March 3, 2019, 2:00pm (Gwen’s Studio, Brooklyn, NY)
Gwen Shockey: What was the first space you went to that you can remember occupied mostly by lesbians or queer women and what did it feel like to be there?
Joyce Culver: Right. So, the first place was called The Riverview and it was in Rochester, New York and it was probably 1977. The Riverview was on South Avenue, right on the Genesee River, hence the name "Riverview". I had come out and heard about this bar and went in. I would call it a seedy bar. There was another place called Jim's, which was a disco, but a lot of men went there, and it was huge. I was at RIT, Rochester Institute of Technology going for my graduate degree in photography. I came from an art education teaching background, and in a sense was in a different class compared to some of the other women in the bar, who were working class. There was a difference between the university students, and the working women. Some also were from the University of Rochester, and like me. The lesbians from the schools would go there on the weekend and I would go every chance I could get let's say.
I was so new, thirty years old, and had just come out. The bar was run by a woman named Lou, who looked like your grandmother-type. She wasn’t a lesbian but owned the place. I’m almost certain she wasn’t a lesbian. She was just behind the bar serving up the drinks. A friend of mine described her as, “Short, thin and very old.” She loved having a lesbian bar because she said, “The dykes kept trouble away.” She had a sign on the door indicating that she had a cover charge in order to keep out men. I wasn’t afraid to go in there, really. I don’t remember being fearful, but I heard other people were because by going into this bar you were declaring yourself to be a lesbian, in a sense. There was a long bar on the right as you entered and another room with a pool table, and you could hear the balls going and a little dancing. I was actually in a relationship but was going through this time where I needed to sow my wild oats, so the bar became a place where I could do that a little. I loved it! I think I spent about two years going in there off and on and getting loaded. A lot. I drank a lot. We’d do things like dancing and getting so loaded we would fall over onto other people and knocking glasses all over. For me it was almost like going through adolescence, which was a time I had never really experienced. I saw lots of women there. One was a typical bull dyke with an Elvis haircut, cigarettes tucked in her rolled up sleeve. I don’t remember her name but I would always say hello. I never felt I was above someone like her.
GS: Was she a local in the town?
JC: Yeah, she was working class. She was probably one of those working-class lesbians who had a job a someplace like United Parcel or something.
GS: Is Rochester an industrial city?
JC: It’s a strange little city. Actually I think it’s the third largest in New York State. We had the George Eastman house, which was very beautiful, and the Eastman School of Music, Xerox, and corporate types. So you had the erudite, educated people and just like any city in a sense there were many other types of people. Also in the countryside you had the “farm-dykes” lets say, who would somehow make a living away from the city too.
GS: Did you get the sense that it was a pretty conservative place while you were in school there?
JC: Yes, it was conservative. I felt that it was very conservative. I was surprised to find The Riverview when I came out and I was also surprised that there was a place called the Lesbian Resource Center that was on Monroe Avenue. I called them up once because I was in the midst of my torrid affair, which broke my marriage up. I called them and asked some questions on the phone. Some woman was on the other end who could answer questions and tell me where to go if I wanted to go out, and she actually invited me to a party at her house with my lover. It was all very new. I’ll never forget it, though, because there were all these women at the party, and when I went to sit down on a chair the woman who had invited me placed hand on the chair with her palm facing up, so I sat right down on it! I got up quickly and I thought, “Whoa!”
GS: That’s bold!
JC: It was very bold. I don’t come from wealth, but I do have a sense of propriety in the way I handle myself, so doing these bold things or even watching how people behaved in the bar perhaps, was new to me. So I was learning all these new codes and experiencing the culture.
GS: So, you were out more or less at that time. Did you have a lesbian community at school?
JC: Ah! Yes, at school – at RIT – the ones that were lesbians, they saw me and at one point there were two women and one of them kept hanging out with me and I ended up having an affair with her. I shared a small darkroom space with one of them. The two women and I started to talk more and they found out I was separated from my husband… I can’t believe I even did all that!
GS: So you were married to a man?
JC: I was married to a man through my twenties and then I had an affair with a woman at the age of 29. My husband and I both decided to end the marriage and I would move on, which I felt compelled to do. It was a compelling decision. But at the bar, I’ll never forget, there was one woman and one night I was there I asked her how she was and she goes, “I’m nice!” (Laughing) And I looked at her trying to interpret what she said and I thought, “Well I guess 'nice' means either she’s had a few scotches or she’s nice because she’s in a place that she likes to be…” But things happened at the bar. I ended up having an affair with one woman who was very possessive and then I had an affair with another woman who I met at the bar and there was all this contentious stuff going on because both women were there. I was not used to this…
GS: A small community like that?
