was trying to achieve in this carefully cultivated space. On the one hand, these gatherings were a place where the lesbian community in whatever city centre JEB rolled into could all come together. You can imagine the banter, the yearning looks, the cruising, the gossip, and the camaraderie at crowded community centres, lesbian bars, and feminist bookstores. 

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When JEB took this slideshow, which would affectionately become known as ‘The Dyke Show,’ out onto the road, she created a space for photography to be celebrated outside of establishment art spaces and physically brought the images to people wherever they were. ‘The Dyke Show’ was produced more than 80 times in 60 locations. For JEB, building the slideshows created a lineage of lesbian photography that had otherwise been left unconnected by historians, art critics, and scholars. JEB and the dykes she collaborated with didn’t need the old world art establishment to co-sign their images and distinct visual culture. On the contrary, The Dyke Show thrived because of its removal from much more conservative and much less approachable spaces.

This pivotal series became a beloved and evolving affair, with additional images added by JEB as she met and worked with other lesbian photographers throughout the series’ seven year lifespan. The slideshow stretched across decades, subcultures, and content types: portraits of butch elegance at the turn of the twentieth century was followed by documentation of queer mothers and rounded out with solarized prints of explicit lesbian sex. 

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Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Gran Fury [1989]

Today, a photographer working outside of the traditional art market looking to build community and connect widely with audiences might look to Instagram or TikTok to do so. The means to share images with a global network is at the fingertips of anyone with a device and internet access. Prior to social media, photographers were inclined to turn to creative methods like JEB’s traveling slideshows to effectively print and distribute their work. Photographers looked to these unconventional practices to create images and celebrate a visual identity amongst members of a specific sub group or community that existed on the periphery of mainstream culture.

In this wide open world of self-determination and artistic autonomy, there was room to breathe different life into what a photograph could be and what it could achieve. Images were an accessible vehicle for delivering potent political messaging: they could be rendered as slideshows as JEB had explored with ‘The Dyke Show,’ but they could also be distributed and plastered around a city on flyers. That sensibility became attractive to activists in the 1980s and 90s, especially amongst the queer community in major metropolitan areas as they roiled back against government inaction during the initial frenzy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Image makers like Lola Flash, a member of both ART+Positive and Gran Fury, found autonomy and power in the ability to transform their image into a political artefact. 

It’s Lola Flash whose face is emblazoned on one of Gran Fury’s most recognisable and lasting images: two women, in profile, kissing underneath bold block letters that spell ‘Read My Lips.’ The poster was part of a larger initiative by Gran Fury, the art-making arm of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power [ACT UP], that invited participants to attend a ‘kiss-in,’ a community event organised to disrupt a dangerous myth that the virus that caused AIDS could be passed between people in saliva. These public facing images created a powerful counter narrative that centred joy against a wave of violent misconceptions and untruths. 

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From Mail Art and Fluxus: An Antic Exhibition from 1982, courtesy of Simon Anderson & Les Cammer

For other artists, this autonomy over the proliferation of their images was not about public perception, but an active subculture in and of itself. Out of the Fluxus movement, an interdisciplinary group active in the 1960s, a wide ranging mail art network answered a rising need for artists to feel interconnected outside of the traditional art schools, spaces, and markets.

The practice of mail art invited artists to participate in an art distribution network facilitated via international postal services. By sharing work directly with one another in tangled and overlapping networks, participating artists completely moved outside of the established commercial art market. This work was not made to be bought or sold, but to be crafted and appreciated. The process was equally as important as the product, as many artists experimented with form in the small confines of what could fit into a paper envelope. 

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Baseball Photographer Trading Cards, Mike Mandel [1975]

Mail art is not explicitly a photographic practice, but image makers like Jimmy DeSana saw an opportunity to connect with other artists by sharing their small printed works and zines. Photomontage and other lens-based collage were popular styles among mail artists as forms of art making that were affordable and easy to produce at a small and mailable scale. 

At the same time that mail art was becoming an established phenomenon, the art market began bending toward an interest in photography. Suddenly, artists who had largely been discredited throughout their careers were being collected by galleries and museums. This economic and cultural shift was noticed by image makers at all levels, whether it directly impacted their own career trajectories or not.


The process was equally as important as the product, as many artists experimented with form in the small confines of what could fit into a paper envelope

In a tongue-in-cheek reaction to this shift in selling power of photographs, Mike Mandel turned portraits of well-known photographers into tradable playing cards. Mandel traveled across the United States to make portraits of iconic photographers like Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham dressed as baseball players, complete with bats, gloves, and jerseys. Like traditional baseball cards, Mandel’s cards featured information about the photographers and came in packs of ten with a piece of chewing gum. More than 400,000 cards were printed and sold as part of Mandel’s project.

In the last few years, this kind of work’s historical significance has brought it into the discourse of more mainstream scholars, collectors, and museums. Major exhibitions at institutions with endowments and million-dollar operating budgets have celebrated ephemeral and counter cultural artistic production. As this shift unfolds, we’re left wondering what we can expect to see memorialised from the Web 2.0, social media forward era. Will museums someday collect TikToks and Instagram carousels? Will a major retrospective be mounted for artists whose work only ever existed in pixels? 



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