Crawford Barton was one of the thousands of gay and lesbian refugees who arrived in the San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s. But in his role as photographer and chronicler he captured the essence of this extraordinary place and time—the blossoming of an openly gay culture. His work blurs the lines between fine art and documentary, sexuality and intimacy, and the personal and the political.
Born and raised in a fundamentalist community in rural Georgia, Barton was a shy, introspective boy—a sissy. His artistic interests and fear of sports alienated him from his father, a struggling farmer. He escaped family tensions by creating a world of his own imagination, which eventually led him to receive a small art scholarship at the University of Georgia.
It was here that Barton fell in love with a man for the first time. Unfortunately, his feelings weren’t reciprocated, and after one semester, he dropped out and returned to the farm.
A couple years later, at age 21, he enrolled in art school in Atlanta. He made new friends and found outlets for his pent-up sexual energy in that city’s gay bars and clubs. It was during this time in Atlanta that Barton received a used 35mm camera as a gift, and learned basic darkroom techniques. He found his true calling in life—photography.
Barton moved to California in the late 1960s to pursue his art and life as an openly gay man. By the early 1970s he was established as a leading photographer of the “golden age of gay awakening” in San Francisco. He was as much a participant as a chronicler.
Many of his images documenting long-haired freaks dancing in the street, love-ins in the park, dykes on bikes, cross-dressers in the Castro, and leather men prowling at night have become classics of the gay world. He photographed some of the first Gay Pride parades and protests; Harvey Milk campaigning in San Francisco; and celebrities including poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and actors Sal Mineo and Paul Winfield.
But it was his circle of friends and acquaintances that inspired his most intimate erotic photography, especially his lover, Larry Lara. Crawford described Larry as the “perfect specimen, as crazy and wonderful and spontaneous and free as Kerouac, so I’m never bored and never tired of looking at him.”
Considered as a single body of work, his photographs of Lara dancing in the hallway of their flat on Dorland Street, a bearded hippie in the door of a cabin in Marin, a sensual nude in the hills of Land’s End, suggest the fullness, richness and complexity of the man he loved most.
In 1974, the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum featured Barton's prints in a show entitled "New Photography, San Francisco and the Bay Area." His bold, unapologetic work was praised by The New York Times reviewer. Other critics labeled it “shocking” and “vulgar.”
In addition to his fine art photography, Barton worked on assignment for The Advocate, and the Bay Area Reporter as well as The Examiner, Newsday, and the Los Angeles Times. A book of Barton's work, Beautiful Men, was published in 1976 and his photographs were used to illustrate a collection of short stories of Malcolm Boyd. Crawford Barton, Days of Hope was published posthumously in 1994 by Editions Aubrey Walter.
Days of Hope features more than 60 of Barton's black and white photographs which capture the look and optimistic spirit of 70's gay San Francisco: the freedom and joy of the sexual revolution (pre-AIDS), the intimate bonds of lesbian and gay couples, and like Beautiful Men, homoerotic portraits of the hottest guys in town.
“I tried to serve as a chronicler, as a watcher of beautiful people… to feed back an image of a positive, likable lifestyle― to offer pleasure as well as pride,” he explained. Mark Thompson, in his Forward to Days of Hope sums it up eloquently: “Crawford Barton leaves us a portrait of a seminal time, burnished with the fine polish of his sensitivity― an instinct for wonder never relinquished.”
By the early 1980’s this period was over. San Francisco and the gay community were devastated by the onset of the AIDS epidemic, and the innocence of the 60s and 70s was gone forever. Barton’s lover of 22 years, Larry Lara, died of complications from AIDS before Barton himself succumbed at the age of 50, on June 12, 1993.
Barry Harrison, founder of Queer Arts Resource (www.queer-arts.org) has produced more than 40 online exhibitions suggesting the range and depth of queer artistic expression.
Barton, Crawford, Beautiful Men. Los Angeles: Liberation Publications, Inc, 1976
Barton, Crawford. Days of Hope. Forward by Mark Thompson. London: Editions Aubrey Walter, 1994.
Barton, Crawford & Boyd, Malcolm, Look Back in Joy: A Celebration of Gay Lovers. Boston: Alyson Press, 1990.