JC: Yes. That was my first introduction to the bar scene and it was a small bar. After that, when I came to New York, it was larger bars and New York City women all over the place, bigger scenes like The Sahara, Leslie Cohen's place, which I went to a few times. I would go down to The Duchess and I found that any time I would go somewhere and somebody would ask me if I wanted to come home with them I’d say, “No.” because I wasn’t feeling attracted. But if you went to a bar and you start to drink and smoke all hell could break loose. Now it’s also probably drugs, but for me, you’d have a few drinks, you’d feel a little pumped up and all of the sudden you’d start doing things and think, “Why did I do that?”
GS: I think so many queer people go through this. Experiencing this second adolescence and feeling a little bit out of control, a little bit impulsive.
JC: Right. I was in New York when I was about 32. I would go into the Dutchess and observe a bartender like Dee. Dee had a long black cigarette holder with a cigarette at the end. She was older and really sharp. She almost looked like a corporate-type woman. She even wore a suit with tails, you know. She just looked great. So of course I had to get a cigarette holder too and I wanted to be the coolest thing I could be so I started mimicking anything that I liked. Dee was someone who was at The Duchess for quite a bit.
GS: So you moved to New York in ’79?
JC: Yeah, in ’79 I came here with no money and no job and I had a lover on Long Island and I somehow rented an apartment. I worked at a photo lab for a while and I continued to explore! I would go to The Duchess, I would go to the Sahara, another one-called Peaches. Did you know of Peaches?
GS: Somebody told me about a bar called Peaches that I believe was in the same location as another bar called the Three, which was open a lot earlier. Do you remember the location?
JC: It was Upper East Side. The Sahara was on the Upper East Side and then there was another bar on a side street that I liked to go to.
GS: Could it have been Julie’s?
JC: I can’t remember the name! Bad. I should look up some of these places or ask some of my friends. Leslie’s bar was open in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. They really made that a special place. I loved the interview you did with them.
GS: Oh thanks! They are amazing. I couldn’t believe how many events they held.
JC: People like Gloria Steinem and artists went there. I didn’t even know Leslie had that art history background. I went to the Sahara and I walked in and it was huge! I see this woman there and I said, “That’s Leslie Cohen who I liked a lot when I was at Buffalo State!” I remember her being in my dorm. You could always hear her laughing. She was loud and commanding and I remember looking around the Sahara and thinking the artwork there was great! Prints, all kinds of things, contemporary stuff, and I thought, “God! Whoever has this likes art!” And then I see Leslie and she’s got the schmatta on her head which she used to wear all the time – I wondered if she was bald or something – but she seemed to like that schmatta and I went over and said, “Hi! Do you remember me? We were at Buffalo State together!” And she said, “Yes!” It was really nice.
GS: Small world!
JC: Yeah. I thought she was from Long Island originally and I’m from down here too but we were at Buffalo State together and I don’t know what her major was. The bottom line was that I was very intimidated. New York City women seemed far more sophisticated and they had far more money than I had – believe me, as I was struggling. So, I felt very green. I felt more comfortable in Rochester because the women were not New Yorkers. There’s a real difference. I struggled with that for a while. I met plenty of women who were in the Hamptons and all kinds of places. They had already bought houses, had good jobs and I was like earning a penny a day or something. So, I felt less than and it took me a while to start feeling more normalized or more happy with my status. I mean, I was pretty poor. But I did find the time to go out because I liked to dance and do all that! I think there were a lot of alcoholics in the bar scene, quite frankly, and I was part of that although I don’t consider myself an alcoholic. Thank God I didn’t have that addiction.
GS: I have a couple more questions also relating to your photography. So you were kind of coming out at the same time that you were studying photography and getting your masters. Did photography play a part for you in your coming out process?
