Exhibition: The Most Famous Lesbian Photographer You've Never Heard of

By David Schonauer   Friday October 5, 2018

You may never have heard of Donna Gottschalk.

Though she doesn’t identify as a documentary photographer or a photojournalist, noted The New York Times recently, she has been making pictures since she was 17.

“Her work documents her closeness with her biological family (poorer-than-working-class N.Y.C. stock) and her involvement with the radical lesbian, sometimes separatist, communities in the late ’60s and ’70s,” writes  Kerry Manders.

Only a few of these images were published in their time — in the Gay Liberation Front newspaper. But they are now on view in the exhibition  “Brave, Beautiful Outlaws: The Photographs of Donna Gottschalk,” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York.

“Donna Gottschalk is the most famous lesbian photographer you’ve never heard of — until now” said curator Deborah Bright.

The exhibition focuses on her early work, made during the period when she was politically active. “Part autobiography, part ethnography, Ms. Gottschalk’s work counters the gross elision of the lesbian in the annals of queer history,” writes Manders. “Hers is a community of the socially and politically marginalized, fellow “freaks” and “outcasts” — many of whom were first cast out of their families of origin — those invisible to or rejected by the mainstream.”

In that regard, she drew inspiration from another photographer. “After seeing the exhibition of Diane Arbus’ work held by the Museum of Modern Art just after that artist’s death during the early 1970s, Gottschalk recognized the power of photography to preserve the people she held closest to her heart,” notes the AnOther blog. “She began to take intimate photographs of her friends, family, and roommates with an intuitive understanding that one day, this would be all that would remain of them."

Sleepers, Limerick, PA, 1970

Donna and Friends on the Fire Escape, E. 9th St., 1968

“I wanted to photograph my own people, the people I loved. They would ask, ‘Why do you want to take a picture of me? No one has taken a picture of me before.’ I would tell them they were beautiful because they were,” Gottschalk tells AnOther. “They were magnificent. Also, it was like death was around every corner. I knew. I could see that most of my friends were going to die, and I wanted to take their picture so that when I got old, I would be able to remember them.”

Self Portrait with Striped Wall Paper, New York

Discussing her activism in the ’60s and ’70s, Gottschalk tells Another, “I didn’t have much choice because being gay made me tough in school. I wanted to do better – I wanted to get fuck outta New York. I wanted to be an artist. I did well in school, got a scholarship and went to Cooper Union. By then I had my own place because my mother’s house was too chaotic. I wanted to be free, to come and go late at night without anyone asking me what I am doing. I only moved a couple of blocks away. I had all gay roommates. They were friends I met in bars.”

Donna and Joan, E. 9th St., 1970

Bodies, 1970

Gottschalk’s  photos are tinged with mourning and mystery, notes Manders at The Times. “Photography was her way of understanding, her ‘attempt to fathom,’” Manders writes. “Her photos are personal, domestic and intimate; most are set in interior, domestic spaces, and always in natural light (her friends would not abide flash!). Too many of her loved ones met early, tragic deaths, including two siblings, one of whom is a major protagonist in the exhibition.”
At top: Self-portrait in Maine, 1976


  1. Carlotta Boettcher commented on: October 10, 2018 at 1:21 p.m.
    Love this woman's work. So glad she had a vision and the fortitude to appreciate, stand firm and document her life and her friends so honestly, it is an incredible and refreshing piece of lesbian history! Thank you.

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