A PHOTOGRAPHIC « SISTORY »
1979 – 1983
1983 – 1996
« Before meeting the SPI, I was just a photographer, then I became an artist ! »
I visited San Francisco for the first time in summer 1976. I was invited by Michelle Vignes, a french photographer who lived on Diamond Street, a few blocks from Castro. Michelle was known for her photographic work on the American Indian Mouvement. She had reported on all the AIM demonstrations : Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, etc. In her house I met the AIM leader Denis Banks several times. I loved san Francisco, its beauty, the energy and creativity of the people living there. I promised myself to come back for a longer time.
I came back in the city in the summer 1979 to house-seat Michelle’s house when she was in Mexico. I photographed the Castro Street Fair : I had a shock when I saw some guy dressed as nuns on rollerskates, bearing machine-guns. Sister Missionary Position was one of the first SPI I took pictures of. I also photographed Sister Qualude Conduct… (« Qualude » being a legal « drug » : something the French don’t know) if I remember well. The slides in my archives are dated 1979.
Disappointed roman-catholic I had become an atheist : the visual shock of the dragged Nuns was incredible. I couldn’d believe it was real. To be made fun of is the least this religion deserved ! All the fun and criticisms some people can make on it are nothing in comparison with centuries of its on-going crimes and lies.
I had to go back to France at the end of the summer, but in 1981, I was appointed as the Principal of the French-American Bilingual School (FABS) with a two years’contract, up to 1983. When establishing, I discovered that the Nuns had multiplicated… so I decided to report on their street theater, their demonstrations, their dedication to the Gay Community. So between 1981 and 1983, all the pictures I took of the Sisters were showing their political stands : « to ban guilt » and to raise money for the Aids Emergency Fund, participating from the begining in the Kaposi Sarcoma Foundation, through Baseball, Basket-Ball matches, Dog Shows…
It was a hard time with Aids striking and choping lives around. Bobby Campell aka Sister Nightmare Registered Nurse organised the victims in founding « People with Aids Alliance » (PWAA). The Sisters published in august 1982 the first leaflet counselling the use of condoms : « Play Fair », at a time there’s was no « scientific » proof HIV was a virus, just a hint ! It was a time also when Sister Boom Boom ran for Supervisor…
But after two years of street pictures, I felt I had expressed everything on the subject. The SPI knew my face and my camera but I dared not ask anything from them, such as : « could we work on an artistic project ? ». Joshua Persky, the son of a member of my school staff was a friend of the SPI – in fact a kind of body-guard dressed in leather. He suggested that I should meet Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch to explain a new photographic project. And it happened during the summer 1983. So I start making individual portraits : the men would make up in front a miror and dress to become a nun and we would go down the streets of San Francisco, picturing them in the very famous spots, « postcards from SF ». Alas, I had to leave SF, the two years contract with FABS ended but I had made individual portraits of Vicious, Reverend Mother, Sister Agnes Hysterectoria, Sister Dominique Nique Nique (Folsom Delight), Sister Cardio-Pulnonary Ressucitation, Sister Sadie Sadie the Rabbi Lady, Sister Missionary Position and a strange one dressed as a flag called Sister Chanel 2005.
When back to France, I was longing to do some more photographic work with le SPI : in fact I missed them politicaly as militants and visualy as outrageous characters. I imagined what I could with such living subjects, overtaking the simple pictures I had done before. I planned to go back in SF for the summer 1984 in order to go on. During the year spent in France I exchanged (postal)mails with Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch and Sister Cardio-Pulmonary Ressucitation (CPR) and I scheduled new encounters with the SPI.
I came back in San Francisco in the summer 1984. I had imagined the Sisters flying over the city, blowing their dresses in the wind, with the great landscape in the background. The Sisters were black angels, in glorious or ecstatic gestures. But it was a hard time for the SPI and the Gay Community who lost so many struck by AIDS : the black reclining figures of the SPI tell about the drama the Community at large faced. This meaning was not planned in my head, it became blatant through out the years that I had pictured this dramatic moment, with the Sisters as central subjects.
Back to France, I printed the black & white negatives in my dark room and had some slides printed too when I could afford the expense. I started to promote my work. The images scandalized many people who pointed them as blasphemous. One wrote we should all – the SPI and their photographer – be burnt ! I was insulted many times : religion could’t be made fun of especially by Gays ! But I was also rewarded by intelligent curators who recognized the quality and sincerity of the artistic work and I started to have exhibitions.
Where are all the people who censored my work 25 years ago ? What do they think of the on going crimes of Catholic Church (generalised pedophily) when they read the newspapers or watch TV in 2011 ? Who was right ? The SPI & their friend-photographer or the « culs-benis ».
In the eighties, the SPI started a war against a Cardinal whose name was (is still) Ratzinger who had claimed that « homosexuality was an intrinsic evil ». He is now the Pope Benoît XVI who begs pardon for the sexual crimes thousands of catholic priests commited ! I came back to California in the summer 1987 – I house-sat Ken’s flat and in summer 1989 for new pictures of the ancient and the new nuns who had registered into the SF « Convent ». I tried to enhance my visions.
The year 1987 was the year of my first important exhibition at the Fondation Nationale de la Photographie (Institut Lumière, Lyon). The poster was a picture of CPR. The pictures were shown in the private Chapel ( !) of the Brothers Lumière (the inventors of Cinema), mostly street pictures taken between 1981 and 1984. In the summer 1987, the scene titled Chariot of Nuns pictures this exhilarating moment when the SPI were at the top and my photography recognized. Sister Marquesa de Sade and Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch were leading the chariot. My friend Jeff Leiphart a well-known psychotherapist had lent the big Deer, Sister Dana van Equity, the baby deer. A Park Ranger leading a group of japonese tourists stopped and said : « This is a piece of local fauna » ! Sister Marquesa de Sade was a very good actress in front of my camera and the other nuns joked about her as my « favourite sister »… Well Marquesa kwew how to give me the « mean » look.
