About 25 years ago, on the last Sunday in September, Beverly and I drove from our home in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco to drop off some film from the previous day’s shoot at a color film lab at 8th and Folsom Streets in the commercial area south of Market Street.
At 8th Street, one block north of Faulkner Color Lab, traffic barricades blocked all cars; we parked and walked toward the lab. And as we got to Folsom Street, we saw an astonishing scene of a sort that neither of us had ever encountered before. There was what seemed to be thousands of people, many in elaborate costumes and makeup, and some totally or nearly naked in sandals. Here were men and women (though precise gender was, with some, not easy to determine) taking part in a theatrical world of countless fantasies.
We learned that the Folsom Street Fair is an annual event, held every year on the last Sunday in September, celebrating the world of kink and BDSM. As many as 500,000 people gather to see and be seen by their friends and peers, showing off, as we later learned, makeup and outfits that many had spent months creating.
There were at least as many onlookers as there were participants, the spectators and the enthusiastic revelers clearly a match made in heaven. A spirit of joy permeated the atmosphere, created by happy people, many apparent friends, content, in their chains and bridles, leather chaps, vinyl, straps and whips, to be in a place where what, in another context, might be called “outrageous,” was the norm.
Like other onlookers, I watched, amazed. I am blessed (though sometimes it can be almost a curse), with an insatiable curiosity about people. In all sorts of situations, I find myself wanting to know everything. Seeing what I saw on Folsom Street that Sunday was enough for me to commit to a serious photographic exploration.
Almost every year after that first encounter, I have rented an exhibitor’s space at the Fair, built an outdoor studio and made portraits of attendees, the more fantastic the look, the better.
A few weeks after each year’s event, I sent out the photographs along with a questionnaire. I promised that I’d send a second photograph if they filled out and returned the questionnaire. We asked them to tell us their age and occupation; we asked what the Folsom Street Fair meant to them; we asked them to discuss their relationships and their lives beyond Folsom Street. Not everyone responded to the questionnaire, and many who did asked us to use their “scene” names, or, in some cases, no name at all. The information contained in the questionnaires gives a deeper dimension to the portraits, our attempt to get beyond the very dramatic surface the participants present to the congenial world of the Fair.
I am a photographer, not an anthropologist, and my primary interest is in making images that reveal things in ways not seen before. The Folsom Street Fair assembles a demimonde at least as remarkable and irresistible (to the curious eye) as any gathering of humans, anywhere.
For me, the joy is in the journey.