One of the treasures of the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives at UCLA is a collection of approximately 800 photos by Angela Brinskele, Director of Communications at the Archives, which chronicle Los Angeles’ lesbian community from 1991-2013 (with the majority covering the last 10 years).
Brinskele first began taking photographs as a teenager in Orange County in the late 1970s. Los Angeles is perennially a smorgasbord of images waiting to be captured, and Brinskele and her friends went to places like Chasen’s Restaurant, The Beverly Hilton Hotel, and the stage door of The Merv Griffin Show to photograph stars including Bette Davis, James Stewart, Bob Hope, Audrey Hepburn, Johnny Carson, and Gene Kelly.
“My favorite thing ever was to watch The Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel,” says Brinskele. “There was hardly any security at the time, so we would sit in the lobby, and somebody like Francois Truffaut would walk by because he was staying there, and we would ask for his picture. Or Dolly Parton. We would bring money for lunch and dinner, and film. It was one of the best experiences of my young life. We didn’t want to be celebrity photographers, because we didn’t want to take photos of people if they didn’t want us to. We watched how the celebrity paparazzi treated celebrities, and we didn’t like it.”
However, Brinskele fell in love with photography as an art form, and decided to study it in college. She was immediately drawn to documenting lesbian subjects.
“The reason I started this was almost subconscious,” says Brinskele. “I thought I was the only one for most of my life, until I was about 16. So when I got to college and studied photography I wanted to document our community, especially women and lesbians, because I wanted to make really, really sure that nobody else felt that they were the only one on the planet. I used my own money and my own time for at least 25 years to document the community as much as I could. I used to look at my pride photos for years in boxes and think ‘I love these,’ but I was sure that nobody else would ever care about them.”
Brinskele realized that there were, in fact, many who would care about her photographs when she became involved with The June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives in 2007.
“When I got to the archive, it was a perfect fit for me. I didn’t know that other people cared about that history and were preserving that history, and I was thrilled to find that.”
Although The Mazer Archives contained photographs, Brinskele felt, as a photographer, that the collection needed more. In particular, she felt that there was a dearth of contemporary work. The Mazer’s board was tremendously enthusiastic when she offered to donate a collection of several hundred prints. Brinskele is thrilled that the photographs have gotten so much recognition.
“I never dreamt that anyone else would care,” she says. “I didn’t have a future plan for how [my photographs] were going to get out there, it just happened organically. I never thought in a million years that I would donate them to the Mazer and that then they would go to UCLA.”
Brinskele and I had a chat about several photographs from the collection. She explained when and where they were taken, and why the images, and the people and places that they document, are meaningful to her.
June 12, 2005
The Silverlake Dyke March
“I really don’t know a lot about [the subjects of this photo]. I know, just by the fact that they were at the Silverlake march, instead of the one in West Hollywood, that they tend to be more radical, politically and otherwise. Actually, the Silverlake march exists because the Silverlake group was really adamant about only having women marching, so that’s one of the reasons that there are two marches in LA. I often shot both marches every year for many years, and I like shooting this march because they are more radical. I always wish I had shot many more ACT UP events, because they would do things like light things on fire, and lay down like they were dead somewhere, as part of their activism. They really inspired people to action. They were very effective politically but they were also visually radical, and I think that the Silverlake march was always like that, too.”
|Kirsten Schaffer and Nina Landey|
“That was just a photo waiting to be taken, right? How could I ignore that? The woman [on the right], Kirsten Schaffer, I know very well, because I’ve taken pictures as a volunteer for Outfest for 12 or 13 years, and she is the head of Outfest now. I think that she’s a wonderful person, and she’s done a fantastic job. I didn’t know, taking the picture, who the other woman was to her. I didn’t know if it was her partner or her friend, but they were marching in the march, and it was kind of a radical thing to do, right? So I had to take a picture of it.”
August 17, 2008
The Sarafemme Multicultural Women’s Music Event
“That’s in West Hollywood Park, and it’s at an event called Sarafemme. It’s a women’s multicultural music festival put together by Marquita Thomas. She put that on for several years, and I think I photographed it most of the years it was going. They’re wonderful. There were different women singers every 15 or 20 minutes, or women doing spoken word art or theater. It was really great. I really loved that it was multi-cultural. Visually, the women there were always so interesting. I loved shooting that event all the time, and I really had fun because I saw women there I never saw anywhere else, and they were very unique looking.”
“I think it’s so wonderful for me to be at a festival like that where women of color seem out and comfortable, and are having a good time. I started taking pictures of the community when most people were closeted, and I would never see women like this at an event in 1986. It would just be a little more rare.”
June 17, 2008
Wendy Averill and Marilee France Getting Married in West Hollywood
“What’s really great about this photo is that those are the first two women ever legally married in the city of West Hollywood. They were married by Mayor John Duran. That was on the first day that it was legal in California. One of them, Marilee France (right), is a board member of the Archive. The other, Wendy Averill (left), is a big supporter.
