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An interview with ‘First Comes Love’ photographer B. Proud.
by Gregg Shapiro
LGBT people have much to be proud of, and few people appreciate that more than lesbian photographer B. Proud. Her stunning coffee-table book First Comes Love (Soleil Press, 2014), a collection of photos and corresponding essays, celebrates the enduring relationships of 60 same-gender couples who have been together for anywhere from 10 to nearly 60 years. The cross-section of subjects includes both familiar faces—Prop 8 plaintiffs and the widow Edie Windsor, Houston’s mayor Annise Parker and her spouse Kathy Hubbard, and the late Barbara Gittings and her widow Kay Lahusen—as well as couples that many readers will be meeting for the first time, who will make lasting impressions. This book would be a perfect gift for LGBT History Month (October) or for the winter holidays that are just around the corner. I spoke with Proud about First Comes Love last month.
Gregg Shapiro: First Comes Love has a history as a traveling exhibition of photos, stories, and video. What was the genesis of that aspect of the project?
B. Proud: From the very beginning, I envisioned the project as a series of photographs accompanied by stories. The whole Proposition 8 thing had me very angry, and I was determined to do what I could. I basically knew where I wanted this to go from the start.
I decided to interview the couples on video with a two-fold purpose in mind: to have information to write their stories, and to have footage for films of various lengths for various purposes. To date, only a trailer is complete, but a longer-length film is being considered.
I originally wanted the photographs in the exhibition to be presented very large, as if you were meeting these people face to face. Or in the case of a book, I wanted them to fill a vertical page. From the very beginning, I intended this project to be educational in nature. I was envisioning how it would be viewed best by the public and how my message would best reach the public.
How did it evolve into the book First Comes Love?
As I mentioned, it was my goal from the outset to bring together a strong enough collection of images and stories to make a book. Once I had a good representative sample of what I was doing, I made several “print-on-demand” books through a service called Blurb, in order to show to my subjects and to potential publishers. These were 12”x12” square and very expensive to make on an individual basis, but people responded to them quite well and wanted to buy them even before it was a finished book/project. So I knew that I had a good thing. I also have a very good friend who designed those first books so they looked great and very professional, even if the printing wasn’t as good as offset.
Who do you hope to reach with the book?
I guess you could say that I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to the LGBTQ community. They already understand the premise of the project, but this book and the exhibitions give me the opportunity to really celebrate our long-term couples. Each and every one of them has thanked me for doing this work, and I’m honored to be their voice.
I’m also hoping that as we win the right to marry across the country, the book stands as a testament to the youth of our community—that they too can have long and loving relationships. Having the physical book will give young couples who are coming out to their un-accepting parents a resource to help further explain who we are, and that they too can have long and devoted relationships.
My real hope, however, is to reach the general public—particularly those who have a difficult time accepting us. The best venues [to exhibit this project in] are not art galleries, but rather the more public forums like community centers, libraries, airports, government buildings, and schools.
On numerous occasions at the exhibitions of this work, I have witnessed people reading the stories or watching the videos and weeping…straight people. I have given lectures where I have been approached afterwards by parents of LGBTQ individuals who have told me that before my talk, they really had no idea the extent of the discrimination that their child faced. Even our best allies have still learned something from reading these stories. This is our real story, the one below the surface, and is one that needs to be told. Changing the marriage laws does not change minds. It takes more than that. People may not like the idea of us, but when they get to know us, we have the opportunity to make a difference.
Edie Windsor is one of the book’s subjects, and she also wrote the foreword for the book. How did Edie come to be involved?
Edie is an amazing woman and a real icon in the community. I began trying to reach her back in 2012, well before the briefs were heard in the Supreme Court. I was told that I needed to go through her lawyer, so I wrote to her several times. And then I wrote to Edie herself several times and sent her lots of information about what I was doing. As it turns out, two of the [other couples I interviewed] are actually long-time friends of hers. They both put in a good word for me, but Edie was so busy and then so exhausted from the Supreme Court ordeal that she declined to participate. I waited a while, and then I made one final effort. I called her, only to find her answering machine full. So right before the winter holidays, I sent one last package with a final pitch and just left it up to the universe.
