The Last Witness

The Last Witness:
Eric Leven's Stanley Stellar: Here For This Reason, 2019 at Tribeca Film Festival

WORDS BY ALEXANDRIA DETERS

“I would shoot somebody, then be invited to his memorial service two months later.” 72-year-old Brooklyn native Stanley Stellar, always knew he was different, and in his youth thought that this was a “bad thing.” What he didn’t know was that one day he would be transforming the queer experience, changing the way the world views us and how we view ourselves; free of shame and guilt through his 40 years of raw and vulnerable portraits documenting gay men.

My friendship with Stanley Stellar began when I first came in contact with his work in the summer of 2016 when I was the Summer Fellow at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay Lesbian Art, New York.  I encountered a raw and tender series that mesmerized me. It was Stanley Stellar’s 1980s and 1990s “Erection” series, black and white portraits of men with erections, not shying away from the camera but meeting, almost confronting unapologetically the viewer and photographer’s gaze unabashedly. Upon analyzing the many different men that Stellar photographed the one element that stayed with me was not the explicit sexuality, but the gaze of complete trust, each portrait a small window into their soul. A trust that Stellar and director, Eric Leven share and were able to transmit in the intimate portrayal of Stellar’s portraits in Eric’s new documentary, Stanley Stellar: Here For This Reason.

Leven, a Senior Producer at VICE first met Stellar 10 years ago by the Piers. Leven at the time, actively involved in the prevention and education of HIV/AIDS was playing Double Dutch as a means to connect with and educate teenagers of the importance of sexual health when Stellar approached him to take his photo. Throughout the years that followed Leven would frequent Stellar’s studio, until one day in 2017, Stellar introduced Eric to his archive, which included a series of portraits of men that had passed away during the AIDS epidemic. Stanley shares, “there was this one very pretty boy who said to me, ‘could I bring my boyfriend over and could you do a portrait of both of us.’ And nobody knows that he has AIDS, except he does and so does his boyfriend.” In a culture that too often ignores the presence of AIDS in our communities, Leven knew that he needed to share Stellar’s experiences and the stories and visual history of his portraits and the men who passed.

“I would shoot somebody, then be invited to his memorial service two months later.”

Stanley Stellar: Here For This Reason is a small memoir of the life and career of Stanley Stellar. The film begins where it ends, with Stanley discussing documenting victims of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, but also his life as a gay man living in New York, navigating his own sexual identity in a period of time where an emerging gay scene was juxtaposed against a lack of representation of the queer experience by the media. Stellar reflects on how his career began in 1976 on Fire Island where he captured the photo of a man with a U.S. Marine Corps tattoo by the pool. Unknowingly this was the beginnings of a tattoo series, another unrepresented subgroup of gay men and the genesis of a career of documenting gay culture.

Living in New York City during the late 60s and 70s Stellar not only witnessed but became a part of the blossoming gay cultural scene. Documenting the queer communities adoption of the Chelsea Piers “a total sexual world” before the existence of Grindr and the like, the emergence of Christopher Street, a cultural space that Stellar romanticizes and the introduction of LGBT events such as New York City PRIDE (an event he continues to support).

Throughout the film we’re exposed to photos of anonymous men who as Stanley refers to as, “this other secret society, that was a society of men” and their everyday interactions in the streets, their sexual encounters at the Piers, an unsanitized depiction of New York’s Queer history, in way that resonates with all audiences today. The celebration of complete sexual freedom and acceptance during a period of liberation and newfound sexual confidence, lending way to gay men owning businesses, occupying more space and the prevalence of a vibrant gay community establishing in New York City all of which was turned upside down with the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic.

 

Amidst the outbreak in the 1980’s a man came to Stellar asking him to take photographs of him and his boyfriend. He had just been diagnosed as HIV positive, no one else knew nor suspected as he didn’t look “sick.” Stellar agreed to shoot the couple, capturing not only their love but the newly positive man at the height of his strength and his beauty, like a star, just before it falls. Only a couple months later did Stellar receive the invitation to the man’s funeral.

This soon became a regular occurrence for Stellar. These men with their fates sealed, coming to Stellar to celebrate and capture their lives as they hoped to be remembered. As Stellar puts it, the photos were a way of proclaiming themselves, “I AM a valid human being”. Stellar states in the film, “this is what I’m here for. I’m here for this reason.” He was able to document a generation of men that were taken too soon, in one of their last moments.

The media’s interest in the gay experience spiked during the HIV/AIDS epidemic exposing the slow decline of HIV positive persons’ health, the rise of protests for recognition and research for a cure. Representation would continue to be a point of conflict in the mediascape and as Stanley reflects, “we didn’t have any cultural history available to us in any media on any level. You had to find your way on your own.” Setting his work apart, he personifies the epidemic in a way that activist artist Keith Haring promoted sexual health awareness. Beyond capturing the protests and media campaigns Stanley focused on his subjects, inviting them to be fully exposed as themselves without an agenda, and defined by more than their status in a time where HIV was defining and ostracizing the gay community.

The men Stellar photographed may have passed, but their memory and spirit still live on in his photographs that remind us of the seismic transformations the Queer community survived. Their memory is still so important today, and that feeling of validity, uniqueness, and strength that the 1970s fought for continues to be honored and documented by Stellar to this day. “This is the moment. It’s now or never.”

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“…we didn’t have any cultural history available to us in any media on any level. You had to find your way on your own.”

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