In the meantime, I had a show at Gregory Ghent Fine Arts and the all group came for the opening which was a success. That summer in the city was very important because all the democratic clubs in San Francisco got ready to « welcome » Pope Jean-Paul II in september. The clubs led by the SPI demonstrated against « 2000 years of oppression of the Gays » by the roman catholic church. They forced Mayor Diane Fernstein not to invest a cent of public money into the reception of this irresponsible religious leader who was against the use of condoms !
I came back to the city in the summer 1989. The SPI were facing an external and internal crisis. For a while, they had been attacked by the Gay Community for being too « provocative » in the times of Aids. And a group of four sisters led by Sister Sadie Sadie the Rabbi Lady was making money on a private basis in publishing postcards. The policy of the SPI implemented that all the cents they raised would be returned to the any Aids Funds ! The SPI (incorporated) sued the (unincorporated) dissidents for trademark infringment and won !
The scene titled THE BIG SLEEP taken in the summer 1989 above the Golden Gate pictures this momentary « decline » : eight Sisters are asleep, a subtle smile on their lips. One seems to say « good bye » : three of them were ill and died later on. The Big Sleep was taken on a Sunday afternoon : crowds of japonese tourists – them again ! – visiting the area took pictures and Jeff Leiphart – him again ! – took a video of the « stage » ! There was also a group picture shot in a burnt forest… That summer I met Sister Hellen Wheels who remained in touch with me ever since, she made me meet Sister There’s no Place like Roma and Sister Hellina Handbasket. The french people who don’t speak english can’t understand the jokes within the Sister’s names and it’s a pity.
Back to France, I promoted my work on the SPI and was rewarded by a large show at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne (switzerland), the most important museum dedicated to photography in the world. The museum owns the whole show. Now we are sure this work is recorded as important. At the time I met a publisher to see if he could print a catalogue or a monography on the subject. He agreed to meet me as I was scheduled for a show in the Musée de l’Elysée. When he saw the pictures he got mad : « I shall never invest a cent in publishing pictures of faggots ! ». At that time I was used to such insults…
In 1992, in France, I started a new series with two skeletons and human and animal skulls called « Danses macabres, Trophées et autres Vanités ». It was like if I was mourning the SPI, especially the dead ones I had worked with : Reverend Mother, Luscious Lashes, Salvation Armée and other guys I knew in San-Francisco. I was also mourning the loss of my best friend who couln’t cope with his illness and commited suicide (it was not Aids). When I returned in SF in the summer 1993, I managed to introduce bones and a skull in the pictures, for instance with Sister Lily White for a scene called Pagan or with Sister Hellen Wheels and Sister Gladass, with a skull in front of them on the Sister Roma as a wounded deer, her and Hellen in a deer fight ! Sister Lily White was shot covered with an immense black veil reclining on Museum Rock, above the city, like a Sphinx ! It became the title of the picture.
During that summer and thanks to Sister Hellen, I met new Sisters and of course some of the « old » ones, especially Sister Dana van Equity whom I had started to photograph in 1987. I had two new cameras for large negatives so, when back in France I could have bigger enlargements. Sister X – who was a photographer – was very ill and she asked me to photographer her « before she died (her words) to be part of my artistic work on the SPI ». So I did with Hellen’s help and we made it very nice and sweet.
The group picture that time was to be down south at Funston where I had found a big dead oaktree in order to have the SPI hanging like bats on branches, but with their heads up. That was a trip ! The old farmer who had allowed me two weeks before to use his tree as a scene was hallucinated when he saw the Sisters (he had imagined they were real nuns). But his horse was not at all afraid and came munching grass right into the picture ! Sister X who was weak travelled on a wheel chair ! Marquesa was there, very weak too. What a trip !
Back to France, I went on promoting and got some new shows but I thought my time with the SPI was really over. In 1990, the Paris Convent had asked me to be one of their photographers and I refused because I didn’t want to be labelled as a specialist of the subject and on top of that I don’t think Paris is a nice stage, it has got the « spirit » San-Francisco has (the landscape, the Wind…). The Paris Nuns understood me. I just took some pictures of californian nuns (I remember Mish and Vish) who had come to Paris to inaugurate the french Convent mixed with the french beginers. We went in front of the Eiffel Tower.
In 1995 I had a large show of the SPI at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon, in fact the largest city library in Europe. There was 140 linear meters of walls with mainly pictures of the SPI and partly pictures of the Danses Macabres… series. Jeff Leiphart who had come to Paris, took the TGV and came to visit the show. The BML owns 76 pictures ! This institution is well known for its photographic archives and has recently opened a Gender Studies department. I offered all my archives to the department so that a record of The Sisters’ activities would be kept.
In 2000-2001 a diploma at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Aix-en Provence was written on the SPI and my work with them : « Un regard photographique sur un groupe de pression » (« A photographic survey on a political lobby »). I offered the thick diploma to the Gender Studies Department, with more pictures of the street theater (1981-1983). I returned in San Francisco (in fact in Berkeley for 2 months, gathering scientific articles for my research). At the time I thought I had put an end at the series but Sister Hellen made me meet Sister Phyllis Stein who was so great that I took pictures of her. But they were my last pictures.
Now I am getting old (65). I go on taking pictures and a gallery in Lyon (France) promote my ancient and new photographic works. But I always tell the people who interview me that I became an artist when I started working with the Sisters of perpetual Indulgence !
Jean-Baptiste Carhaix : spring 2011.