The photographer and legendary drag queen Linda Simpson discuss honoring the legacy of their queer predecessors
In his 1996 essay Ephemera as Evidence, the late queer scholar José Muñoz posits ephemera as proof of minoritarian existence. Muñoz views items such as a flyer from an event or a brochure accompanying an exhibition, as “a kind of evidence of what has transpired but certainly not the thing itself… it is interested in following traces, glimmers, residues, and specks of things.” These traces, found in the tattered folds of gay erotica from the late 1970s through the 1990s, constitute photographer Pacifico Silano’s latest book I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine from Loose Joints Publishing.
Silano works through appropriation, digging through gay porn and composing images that feel at once warm and nostalgic yet incomplete. We are given fragments of men’s faces and bodies, cut next to romantic landscapes and quotidian household scenes. The viewer finds themself longing for the whole image, an effect Silano shapes intentionally as much of the work parses through the loss of his uncle to HIV complications when he was a child. The materials Silano works with allude to the presence of its previous owners, providing us with proof of the men who once thumbed through these pages before us. With an accordion layout, the book considers how memory is shaped through rhythm, interruptions, and redactions.
Here, Silano discusses I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine with friend and drag queen icon Linda Simpson. Simpson and Silano met in 2014 at one of Simpson’s “The Drag Explosion” slideshow presentations, and Silano later curated Simpson’s show at Tiger Strikes Asteroid New York, an artist-run gallery in Brooklyn. Simpson began performing in the late 1980s in New York’s East Village, where she took images of her friends and fellow queens. Simpson has amassed thousands of photographs from the 1980s and ’90s drag scene, featuring legendary figures such as RuPaul, Willi Ninja, and Lady Bunny. Simpson’s photographs were recently compiled into a book coming soon from Domain Publishing. Document chatted with Silano and Simpson about working with historical imagery, Silano’s movement from narrative photography to appropriation, and the difficulties of transmitting memory from one queer generation to the next.
Linda Simpson: Now what is your book called, Pacifico?
Pacifico Silano: My book is called I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine, it’s a title that’s taken from a Ronettes song. It’s a lot of melodrama, daydream, and fantasy reworked through vintage appropriated gay pornography from post-Stonewall riots through the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Linda: Where do you find these magazines, images, materials for appropriation?
Pacifico: Very few times have I been able to track stuff down in real life, with the exception of shooting at NYU Fales Library which has this amazing collection of Richard Marshall’s collection of gay erotica and pornography. I go through eBay; I source things down on websites. The archive work was funny because I had no idea that NYU had this collection from this former curator from the Whitney who passed away. I found out about it because my therapist said, ‘Hey I have a patient who also works at this collection and they just got this huge gift you should call them up!’ Without my therapist, I don’t think I would’ve known to go to NYU and tap into this amazing collection of erotica.
Linda: Is it difficult to find all those gay porn magazines that existed in the ’80s and ’90s?
Pacifico: It is but there are websites that are dedicated to selling vintage gay pornography collections [and] estate sales. It’s always sort of a gamble buying that stuff because you never know what’s inside. A lot of times they cost between $25-$50 an issue and if I’m lucky I get one good image out of it.
Linda: Even those really cheap, common magazines like Torso? Those are expensive now?
Pacifico: Torso magazine, Honcho, Blueboy, you’d be surprised. I guess there’s this kind of irony, these cheaply produced magazines that were discarded, meant for one-time use are now $25 on eBay.
Linda: Now what’s interesting, of course, is tell us what your parents did.
Pacifico: My mom and dad ran an adult novelty store called Undercover Pleasures in New Jersey.
Linda: Were you involved at all?
Pacifico: I would come home from college for spring break or winter recess and my mom would put me to work. ‘You need to sit behind the counter,’ she would always say. ‘Women are very comfortable with you.’ Which was her coded language for a ‘friend of Dorothy’s’ in front of my father. It was off of an interstate so you would have truck drivers traveling through who were buying sex toys and you would wonder what they would be getting up to afterwards. My mom was always pushing us to sell batteries with everything so we’d make more money.
Linda: Did this influence your perceptions about sex in general?
Pacifico: Absolutely. It’s embarrassing to say that it took me so long to make that connection but I think I approach pornography in a very different way because of that experience. I look at it as a viable income source. I guess in many ways I’m sort of desensitized to it.
Linda: When you were in college, did you start experimenting right away with appropriation, collaging, etc?
Pacifico: No I was a personal narrative documentary photographer. I was photographing my family, my first boyfriend, my first love, which was a big step for me when I was coming out. I didn’t think appropriation was art, that it was a viable way of creating. I think going to graduate school was really a reset for me. I studied under Penelope Umbrico, this artist who’s a phenomenal appropriation-based artist, and Sarah Charlesworth who is famous for The Pictures Generation.
