Perci Chester's party pics offer an intimate view into LGBTQ life in '70s San Francisco

Perci Chester, 'Untitled 12,' 1974

Perci Chester, 'Untitled 12,' 1974

In 1974, Perci Chester arrived, camera in hand, at a home in San Francisco to meet a group of people prior to a Halloween party. As the guests primped, vogued, and posed, Chester snapped away.

“They would get kind of playful,” she recalls. “They trusted me. I really was thrilled.”

Over the next six months, more invitations to private parties followed, and she soon amassed hundreds of negatives that captured intimate and exuberant moments in pre-AIDS gay culture. She’ll share a selection of these images at her “In Search of the Glass Slipper” exhibition, on view now through September 29 at Traffic Zone.

Minnesota-raised Chester never planned to put down roots in San Francisco. After graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, she taught art in New York and Boston, then decided to travel the world. Her first stop was San Francisco, a city that fascinated her so much she stayed on for 10 years in the North Beach neighborhood.

“I didn’t see myself as a documentary person. I just felt like these people were friendly and wanted me to photograph them. They were open, I was open,” she explains of her party-photographing steak.

She later returned to Minnesota, establishing herself as a painter and sculptor, but the images from that wild time on the West Coast called to her from a wooden-covered scrapbook titled, “Snaps.”

“I didn’t feel at the time that I had the authority to publish or display these photographs,” she explains, “but it was always in my mind that these were significant, and I felt like I’d keep my eyes open to the possibility. The idea had been incubating in my head for years.”

When she told friends about the project, they encouraged her to do an exhibition.

Though Chester shot with both black-and-white and color film, this exhibition features color photographs only. This choice seems appropriate, given the sophisticated, elegant nature of the images. Subjects -- men in women’s clothing, donning full makeup -- would try on different personas and wigs for Chester’s lens.

“At first I was attracted by the costume and the idea of transformation,” she says. Her subjects’ gestures, the way they moved in the clothing, and their feathered and veiled accessories captivated her. Looking at the images now, she sees this wasn’t just frivolous pageantry but a way to express internal desires externally, to connect with like-minded people, and to find a partner (hence the Cinderella fairytale reference in the exhibition’s title). “We’re all looking for love, all the time, from birth to forever,” she concludes.

Though she works in multiple mediums, Chester appreciates the immediacy and spontaneity of photography. “What I think I can capture in photography is a moment in time. It never repeats itself,” she says. “In photography -- and maybe in all art -- what I hope for is a distillation of a moment, or of a feeling, of an emotion, a sense of life force.”

Why that force seems particularly salient in these photographs from a bygone era eludes Chester.

“There may have been more of a freedom in the so-called pre-AIDS period,” she surmises. “A recklessness or an openness? But I’m not an authority.” What she is sure of: “It was comedic and fun. There was a real feeling of community.” The house parties provided a “protected zone,” a place removed from the hurt and disrespect her subjects experienced out in the world.

Now Chester hopes the photographs will resonate with people who remember those golden days in San Francisco as well as those who weren’t around to appreciate them. “What I wanted to show is the dignity of each of us as human beings,” she says. “We all deserve respect and recognition for who we are.”


"Perci Chester: In Search of the Glass Slipper”
Traffic Zone
There will be a public reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Septemer 9 with an artist's talk at 7 p.m.
Free and open to the public