S A N F R A N C I S C O
By Brigette Lundy-Paine
Marissa Leitman won’t photograph you unless she knows your name. Might seem like a catch for a street photographer, an artist dead set on capturing San Francisco’s youth in their natural habitat, but for Leitman, it’s not a problem; over the past 5 years she’s not only integrated her camera into SF’s majestic nightlife, she’s become quite a staple herself.
Leitman moved to San Francisco a few years ago, obsessed with British Punk and the New York Club scene. It only took a month for her to realize that the school she had moved to the city for, California College of the Arts, was not the artistic wonderland she’d dreamed it would be. So she took matters into her own hands. Her first year in the city, Leitman went out every night of the week and guesses she met about 230 people. She muses now on the idea of it and shivers, “I’m already so tired and stressed out as it is, I don’t know how I did it.” The world of San Francisco at night was better than she could’ve imagined; from hopping into the back of pickup trucks to spending every night in a different bed, she was living the artist's life she’d dreamed. But there was one glitch in the plan. Leitman was still too shy to photograph her new friends. She was right where she wanted to be, witnessing everything from the most marvelous queens of San Francscio to the local royals of music and art, but Leitman felt that documenting the experience would be a betrayal of trust.
It wasn’t until she switched from a 35mm camera to a Mamiya C330 that her relationship to the night shifted. “It’s huge,” she emphasizes of the C330, “I never look elegant with it. My famous last words are always ‘hold it!’” Instead of nervously smuggling her camera around, she had no choice now but to introduce it proudly, forging the way for a relationship between photographer and subject. “If they’re uncomfortable, I’m uncomfortable,” Leitman professes, “there has to be some kind of intimacy.”
She obviously cares deeply about the C330. One of Leitmans only self portraits from her series “Notes on San Francisco” is of the two of them together. Standing in a closet, Leitman holds the camera close to her nude frame, ducked coyly behind it, photographer and camera reflected in the bathroom mirror. An archaic selfie, seeming to belong to another era. But most of Leitman’s work feels like that. Drag Queens are a favorite subject of hers, as are her many queer, non-binary friends. There’s something wild about her pictures, the subjects seem to be taunting the viewer, daring them to come closer; young lovers beckoning their stiff and matted admirers into an endless bacchanal. The thrill of her work exists in the unflinching filth and at times unsettling rawness of her portraits. The creak of tight leather, the heightened fear of dilated pupils, the trail of mascara left by tears.
Looking at the photos, one finds themselves sharing Leitman's manic excitement over her subjects; one cannot help but to become physically entangled in the unique universe of each picture. Tight on a pair of white leather boots crunching through a sidewalk strewn with broken glass - your jaw clenches. A woman, stretching her arm away from a pale ribcage to reveal a freshly sewn cut, 7 stitches, a bandage hanging loose - your skin crawls. Leitman seems to be grinning eagerly behind the camera, unmoving as to not disturb the natural habitat of the creatures she has so carefully sought out. She shares them with us full of pride, a hunter presenting her prey.
Leitman and her Mamiya C330
Looking through Leitman’s portfolio, it's easy to forget that the world she documents and inhabits still exists today. Her photos, shot on film, feel perfectly reminiscent of Nan Goldin and the sexual revolution of the '80s that I imagine the portraits must be costumed and cast by Leitman herself. However every once in a while the photos give way to a familiar landmark, and you are reminded that the scene before you is not a shot from a period piece, but instead from a party that you’re probably in the midst of missing out on. An aging drag queen in a white wig and a button down '60s house dress, lit brightly against the night, holding a VR headset up to her eyes; A melancholy looking young queen, pink wigged and lips filled in twice past their perimeter holding a takeaway cup from Jack in the Box with the words “make a late foody” printed in purple block letters. “We live in the same world as you,” the portraits taunt, “we’re just having more fun doing it.
And then, there’s Barry. Appearing to be in his mid 80s, Barry is Leitman’s most photographed subject. He’s thin, with thick-rimmed glasses and a white mustache thicker than the hair on his head. When I first made my way through Leitman's portfolio, I was struck by the persistence and intimacy of this character in her work. I wondered, titillated, if he was a family member or perhaps a much older lover. Again and again he came up - Barry, behind a bar, flipping the bird on both hands. Barry, on a bus as it pulls away, hands up in a taunting surrender, an amused smile lingering on his aged face. And on her Instagram, a photo of Barry’s California State ID: “My grumpy fuddy dutty,” Leitman captioned the photo. And finally, Barry, standing amongst Leitman's photos at a gallery, surrounded by portraits of himself. “Today I miss Barry,” the caption reads.
When I ask Leitman about her friend, I am not entirely surprised to hear that he’s passed away just shy of a year ago. She tells me that she first met Barry at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, the sole remaining gay bar in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. Barry worked there as a bartender. Leitman and Barry became friends very quickly, bonding over their desire to sit and tell stories together. She began to visit him at the bar regularly, staying to drink and talk long after closing. Barry had lived in San Francisco his entire adult life in an apartment that he refused to allow guests to visit, insisting that it was too messy, and had worked at Aunt Charlie’s for over 30 years.
Leitman tells me about one of their first evenings together. “We were wasted,” she recalls giddily. “He wrote down every one of his lovers on a napkin. I still have it,” she smiles, “it’s one of my prized possessions.” Leitman and Barry fell instantly into a symbiotic relationship. They spoke on the phone every day, and spent night after night drinking and laughing and telling stories. “We were absolutely in love in this really funny way,” she tells me, “because we didn’t have to be.”
Aside from the obvious differences between the two, Barry was Leitman's first friend who couldn’t stand being photographed. “He fucking hated photos of himself!” she laughs. “The photo where he’s flipping me off? He had been screaming ‘You and your fucking camera!’” Even though Barry appears more frequently than any other subject in Leitman’s work, she only managed to steal a few rolls of film featuring her friend over the year they spent together. She was sparing with her camera around him, especially after his diagnosis of cancer in early March, 2017. When Barry passed away on July 23 that same year, Aunt Charlie’s Lounge held the memorial service, bringing in a reverend to speak in the bar. Barry was a part of a small group of gay men in San Francisco, who had lived through the AIDS crisis, and who now clung to bars such as Aunt Charlie’s Lounge like life rafts. All of them had watched, 30 years before, as almost all of their friends and lovers had been stolen from them by the disease. And now, one by one, the survivors' lives were coming to an end.
I imagine Barry, taken completely by Leitman and by her fascination with the world he had grown up in. He had lived through an era driven by tensions no longer present in the world Leitman inhabits: not only the persistent fear of death and disease, but the political and social war on people like him that he had endured through his adult life. The world that Leitman shows us through her photographs is one of celebration and curiosity for itself, for the past which it is nothing without, and for the fact that it is untouchable. I can’t help but think that Barry found great comfort in this. The flattery that an entire generation would live in tribute to his lost one, that from the ashes would come new beings bursting in to flourish in the empty space, to love again with vigor in the same way that had been so brutally punished, but to be sure this time would be without consequence.
I understand why Barry avoided Leitman's camera, the middle fingers up, the smirk, the hands up in surrender. He was giving Leitman the gift of carrying on without him. He was giving her San Francisco. It was theirs now, the wild, fearless, magnificent beings who had drawn Leitman to the city in the first place. Leitman's work is a love letter to San Francisco; to those who gave their lives for the city and those who continue to give themselves over to it every day. Leitman, herself, included. ♦