It was born out of necessity, right? I didn’t have any photographs of my uncle. I wanted to make a project that touched down on that. That sort of loss, that queer predecessor, that surrogate father figure he could’ve been for me. Only having one photograph of my uncle that my father gave me before we became estranged, I was forced to rethink how I can make an image that’s about something like this. That’s not quite literal. In some ways I’m kind of glad because it’s open in possibility and made the work a little broader and allowed me to talk about different themes in my work. Masculinity and cliche American iconography, gay iconography, what does that mean?
Allie Monck: Both of you are often given the title of queer historian, a label a lot of queer artists seem to get whether they want it or not. I’m interested in how that influences how you two see your work and your practice?
Linda: I think mine kind of falls under that category, maybe even more than Pacifico’s just because mine is specific photos of a specific era. I do get a little, not uncomfortable, but I just don’t feel like I’m a drag historian necessarily. I’d rather just concentrate on one project than try to do all the work that would be necessary to be a total drag documentarian or a drag historian. I’m not offended by the title, it is what it is. I’m glad that my photos are considered historical in that regard.
Pacifico: I don’t know about you Linda but I get anxiety when people put that label on me. Your work makes so much sense for the sort of historic nature of it.
Linda: You mean the documentarian?
Pacifico: The queer historian. I think that’s such a loaded term.
Linda: It’s hard to live up to.
Pacifico: I think you’re doing it beautifully. I get a little nervous because I think so much of what I’m doing is a personal reflection of my innermost thoughts and experiences. Even if I’m working with appropriated imagery from the ’70s and the ’80s, I’m omitting things, I’m revealing and concealing things. For me there’s not a neutral archive. It’s all colored by my life experience and what I’m bringing to it. In some ways it’s a self-portrait. The context of the photographs shift and change because we have 30+ years of sociopolitical developments since the time the pictures were taken. You’re reading it through the loss and longing of the HIV/AIDS crisis and that’s what transforms those photographs to make them be about that.
Allie: In preparation for this interview I read José Muñoz’s article Ephemera as Evidence that I feel speaks directly to Pacifico’s work. He has this quote where he posits ‘ephemera as proof.’ What do you all think about the idea of ephemera and these sorts of images as being proof of that time, particularly during the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
Linda: Photographs back then were something you actually held onto, they were film. Those are certainly proof positive of a past. For my photos at least, I knew most of the people that I took photos of. A lot of it was just personal interactions and it really points more to circles of friends and social groups. It’s not trying to be so broad as to say this is what it was like back then but it does prove a certain way of living back then. Which as you mentioned was all under the shadow of AIDS which made everything really charged and sad in many ways. But people really embraced joy as they could and there was a lot of camaraderie between people who were going through the same thing.
Pacifico: So much about my work is about the tactility of the photographs: the printing dots, the page creases, the dog earmarked pages, the staples within the centerfold. It’s so evident on the material, how they were held, how they were a part of somebody’s life. That is something that I’m always trying to translate into the final format of the photograph or the installation or in this case an artist book. I really do think about them as markers of time, as a snapshot of my uncle’s generation. These are images that are sort of mimicking popular culture of the time period. I think of them as documents, as a marker of a certain place and time.
Allie: How do y’all see generational divides within the queer community being impacted by the AIDS epidemic and COVID? These viruses and times that are mismanaged by the government and the ways they have affected our ability to pass on memory, pass on even basic training of how to exist and survive?
Linda: I think for the queer community it’s a little different because most gay people don’t have kids. It’s not like family history is passed down as easily. I think a lot of young people nowadays are very interested in what happened, at least in the rather recent past. People are very attracted to the ’90s especially, and maybe that’s just au courant but I think that there is a yearning to learn more about stuff that has been pushed to the margins. It’s an interesting surprise for people. As far as AIDS and COVID and government mismanagement, I guess some things never change. It is circular.
Pacifico: I think the important part is how they’re uniquely different… There’s something about wanting to know your history because it informs who you become and who you are and your place in the world. That’s why I’ve always sought out relationships with our queer predecessors, queer people who are older than me. It’s this way of finding a mentor and learning from them and hearing everything they have to say… I think about how different my life would be like if my uncle was here. What were the things that my uncle would’ve taught me?
Linda: When did your uncle die?
Pacifico: 1989. It’s really crazy because I was 3 years old when he died, so I have no recollection of him even though he was in the delivery room when I was born. He died at 36, and I’m turning 35 next week. They buried him on his 37th birthday. I remember 36 seemed so old. I’m rapidly approaching that age, taking stock and I don’t feel old. We don’t think we’re old. Because he wasn’t, he was really in his prime. That’s something that I live with and I’ve been thinking and ruminating a lot on. How will I feel when that happens and I’m that age? Finding a way to carry on his legacy is going to be important to me for the rest of my life.
I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine by Pacifico Silano, published by Loose Joints