Photographer Robert Kalman's sister, Hillary, came out at 23 years old, in 1976. "Not exactly a cultural period conducive to acceptance of homosexuality, especially for lesbians," Kalman notes in a personal statement accompanying his new portrait series. If queer people couldn't find affirmation of their identities in wider culture, many of them couldn't find it at home, either. "A few days after Hillary announced that she was a lesbian I encouraged her to tell me how it was going: 'What's life like for you right now?'," Kalman recounts in his statement. "'You have no idea,' she answered sadly. 'Like holy hell.'" Hillary then showed him a note their mother had written to her: "Hillary I didn't realize how much you hate me. Signed, Mother."
This note, and a snapshot of Hillary — who passed away at 52 — are included in I Am Here: The Lesbian Portraits, Kalman's new exhibition opening at the Soho Photo Gallery on Wednesday. A tribute to his sister's memory, I Am Here collects Kalman's black and white portraits of lesbian women, taken in New York City and Provincetown — a historic gay enclave in Massachusetts. Each portraits is paired with a handwritten statement, in which subjects respond to the same question Kalman posed to Hillary: "What's life like for you right now?"
The portraits represent the diversity of the LGBTQ community; we see women of all ages, ethnicities, and walks of life — with Pokemon tees and grey hair alike. Yet it's the deeply personal statements that truly capture how simultaneously challenging and beautiful the queer experience can be. "I'm a single, lesbian mom raising two teen girls," writes Lauren, "It hasn't always been easy, but we are blessed." "Just keep positive and be kind. This has helped me with my struggles with figuring myself out, but I'm proud of who I am and hope to make people smile," offers Athene. Kaitlin, quoted in the photographer's statement, puts things most powerfully: "To be genuinely authentic and carry no shame is a beautiful thing." "My sister would have appreciated knowing that," Kalman concludes.
'I Am Here: The Lesbian Portraits' is on view at Soho Photo Gallery from December 7 to December 31, 2016. More information here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Robert Kalman