I went because they are my very good friends and they told me they were going to get married that day. I was also a witness for them. Even if this hadn’t been the case, I never would have missed it, because what actually ended up happening was that the city had a Wedding Village that day in West Hollywood Park. They had classical musicians walking around playing violins who would walk up to each couple and ask, “When are you having your ceremony? Do you want violin music?” They had five or six gazebos set up, because they had hundreds of people signing up for marriage licenses at the City Council Chambers. I followed Wendy and Marilee throughout that process. They went in line, got the marriage license and paid for it, then they went out to the Gazebo and John Durand met them there. After the ceremony, there was a chef with cupcakes asking “Would you like some wedding cake?” And all of this was donated by people in the community. It was absolutely amazing. I don’t shoot weddings, I don’t like to usually. I refused to shoot them until 2008. But this was wonderful, because all of these people were getting married all around you, and all of these people were providing free services like music and cake. I’ll never forget it.
Both of these women have been out for 30 years or maybe longer. They’re both retired school teachers from the Pasadena School District. Wendy Averill came out in 1976 during the Briggs Initiative, and would have lost her whole career as a teacher then, had Prop 6 passed! I’ll never forget that when I asked to take their photo years before this, they were the only women or men I knew who said ‘Not only will we give you our first names, we want to give you our last names, too.’ And nobody ever said that when I was taking pictures in the community. No one ever did that, unless they wanted their names in the newspaper or something. So they really stood out for being brave and out.
Daniela Sea (“Max” on The L Word) at The Power Up Annual Premiere Gala
November 21, 2005
“Taking pictures in the community, I can say that The L Word was one of the biggest things that ever happened to the lesbian community in L.A. At the beginning of each season they had a party somewhere and I would shoot it. One of these years it was at The Hard Rock Café at Universal Studios, and women came in and packed every floor of the Café. My friend Ann Bradley said “I have not seen anything like this since Paul McCartney and The Beatles.” That’s exactly what it felt like. She was likening the actress who played Shane to Paul McCartney and it really fit well. The women were just crazy to see her anywhere, were just packed to the walls just to get a glimpse of her and the rest of the cast. That’s what I think when I look at that picture of the actress who played Max, I think about how insane the lesbian community was about The L Word. Even if they hated it, they still watched it…”
Pat and Jennie and Their Dogs
“I met them when I shot their 50th anniversary. I had photographed them before at a women’s holiday party in Long Beach, so I knew their faces, but I hadn’t become friends with them yet. After I shot their 50th anniversary, and I thought they were just wonderful, wonderful people, I really wanted to know them. So I started going to things that they would go to, and they actually have group events at their house once in a while that I would attend, and I eventually did an oral history with them. They sat there on the couch with the dogs, because they said they couldn’t do anything with them, and the dogs are so much a part of who they are. For the oral history, it was hilarious, because they would jump up and down on their lap as I was videotaping, and very specifically as they were telling me the story of one of them going AWOL [Absent without Leave, or Unauthorized Absence] from the Air Force in the 1950s to be with the other. Now they’ve been together for about 53 years. That was about three years ago. The fact that one of them went AWOL for the other is such an amazing story, so I loved taking the oral history of that, too. We have the oral history digitally at The Mazer Archives, and there’s a clip from it on our website where they tell the AWOL story.
It’s so funny how important our pets are in the LGBT community. It’s a really significant thing. It can’t be ignored. So that was a fun picture for me for that reason, too. These women have had kids and raised them, but these are [also] their kids. They can’t do enough for them. One of those chihuahuas had health problems, and they took her to a specialist for eyes, for ears, for everything. They would tell me how they would drive all over, 30 and 40 miles, to see a specialist for that dog’s eyes.”
At the end of our interview, Brinskele emphasized that she most loves photography because she sees it as a miraculous medium. She describes the uncanny phenomenon of looking back over photos from decades ago and seeing that she had randomly photographed people who, years later, became close friends. She remains in awe of photography’s ability to capture people, places, and moments in time.
“I always thought it was an absolute miracle. Even after I studied photography and knew every step of how it worked, how I got the image onto the paper, chemical compounds, and all of that, I still thought that it was absolutely incredible. To this day I think it’s a miracle that we can do that, that we can take someone’s image exactly, and have an image of that forever after. Knowing everything, it still feels like it should be an impossible thing to do. So it’s still an absolutely amazing thing to me, that I love.”
—Ben Raphael Sher
Ben Sher is a doctoral student in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA and a graduate student researcher at CSW.
The finding aid for this collection will soon be available for viewing at the Online Archive of California(http://www.oac.cdlib.org). Digitized materials from the collection and the finding aid will be available for viewing on the UCLA Library’s Digital Collections website. This research is part of an ongoing CSW research project, “Making Invisible Histories Visible: Preserving the Legacy of Lesbian Feminist Activism and Writing in Los Angeles,” with Principal Investigators Kathleen McHugh, CSW DIrector and Professor in the Departments of English and Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA and Gary Strong, University Librarian at UCLA. Funded in part by an NEH grant, the project is a three-year project to arrange, describe, digitize, and make physically and electronically accessible two major clusters of June Mazer Lesbian Archive collections related to West Coast lesbian/feminist activism and writing since the 1930s.
For more information on this project, visit http://www.csw.ucla.edu/research/projects/making-invisible-histories-visible. For more information on the activities of the Mazer, visit http://www.mazerlesbianarchives.org