Gary Freeman: life through the ages of the Fairoaks curator

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With an extensive history in the LGBT community, Gary Freeman discussed his experience as a gay man, a curator, and a photographer, juxtaposing his work with Frank Melleno’s Fairoaks images

One of his earlier experiences was as a student in NYC in the late 60’s, when he was caught in the raid of the Sewer Bar a few weeks prior to the Stonewall Bar raid. 

“I was struck by the attitude of the crowd,” he told 429Magazine. “It was festive, slightly angry, and the people hung around and didn’t disperse right away.”

In 1970, he and John Newmeyer formed and ran Gay Rap, a weekly San Francisco-based forum directly modeled after the rap groups in the Feminist Movement. It stood as a place for men to meet to “ferment better identities and create opportunities to meet other gay men in a non sexual situation.” 

In the mid 70’s Freeman conducted research on the gay community at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, again under the direction of John Newmeyer. At the same time, he lived in a gay commune on Gough Street. 

In 1979, he became one of the original members of the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus. That same year, they participated in the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. As the group had only been together a few months, they had only a handful of songs.

Freeman took on the role of Commissioner on the Los Angeles Commission on HIV in the 90’s. Additionally, he was an active member of the AIDS Service Center and Being Alive LA. 

In 2008, he was among those to wed his partner. 

“I was proud to become one of 18,000 Californians who got married before Prop 8 was passed,” he stated. 

Though Freeman’s background lies in Environmental Health, where he was an Environmental Manager for an aerospace company before retiring, he became a photographer and accidental curator. 

Freeman discovered photography in 2001, started curating his first art shows, and founded an artist group called the Tropico Artist Collective, named after a historical area of southern California (home of Edward Weston’s first photography studio). Their most notable shows include the Brand Library and Art Center, and Nickelodeon Studios. 

“Photography informs the viewer about the world and creates a moment of visual understanding. I enjoy being part of this process of communication.” 

The Fairoaks Project came about when his long time friend, Melleno, pulled out his box of Polaroids he had taken while he was night manager at the FairOaks Bathhouse in 1978. 

“Frank was the night manager of the Fairoaks Hotel/Baths in San Francisco and captured what may be the only visual representation for that bathhouse culture in 1978 at the nexus of gay liberation and sexual freedom. As a photographer, I recognized both the historical uniqueness of the Polaroids and naïve framing of a secretive and daring subject mater.”

With Melleno’s permission, Freeman and his husband, Nick Macierz, scanned and restored the photos. 

“The Polaroids were not in good condition and we became concerned that the images might be lost if they were not digitized for safety…one of the big discoveries was that there was much more information in the Polaroids than we first thought because they were so dimmed and cracked.”

Explicit in his choice, Freeman selected the images that “made allusion to painting and photography of the late 19th and early 20th century, i.e. the attraction of Olympia or the enchanting world of Brassaï.”

From there, the transformed 12”x12” images were presented at the Queer Cultural Center in San Francisco and the drkrm/Gallery in Los Angeles, which focuses on documentary and photojournalistic work. John Matkowski, owner and curator of the drkrm chose the Fairoaks photos for his 2010 Pride Show. From the show, the Fairoaks Project book was developed, with an introduction from Mark Thompson, author-activist. 

“It was during this time that the working title for the show and book, Fairoaks Project, became the official title. It seemed only appropriate considering how many people were assisting in bringing these images to the viewing public.”

That summer, the Fairoaks Project reopened at the Highways gallery, and then at the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco. Then, in 2012, they contacted the Center for Sex and Culture for a showing, and they were selected for this year’s Pride Month show in San Francisco.  

“Frank Melleno chose extroverted bathhouse customers and staff. His interest was in documenting the milieu of the playful and flamboyant party life at the baths. The Fairoaks was where Frank worked and lived; his lover lived there; his friends partied there.”

Freeman’s own photography stemmed from an interest in documenting “extroverted street personalities.” He focuses on the “small detail” with a direct, affection and intimate approach. Frank’s photography maintains these same aspects but with an added “fascinating, daring bit.” 

He explained that he and Mellano had been photographing each other, amongst other subjects, for 40 years. Both of their images are featured in the Fairoaks Project.

“Within the context of the Fairoaks Project, I looked for photographs expressing fellowship and heat and at the same time told the ‘story’ about life at the bathhouse and revealed something of this bold and vanished world.” 

The Fairoaks Project can currently be viewed at the Center for Sex & Culture. They will have their closing ceremony on Pride Sunday, June 30th, from 1-4pm. 

429Magazine

About The Author

Writer. Photographer. World traveler. Fashion/art/music/food enthusiast. Lover of all things deviant and novel.

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