Frank Melleno: The Fairoaks Project
Polaroids from a San Francisco bathhouse 1978

Curated by Gary Freeman
June 12th - 27th, 2010

Opening Reception June 12th, 2010 7-10pm
Featuring a musicial performance by The Boyfriend

In celebration of Gay Pride Month, drkrm/gallery proudly presents an extraordinary, never-before-seen glimpse into pre-AIDS gay sexual culture. The Fairoaks Project is an exhibit of Polaroid photographs taken by Frank Melleno during the spring and summer of 1978 at The Fairoaks Hotel, a San Francisco bathhouse.

This exhibition contains graphic nudity and explicit content.

Situated in a refurbished Victorian building near a black ghetto, The Fairoaks was known for its laid-back and racially integrated ambiance. Bold and unapologetic, Melleno’s images capture an aspect of gay life rarely seen in snapshot photography: sexually candid encounters that are playful, spontaneous and often affectionate. The dark storm of drug abuse and pandemic disease that would soon overtake the community is not visible in these celebratory pictures.

Melleno’s collection of Polaroids was put in a box shortly after they were shot and have not been seen until now. Many of the images contain nudity and frank erotic scenes, but they also capture men dressed in festive attire and engaged in other aspects of the counter-culture lifestyle the Fairoaks promoted. Many artists lived at the hotel, and ongoing therapy-support groups and monthly theme parties enhanced the Fairoaks’ reputation as a neighborhood center for gay men as much as a bathhouse.

"Like a string of black pearls, San Francisco’s bathhouses adorned the city with a touch of louche glamour. The Hothouse. The Barracks. The Handball Express. Animals. The Club, Bulldog, Sutro and, down by the tracks, the Ritch Street Baths. The ever-notorious South-of-the-Slot, and so many more. (They were all officially closed in October 1984.) Each claimed a distinct character and clientele. But no place had quite the feeling of coming home once through the front door as did the Fairoaks... More than a pictorial record of a by-gone scene--or even of passing strangers with sticky feet--these photographs open a door into a secret gay world of sexual encounter and sweet innocence the likes of which will never be seen again."

--Mark Thompson, from the introduction to the exhibition catalog

 

"In the headlong rush in the era of Plague to disown our promiscuous past as "immature," inherently pathological, and both lookist and sexist we've had few powerful counterarguments. But before we deny our past, we should at least know it. These photographs from the Fairoaks, precious and rare, are thus of defining importance. They show us a multi-racial erotic space that was also a clubhouse, a boy's dorm and a socio-cultural community center. Sex, in short wasn't just sex--it was that which enabled the creation of community for a new movement just emerging from the shadow of self-loathing. The defining tone of these photographs is actually acceptance. Great sex, friendship, community building, the eroticization of difference--these historical images rebuke our present with the prospect that before AIDS changed everything, bathhouses were at the forefront of progressive social change."

Jonathan David Katz
President Board of Directors Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, July 2014

A limited-edition catalog from the exhibit, with an introduction by Mark Thompson, is available for purchase on MagCloud





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