JC: Yes. Yes, because at the time when I was in grad school and I started wanting to address my feelings in my work and I was going through a difficult time, my husband and I were separating. But I wanted to address my feelings because I was getting in touch with my real feelings. So, I ended up shooting photographs and putting writing on top of them. I wouldn’t write directly on the photo but I would write on a piece of paper and put it on top of the photo and print through it and so the writing would come out on the print and it was writing from my journal. I’ve kept journals for, I’m gonna say, thirty years now. I was writing in my journal about my feelings and coming to terms with the fact that my feelings were real. Prior to that my feelings were always within me, which they are, but I wanted to see them visually. So, the handwriting and actually saying something made them more real. I did this little book, which was the start of everything, about my feelings and one of the things I said (and I shared this with other people) was that I had the thought that if I stabbed myself with a knife I would feel something. Of course I never did that. Or I would talk about my loneliness or how I felt about men. I was actually working as a barmaid during that time and I saw a lot of drinking and a lot of men and a lot of stuff in the bar, which was a learning experience.
I think all art helps you get in touch with things. It depends on what your focus is, but in my case the photography really helped me see what was real for me. I shot my lover, I was shooting nudes, I was shooting myself and I was looking back at the pictures I shot thinking they were communicating back to me and of course that became more evident. It became more evident that this was a big change in my work. I wasn’t shooting that kind of stuff prior. I was probably being more safe. So, that changed, and that was two years of grad school. Grad school was great for me in that way.
GS: Seems like it opened up a lot for you.
JC: Oh yes. Thank God I came to RIT already an artist because it was a technical school and everyone there was a man there except for two women. The only two women were Bea Nettles who is in Illinois and is little older than me and another woman named Kathy Collins. I still felt that the men encouraged my work, which was good but it was a very technical school.
GS: Critique-wise were the conversations pretty technical or were they able to directly address your content?
JC: I don’t remember real great feedback from them but I certainly was permitted to do the work. I don’t remember anyone saying anything about the content. I think that’s a big thing because my new chair at the School of Visual Arts, Joe Maida, who is much younger than me, told me that when he was at Yale he wasn’t getting feedback on his work as a gay man even 15 years ago, but when he had Cathy Opie who was teaching there for a stint she did. Quite frankly if you’re not discussing your real self, than what are you discussing at all?
GS: I had a friend in graduate school whose work was rich in queer content and it was only addressed directly by two students during a major critique. Not by any of the faculty on his panel. This was only two years ago.
JC: Where was this?
GS: This was at Pratt.
JC: Oh, that’s amazing. I started teaching my Sex and Photography class at SVA in 1999. I had twelve people in that class and the kids were just exuberant about talking about their sexual lives and it wasn’t necessarily about their homosexual lives. Of course if someone was – I mean the class was an open class!
GS: You must get a sense of these shifts in openness about sex and sexuality through teaching. Because you’ve been teaching for a long time!
JC: I’m telling you, even when I taught the sex and photography class about two or three years ago I had someone in the class from Tennessee. The religious right in some of these places forces gay men and lesbians into silence. They don’t want to say too much because they’ll be hung on a post. Or the family itself, which you’ve heard and read about. God forbid if you’re a transgendered teen or you’re questioning your gender. But if you have a family with a bundle of money and their twelve-year-old son wants to become a girl: “Oh no problem!” Maybe because they’re more educated? Who the hell knows! I mean the variations are interesting, right?
GS: It is interesting. Every day I feel like there are changes in terms of language and legislature around trans rights. But something I feel is so powerful about your photography is how vulnerable and how out in the open and straight-forward it is in terms of intimate relationships, lesbian bodies – did moving to New York affect the content of your work?
JC: Oh yes for sure because I met a lot of different people and I was exposed to a community here through the bars, and I met people in the arts and at fundraisers. The 1980's were mostly about me meeting people and then deciding at some point that I wanted to photograph them. I was with someone at the time for seven years in a large apartment and I had a darkroom and a little space to shoot. One day I decided to start doing portraits of people I knew. I did men and women and I wanted to get good at portraiture and so I started shooting them and I started looking at them and thinking, “Hmmm.” I was questioning what a love relationship was at the time. I’m sure a lot of people go through this but this was a big question in my mind. I loved the person I was with but was still questioning how two people connected. The sexual part for me was so overwhelming. One could look at this attraction that you have and quite frankly I don’t think that can be the whole thing even though it feels really good. There has to be some other stuff happening. When I look back on my marriage, my ex-husband and I had so much in common! But his body… I mean he had a great body! But in the end for me (and it depends on each of us) I could not deny that I just loved the sensuality of being with a woman as well as all my sexual feelings for women, which I had suppressed. I think my generation comes from a sense of denial. Hopefully your generation didn’t go through the same. Did you?