It was my birthday in January of 2014. I had pretty much lost hope on Edie, and I was a little grumpy that day about getting older. I was out and about doing errands with my dog, Soleil, in tow and decided to treat myself to a decadent coffee drink. So I stopped in at a local shop. While I was waiting, my cell phone rang, and it was an unknown California number. I almost didn’t answer. At the last minute, I picked up, and the voice on the other end said, “Barbara? This is Edie Windsor. I would love to be a part of your project. You are doing great work.” I nearly dropped the phone. I physically started to shake. My heart was pounding. We had a brief conversation, but she was so busy that we couldn’t make a date for a photo shoot until mid-March, two months later. The scene at the coffee shop after I hung up was literally like that scene from the film When Harry Met Sally. I started screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and pounding on the table. People just stared at me. Knowing that my partner was teaching a class and not available, I ran outside to call my best friend. I just had to tell someone.
Lucky for me, our shoot went on as scheduled, and I showed up at her New York apartment with my crew on the designated date. We spent a lovely and amazing afternoon with her. She told us stories and showed us photographs. We made a portrait. I interviewed her on tape. And she agreed to do the foreword. We drank champagne. It was a great experience.
How did you go about finding the other subjects for the book?
I found subjects through all sorts of means and channels. The Internet does have its blessings at times. I began by e-mailing my friends and my network with a paragraph about what I was doing, and asked everyone to forward to their contacts. I posted on Facebook. People saw what I was doing on Facebook and contacted me. When news of my last exhibition went on the blogs of the Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Marry, and The Advocate, I started to get contacted by people and media from around the world. But at that point, I had pretty much wrapped up shooting.
I’ve been photographing for the Human Rights Campaign for over a decade now, and I’ve made many friends. I reached out to all of those connections. I met the guys on the cover of my book while photographing the HRC national dinners year after year. They were always there. I reached out to many organizations and churches, trying to find the diversity that I was looking for. Many of the couples also connected me with other amazing couples.
Why did you choose to include yourself and your spouse Allison as subjects in the book?
Everyone who saw the project and the sample book wanted to know where our photo was. Everyone insisted that we had to be included. While the impetus for the project began right after our 20th anniversary, my goal was really to celebrate the rest of our community, not us. Our photo was literally taken a few weeks before the book went to press. It was freezing on the beach that April morning. I knew what I wanted to do and enlisted the help of a great friend and fellow photographer to help me out.
The book has a fair share of celebrity couples—Prop. 8 plaintiffs Paul Katami and Jeff Zarrillo, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, Houston mayor Annise Parker and Kathy Hubbard, sex educator Annie Sprinkle and her spouse Beth Stephens, and doc subjects Ruthie and Connie. What was involved in getting high-profile names such as these?
They were all interested immediately. It just took some time to schedule the shoot, which sometimes had to happen through their assistants. That was the hardest part. Otherwise, I just sent them a message, told them what I was doing, and asked if they wanted to participate. All of them were very supportive and encouraging.
Thomas Allen Harris is also quite a celebrity these days. His film Through a LensDarkly is garnering much attention on the festival circuit. Ruthie and Connie were all about “spreading the word.” They were great fun to be with. Annie and Beth came recommended through another couple, Michael and Dan, and they managed to fit me in right before one of their performances. I did reach out to some major celebrities who declined. I really wanted to photograph Elton John, but couldn’t figure out how to reach him. And one TV celebrity cancelled on me at the last minute when I was already in New York for the shoot. It was very disappointing. But I have an amazing group of couples, I think. I’m really proud of them.
Dan Martin and Michael Biello not only appear as subjects in First Comes Love, but also wrote the song that accompanies the book. How did that come about?
