Donna Gottschalk, who now lives on a farm in Victory, documented the LGBTQ scene in New York and San Francisco in the 1960s and '70s. Her photos — some of which have never been displayed publicly — are featured in a solo exhibition called “Brave, Beautiful Outlaws” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City.
Gottschalk first picked up a camera as a high school art student growing up in New York City. She was driven to do documentary photography in large part by her fascination with the emergent LGBTQ scenes that she was a part of at the time.
“The '60s, the '70s, it was dangerous just to be a woman,” she said. “To be a gay woman, you know — or an openly gay guy — you were really kind of a mark.”
Gottschalk’s photos are unposed and intimate — they depict people asleep in bed, hanging out in kitchens and cuddling with lovers. She said part of her style comes from documenting her own community: friends, lovers and family were often in front of Gottschalk's lens.
It helped to be, as Gottschalk puts it, “nosy.” She took photos of many friends who lived with her after being kicked out of their homes by family members because of their sexual orientation.
“I wanted to figure out why all these people wound up in [the New York City neighborhood of] Alphabet City, basically." Gottschalk said. "I had never been outside New York City, so I was fascinated by ‘Why did you come here?’”
Many of the photos in Gottschalk’s show at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art have been a part of her personal archive for the last 50 years — and she described these works as "not happy pictures."
Gottschalk said that at the time the photos were taken, people craved more upbeat images of LGBTQ scenes. She cited the work of photographers Joan Biren — who Gottschalk counts as a major influence on her work — and Diana Davies, who is known for documenting pivotal marches and festivals.
But, said Gottschalk, she “wasn’t in that spot” at that time.
“I was beginning to realize how terrifying life was going to be if you were gay,” she said.
Fifty or so years later, Gottschalk said she’s “as shocked as anybody” that there’s so much interest in her photos now. The exhibit of Gottschalk's work at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, curated by Deborah Bright, is on display through March 17.