Of the hundreds of images Doug Ischar shot of bikini-clad gay men lounging at the Belmont Rocks in the summer of ’85, he’ll never forget the one that got away. “One day, a squad car showed up, [so] 50 guys formed a chorus line and started kicking,” the artist-photographer says. “There was a degree of adamancy and militancy in the occupation of that beach. This was no longer the age in which you could scare queers off the street and into the closet. It was fucking amazing.”
While Ischar didn’t have his point-and-shoot ready for that particular moment, his “Marginal Waters,” an exhibition of 13 large-scale images taken at the Rocks that summer, which opens Saturday 12 at Lakeview’s GOLDEN gallery, captures an emerging subculture in leisure mode.
Ischar, 60, an associate professor of photography at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came here from San Francisco in the early ’80s after AIDS began claiming friends’ lives. He was enthralled by the city’s downtown leather bars and a pre-gentrified Boystown. Then a cellist, Ischar quit that gig to pursue photography at Columbia College; he wanted to document gay men in public spaces and in each other’s company. The Belmont Rocks, large lakeside rocks beside a grassy lawn at Belmont Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, had special resonance for him: This was his last Chicago summer (until he returned in ’92). He hung out there daily.
“It was a real delight to be in an environment where people were so uninhibited,” Ischar says. “I never saw any penetration there, but you saw everything and you saw a lot of it. There was such a wide range of types and ethnicities and classes, and there was never any friction. It was really a wonderfully tranquil place. The Rocks were probably the most central and visible gay beach in North America. This was right smack on Lake Shore Drive; you couldn’t miss this place.”
The phrase marginal waters, a naval term referring to waters off the coast of a country that remain outside its jurisdiction, here serves as a metaphor for a marginalized subculture. Ischar’s sun-drenched images strikingly depict a community at rest during a period of unrest. In the face of a devastating epidemic and a conservative regime, the mere act of sunbathing becomes one of defiance. “Understand that from the get-go I was photographing gay men almost out of a sense of desperation because of AIDS,” Ischar says. “I was fearful AIDS would obliterate queer culture. I had this fervid conservationist mission.”
Ischar’s images also function as a commentary on the Daley machine. In 2003, the Rocks were removed as part of the city’s Belmont to Diversey Revetment Project, permanently ending an era that had already begun disappearing with the gentrification of Andersonville and the migration north toward Hollywood Beach. “I find the devastation of the Rocks a really tragic event,” Ischar says. “A site like the Rocks, which has so much history embedded in it, is bulldozed and transformed without so much as a fight. That shows a profoundly mistaken approach to conservation and history.”
The photographer hopes his work will offer a bridge between twentysomethings and men his age. “There’s a sad disconnect in gay life between generations,” Ischar says. “Young gay men don’t know the art my generation made, and they don’t know older gay men. This is like families without grandparents. It really saddens me. If this work makes even a slight contribution to that, I’ll be very pleased.”
“Marginal Waters” opens Saturday 12.