When I started this blog, I thought about my friends who were creative, many of them “old” like me. Maybe I could learn about art in a late age from them. I started with Steve Dansky.
In the very early 1970s, I was introduced to Steve, who, with his partner, was doing community organizing in the name of one socialism or another on New York’s lower East side. To me it looked like a rough, tough poverty neighborhood, and their spare, neat-as-a-pin but warped flat had too many windows open to the street. I admired their guts—two sweet gay guys hitting those mean streets with flyers and speeches.
The arrangement didn’t last and Steven Dansky turned to another politics that was more critical to him—gay politics. After the Stonewall riots, he helped found the modern gay liberation movement and was a co-founder of the Effeminists in New York. His work has been cited in nearly every book on early gay liberation.
In the ’70s and ’80s Steve earned degrees in social work and psychotherapy. He went on to work with victims of the HIV pandemic—first as a volunteer, then as a psychotherapist social worker and finally as a lecturer on AIDS. I remember thinking again, how gutsy he was, loving people who were dying of AIDS, sitting with them while they struggled to live and when they died. During the nineties he authored two books on HIV, Now Dare Everything: Tales of HIV-Related Psychotherapy and Nobody’s Children: Orphans of the HIV Epidemic, both of them published by Haworth Press.
Just as he was always, as long as I knew him, an activist, he was also a writer, mostly nonfiction, but also a poet—and often quite a good one. I remember poetry readings in strange places in New York over the years. In the last decade he’s become a photographer, exhibiting in New York and Las Vegas, and a writer of fiction.
I know he’s almost as old as I am. I know he’s still writing and still being an activist. But why fiction now? Why photography? And so I asked him, has aging changed what you do and how you do it? Has it changed the way you go about being creative? Has it changed the way you see, the way you remember, the way you create. And he answered….
Now that I’m in my mid ’60s, I feel like a survivor. So many gay men—former partners, friends, fellow activists, mentors, that I knew—died during the first decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Aging brings vulnerabilities. I feel more emotionally open—my identity as a radical seemed to prohibit a more nuanced sensibility. And I’ve become more emotionally mature; I’ve overcome youthful ambivalence and self doubt.
But why photography?, I asked.
Photography was an outgrowth of my transition from writing polemics and nonfiction into short stories. Initially, I shot photographs as a writing tool—to capture the details of time and place. But, after a few years, photography began to have its own life and a vision developed very distinct from my writing.
When I’m engaged in shooting images, the technique is intuitive and nondiscursive and when writing, it’s verbal and linear.
My role as photographer is like that of a social commentator. My subjects are more emblematic than individual—they depict our culture with its changing ethnic and racial heterogeneity and sexual orientation diversity. I’m drawn also to subjects that reveal economic adversity—the homeless, the formerly homeless, the soon-to-be homeless, runaways and throwaways, the so-called underclass drawn to Las Vegas, a quintessential American city.
The street photographer observes a particular reality and then, at a precise moment, captures it as an image. Street photography testifies to the particularity of urban culture with its extraordinary kinetic energy and restlessness. My human subjects are discovered and photographed while roaming within the idiomatic public place. I’ve searched for subjects in the city streets of Las Vegas, New York, Paris, and Tokyo, discovering solitary beings isolated in crowds.
Today, while he continues writing in an activist vein with the publication of essays for the Gay and Lesbian Review, Steve is completing a collection of short stories, one of which, “Broken Gender,” was published in the literary journal Gertrude. He curated a well-received exhibit in New York of vintage photographs for the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. His photographic street studies were part of a gallery exhibition at the Brett Wesley Gallery in Las Vegas, and a one person show of his work, “In Public: Photographic Studies on the Street,” will be shown this year at the Las Vegas District Library.
What does Steve Dansky have to teach me—to teach all of us—about aging and creativity? I’ve been thinking a lot about that, but this post is already overlong. So, next time.
You can, by the way, learn more about Steve at stevendansky.com.