GS: I mean it depends where you grow up obviously but thanks to your generation there was already some understanding of lesbian identity and lesbian love and relationships so there was already a language formed for me at least. Kids still go through hell coming out but super different I think than what you experienced.
JC: Yeah. I mean I didn’t think I could be normal. I struggled with anxiety when I was a teenager. I decided I would fit into the mold and I was attracted to my husband. I didn’t know there could be any other choice, so I did find a very nice looking man who I married. We were both good looking. We were both in the arts blah, blah, blah… And when the marriage ended, I was surprised! It just happened! My family did not know what to do.
GS: Did you ever come out to your family?
JC: My parents were going to visit my husband and myself and I called them up and said, “Don’t come. Because Eric and I are probably going to separate.” They wanted to know why, and I finally said, “I’m having an affair with a woman and I’m in therapy.” And my father said, “Is the therapist telling you what to do?” And I said, “No! The therapist doesn’t tell me what to do. I just talk to him!” Thank God I had a good therapist. Boy was he good. That therapist, and he was a man, Sam Merrill, was at Family Services in Rochester, and we paid seven dollars a visit. We went together, Eric and I, and we had maybe one or two sessions together before he saw us separately. During the first session I had to admit what was going on. I told him I was having an affair with a woman and Sam turned to Eric and said, “How does that make you feel?” And Eric said, “I feel like a knife has been plunged into me.” We were both crying, but Sam said something to me, which I’ll never forget. He said, “Things don’t happen. People make them happen.” I thought that was a very powerful statement because he was saying that I made it happen, and I certainly did with this woman I started having a relationship with, which only lasted a year. She was ten years younger than me. I made it happen because I’m honest. I don’t like dishonesty at all in myself. If I’m not happy, I would want to confront it and move into how it could be solved, especially when I was having feelings. I needed to let them out and at age 29 it was like a volcano. It was a bursting out of the me after keeping it under wraps.
GS: It seems like photography played a big role for you to connect to yourself and to other LGTBQ people. I’m curious just in your process of photographing other people how you become intimate with your subject, what is the conversation like when you’re photographing someone?
JC: Probably it’s almost like Diane Arbus, you know, when she said she would compliment people quite a bit. She was very effusive, Diane Arbus. She sometimes felt like she was being disingenuous, but in terms of having a session, I definitely interact with my subject and tell them quite genuinely that they looked beautiful while directing because that’s what you do in a more formal portrait session. Definitely interacting physically by having eye contact. If you’re shooting with a four by five camera, which I was doing later on, I was not behind the camera so I could be next to the camera and interact. Or if the camera was on a tripod I would definitely have this one-on-one where there would be this feeling of energy between myself and the other people. You watch each other, kind of. But I was definitely effusive in some ways, the way Diane Arbus could be. She was a huge inspiration to me. But her pictures! She made people look like they were from Mars! My pictures are more about a moment of interaction between me and a subject. Or sometimes they were spontaneous. I mean a portrait session would last an hour to two hours at least. Especially when I was shooting with the Hasselblad and I would go through seven rolls of twelve exposure film. When I shot with the four by five I would only shoot a couple of pictures. It’s interesting because when I started shooting four by five I read somewhere that Berenice Abbott would shoot several portraits with no film in the film holder because she felt that the first ones were always going to be lousy, so why bother. So she wouldn’t put film in the film holder and she’d shoot a few and then she’d put the film in the film holder. I read her biography and boy was that hard to get through. It was like every time Berenice went to the bathroom it was in the book. I skimmed a little but I wanted to read it and it was a very good book.
GS: I also wanted to ask you how you got involved in photographing during Pride Parades and on the street?
JC: Oh, I would just go to the parade and shoot away! I started shooting in the late 1980s and I did some in the ‘90s. I’m busy going through my stuff now. I’m looking at some stuff that I’m going to try to scan. Mainly because Dan Cooney sold one of my pieces for a nice chunk of change over the Summer so I’m thinking, “Hmm. Let’s unload some of this stuff and make some dough.” I’m almost a quiet person in a sense but when I get into a community I have a lot of fun and I really feel like I interact. I don’t know if other people are like that, but I feel like my spirit really comes alive and I feel like my life is meaningful. Much more meaningful.
GS: Yeah! Especially because art-making can be such a solitary practice so it's nice to have that balance.