Michael and Dan are the sweetest, most creative and loving men on the planet. We met for lunch one day, and during our meeting, they asked if I thought it would be okay if they wrote a song inspired by the project. They are such talented artists, I said yes immediately. I was thrilled and honored. I had no idea how long that might take, so I was a bit surprised when a few months later they invited Allison and me to their studio to hear the song. We met with them and had a nice glass of wine. Dan sat down at the piano and began to play and sing, and in no time, Allison and I both were in tears. We knew that it was the one we had been waiting and hoping for. Michael and Dan discussed with us the idea of having it professionally recorded, and we jumped at the opportunity. The plan was to get it recorded and mixed by September 14 (just six weeks later) because we were having a big party to celebrate our new federal rights (thanks to Edie Windsor and others), our second wedding anniversary, and the 25th anniversary of our relationship. It was perfect. There were only seven people at our actual wedding, but we promised we would celebrate when we had all of our rights. So when we finally celebrated, we premiered the song. It really is amazing, and we have many more hopes for where that is going.
Were all the subjects at ease before the camera, or did you have to find ways to make them more comfortable?
Some couples were definitely more at ease than others, but as a photographer, I’m used to having to work with my subjects to get what I’m looking for. I’ve had years of experience, and it’s fun and exciting to see what we can produce together through collaboration. All of the couples were eager to participate, so they were easy to work with and willing to try whatever I asked.
I initially started out by doing the interviews first, hoping that they would relax more after sitting together and talking about themselves. But I found that the interviews then took up too much time and the photos got short-changed. So I switched the routine.
Not unlike professional assignment work, I often tried more than one setup or location to see what gave the best results. I really didn’t want the whole book to be photographs of couples smiling at the camera. I wanted to capture a special moment between the two of them—different expressions. I like the confident expressions in many of the images. Some of the couples were surprised at the shot that I chose, because it was one where they were not smiling. Sometimes the choice was quite difficult, because there were several great moments. I told the couples from the beginning that I would be asking their opinion on the photos, but that I would be making the final choice myself.
There is a history of LGBT people, and particularly couples, being featured in books such as Anderson Jones and David Fields’ Men Together and Scott Pasfield’s Gay in America. Did either or both of those books have an influence on your First Comes Love Project?
I’m familiar with both of those books, plus another one, Women Together by Mona Holmlund and Cyndy Warwick. There are amazing photographs and stories in all of those books, but my real inspiration was to make a book as beautiful as Brian Lanker’s I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. I was mesmerized by that book from the moment I saw it. I aspired to make photographs as powerful as those.
While there are similarities between my book and those you mentioned, I had a somewhat different vision for my project, but we’re all really working towards the same goal—acceptance. In my book, I wanted to focus on the longevity factor of our relationships, and I wanted to include as much diversity as possible—not just men, not just women, but the whole L, G, B, T, and Q community. I chose to present the images in black and white to strip out all of the rainbow-flag and gay-pride-parade images that often portray our community, and ask the viewer to really look deeply into who these couples are.
Are there plans for a First Comes Love 2, perhaps to include a broader geographic cross-section?
Oh my. [Laughs] I have to start with selling this book first! As a self-published author, I’m quite busy getting this book into the market. Distributors won’t take me because it’s my first book. There are lots of obstacles, and much to do. There’s no one out there scheduling book signings. It’s all me.
That said, I would love to do a sequel. Even with this book, I had hopes of covering a broader geographical area—particularly the South and Midwest, but I just didn’t make it. I could have continued to photograph, but I felt that it was time to get the book out while the marriage equality debate was hot. Continuing to photograph could have put the publication date back an entire year. I set a deadline and I had to live with it. I was working trying to schedule a few other couples, but we just couldn’t make it happen before the deadline. I applaud Scott Pasfield for making it to all 50 states. I did what I could between my teaching schedule, my photography business and assignments, taking care of two relatives over 90 years old, and trying to be a good partner. I would love to continue photographing for this project. Just this morning I heard about two women in their 90s who have been together for 70-plus years. That’s amazing! If I can find the funding, I’ll continue the work…or make a film.
First Comes Love can be ordered at firstcomeslove.org or from Lune Soleil Press (lunesoleilpress.com).
Gregg Shapiro also writes about Mary Lambert is this issue of OutSmart.