Donna Gottschalk

1951 | New York, United States
Donna Gottschalk — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

Donna Gottschalk, Self-Portrait in Maine, 1976, silver gelatine print, Courtesy of the artist

American photographer and activist.

Donna Gottschalk grew up in the tenement housing of New York’s Lower East Side. As a teenager, while studying at the High School of Art and Design, she got to know the city’s gay and lesbian bars (Kooki’s, Paula’s and Colony), highly dangerous venues at the time, controlled by the Mafia. She produced political posters and documents and began photographing LGBTQI activist groups from the age of 17, on joining the Gay Liberation Front (GLT). She can be seen holding the poster “I am your worst fear / I am your best fantasy” in the famous picture taken by photojournalist Diana Davies (born 1938) during the first gay and lesbian demonstration, Christopher Street Day in New York, a celebration marking the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots. She met photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB, born 1944) at the Black Panther Party convention, to which Angela Davis had invited the GLF. JEB appears in many of D. Gottschalk’s photographs of the time.

In 1970, while studying art at Cooper Union, D. Gottschalk became a member of the first American radical lesbian group, a dissident offshoot of the GLF, which the former felt was keener on promoting men’s rights than women’s. The group took up the expression “lavender menace”, a term directed at homosexual women by the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Betty Friedan, who claimed that lesbian participation in the women’s movement was detrimental to its credibility. D. Gottschalk helped organise the 1 May 1970 demonstration on the fringes of NOW’s second congress, in protest against the exclusion of lesbians. She designed the “Lavender Menace” T-shirts worn by the group’s members, which she produced in Cooper Union’s silkscreen printing studio. The group dissolved in 1971, having coined the name “Radicalesbians”. Despite its fleeting existence, it is still associated with the burgeoning of a genuine lesbian visibility within the feminist movements.

In the mid-1970s, D. Gottschalk moved to San Francisco on the West Coast and visited Oregon’s separatist lesbian communities. Detailed first-hand accounts of contemporary radical movements, her photographs emphasise a humanist vein that is inherent in the history of American photography. The artist has always been ready to acknowledge Diane Arbus (1923-1971), Irving Penn (1917-2009) and August Sander (1876-1964) as her historical role models. During the 1970s, aware of the need to perpetuate their existence through photography, she made portraits of those close to her, couples and individuals considered at the time as marginal: transgender, poor and homeless people, sex workers, drug addicts and victims of abuse. The settings were simple: modest homes or apartments, a garden, a garage. One particularly touching series features her younger trans sister, Myla, spanning her teenage years, when she was still known as Alfie, to her death from AIDS in 2012 at the age of 56. D. Gottschalk’s work is a monument to the marginalisation of her era and the vulnerable lives of people who were never offered any form of protection.
“I got my first camera at 17 and discovered all of those noble, marginalised people who were entering my life. I forced myself to become brave and ask to take their pictures. Sometimes they asked me why and my answer always was: ‘Because you are beautiful and I never want to forget you.’”

Isabelle Alfonsi

Translated from French by Caroline Taylor.

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