JC: Right. I think it’s definitely smart to get out and not isolate. Although I know plenty of artists who say they need their down time, and I do too, but if I’m alone too long I start thinking I need to go out and do something! I start to go stir-crazy. You have to have a balance.
GS: Can you tell me about your experience photographing at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival?
JC: For some reason you get these ideas in your head… that was when I started doing four by five because then I could shoot Polaroids and pull them apart and get a positive and keep the negative. So, I thought why not go out to Michigan. I brought an assistant and I bought a tent, which we could both be in. We were out there for five days and I shot over a hundred portraits under a tree. They just said I could do it! So, I set up my black backdrop and my camera and said, “Ok, whoever wants to come under this tree, I’ll shoot two pictures!” I just had a lot of fun and I’m going to say there are some iconic pictures there. I have to look at those pictures again but there are certain ones that are iconic. Iconic for me is the ability to show feelings women have for each other, and the feelings come across from the print to the viewer for me and I think for others. But I had a lot of fun and shot a diverse group. You had all kinds of combinations of people there at the festival. But I saw that too in New York. How people choose one another. You had racial diversity, black women with white women, you had heavy set women with very thin women, you had adorned women with tattoos with women who were not, and they were all in front of the camera. So I shot for five days and then came back to New York and made contact sheets of everything. It was fun.
GS: And you shot some pretty famous people right?
JC: It’s interesting because I just went to Annie Sprinkle’s Water Makes Us Wet. Annie was actually posing for me on the North Fork with the woman she was dating for maybe six months. So, yes I photographed Annie Sprinkle. I photographed Barbara Hammer and Florrie Burke in the early ‘90s. She’s posted some of those pictures. I gave her a big print of her and Florrie. I’m just trying to think of who else I’ve shot. For me, it’s not necessarily about the famous people, although in my commercial work for the 92Y in the 2000's I shot hundreds of celebrities. But my work was always for non-famous people. In fact, I prefer that. I don’t care for famous people that much. If they’re my friends its one thing, but famous people don’t make my day, let’s say. And when I photographed famous people I treated them as if they weren't famous. They sense it if you’re afraid or timid, and for the celebrities it was just about getting your work done and an insightful view, if that's possible.
GS: What are you working on now Joyce? You have a show coming up right?
JC: They are just showing old work for the show. It is a photograph that I took of twins that will be on the cover of this book Photography After Stonewall, which is at the SoHo Photo Gallery. Right now I am kind of evaluating a lot of different projects. I have things that I would like to do. I’ve actually been writing about my life. So that work has to get published. It’s amazing how a lesbian can go to other things too like my bird for instance. (Laughing). I’m not in a relationship now. I had a bird named Lulu, a Senegal parrot who I had for 17 years. She flew away, unfortunately. So I intend to make a book called the "Lulu Diaries" about my relationship with her. Relationships can take on many forms. For me, the love I had for Lulu was a very important relationship. And now I have a love relationship with my bird Charles too. So right now I’m kind of looking at how that work can get done and now even using video and the iPhone.
I have a great sense of humor, so some of that comes out in my videos. My sense of humor I really like a lot. I can be very funny in my writing. Some of that has been coming out in the last couple of years. I think the focus for me right now is formalizing these things and getting them done. I even have a series of pictures from seven years ago of June, a woman I was with for three years which went caput, but I have pictures from the start to the end so there is a whole sequence of looking at how happy we could be and how rotten we felt at the end. It’s important to me that pictures can talk. I am also questioning whether or not I even want to go in the darkroom again. I now like to scan and use the inkjet printer to print some of my stuff. I was almost going to call Dan Cooney and say, “Should I go into the darkroom and make some prints or will inkjet prints sell?” To the hell with it! And then I’m not letting anything go into my lungs quite frankly. I would love to hear how you feel about that.
GS: Yeah, I mean a lot of materials used for printmaking are highly toxic. I try to be careful.
JC: I have a COPD I don’t know if I told you! It’s nothing bad but it’s called Bronchiectasis. It’s monitored by my pulmonologist but the bottom line is years of exposure to non-ventilated darkrooms caused it, I’m sure. With printmaking, forget it! My ex-husband was a printmaker and in the old days people would put their hands right in stuff. A book came out a while ago called Health Hazards in Photography and one of the big things there was the Cibachrome process, which I never used, but the chemicals are so toxic for plumbing even, and if anyone did Cibachrome, which was positive to positive you should definitely have worn one of those gas masks.
GS: Well, thank you Joyce! This has been an amazing conversation!