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Among my favourite William Yang photographs — and there are many — is a series of images of Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson both wearing colourful Kee-designed wool knits, posing in the rooms of William’s winter 1977 exhibition Sydneyphiles. Academics Martyn Jolly and Daniel Palmer count this exhibition, held at the Australian Centre for Photography in Paddington, among the ‘ten photography exhibitions that defined Australia’. The show broke conventions for how ‘artistic’ photographic practice could be perceived and presented; diaristic, it displayed scattered, informal groupings of photographs. More than anything, it placed personal life and subjectivity at the centre.
Sydneyphiles was William Yang’s first exhibition. ‘It launched me as a photographer’ he has said. When Sydneyphiles opened in June 1977 he was still known as Willy Young before ‘coming out as Chinese’ — as he wrote in a photo-text work in 1984 — after meeting and befriending a classically educated Taiwanese woman, Yensoon Tsai, who became his cultural and spiritual guide and who influenced the subsequent direction of his work. By the time he published his first book, Sydney Diary 1974–1984, which included images from Sydneyphiles, he was William Yang.
What I love about William’s series of images of Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee is the way he captures both his own show and the ineffable glamour of the two fashion creatives. They embody the particular cultural energy of Sydney in 1977. Like the photographer himself, they have chosen unconventional ways to present themselves — huddling, cuddling and hiding their faces — all of which work against the norms of fashionable self-presentation. Also, like William, they had a winter show that year: their fashion parade Colour and Shape snaked its way along the balconies of the Strand Arcade with dancer-as-model Little Nell — later famous for her New York nightclub, Nell’s, which thrived between 1986 and 2004 — doing balletic high kicks around the pillars. The fashion innovators would shortly set off, in October 1977, on their ‘trunk-show’ tour of Milan, Paris and New York, showing Jenny’s knits and Linda’s original outfits to small, invited audiences. On tour, they would be feted by the fashion cognoscenti and appear in fashion writer Anna Piaggi’s pages in Italian Vogue, and in New York’s Women’s Wear Daily.
I suppose this series of images resonates for me not only because the Sydneyphiles moment coincides with William’s ‘launch’ as a photographer, but because it was also around this time that William’s camera, and self, came into my own life. He entered the private environments we shared with our friends the gay activists, artist David McDiarmid and jeweller Peter Tully and the wider circle of fashion, art, sexual-political, design and decorative arts scenes we circulated in. In a move of camp possessiveness, Peter Tully gave William the title ‘court photographer’ for his constant presence behind the camera at the private parties, exhibitions and theatre openings of Peter’s circle during this period.
It was a time in which a new and palpable cultural confidence was evident in the wake of the election of the arts-friendly Whitlam Government in December 1972 and the completion of Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House in 1973. An awakened cultural ambition, specific to Sydney, drew back expats who had left Australia to escape stultifying cultural conformity and attracted people from other capital cities and regional towns to Sydney. There was a sense in the air — in spite of the return of a conservative national government in 1975 — that we had to let go of the cultural cringe. We could confidently make a modern Australian culture.
William became famous for recording, and even co-creating, the idea of Sydney as a centre of cultural daring, originality and excitement. For the young and enthusiastic, it seemed that the beautiful harbour city, facing out to the Pacific Ocean, was on its way to a utopian creative future. Recent immigrants, artists, bohemians, political radicals and sexual dissidents were attracted by the cheap rents of the city’s inner core, bringing new forms of ethnic, cultural and sexual diversity.
Sydney was the Australian and Western Pacific city where you ‘went to be gay’, as Dennis Altman put it in his 2013 book The End of the Homosexual? Regarded as the most colourful and rakish Australian city, Sydney was reputed to have an irreverent attitude towards authority and respectability. This was the place where, without leaving Australia, you might find a sense of metropolitan potentiality. A ‘real city’, as poet and singer Patti Smith wrote in her book Just Kids, is ‘shifty and sexual’. Sydney was Australia’s ‘real city’.
Later that year, William took another series of photographs from within this extended cultural moment. The occasion was a joint exhibition opening of David McDiarmid’s An Australian Dream Lounge and Peter Tully’s Living Plastics in December 1977 at Hogarth Galleries in Paddington. David had recently returned after ten months in the United States and his evolving art reflected his way of seeing Australian culture from the outside, inflected by irony and a camp sensibility.
Dream Lounge was a room-scale installation in which plastics, vinyl, fake fur, lino, found objects, careful stitching in coloured plastic thread, a modified Grant Featherston chair and kitsch postcards were crafted into an environment that was both consciously vernacular and an artefact of utopian queer imagining. Jenny Kee was photographed by William, seated on the Featherston chair in the Dream Lounge wearing an original Ballets Russes costume designed by Natalia Goncharova for Le Coq d’Or in 1914. It had been given to her by influential London-based Australian Vern Lambert, a dealer in vintage fashion and textiles who inspired Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Piaggi. The effervescence of the moment is captured in a group photo of the artists and friends taken later that evening in the lane outside the gallery.
The worlds that William was photographing brought together the vernacular and the global in the space of a day. He might go from the home of Nobel Prize–winning novelist Patrick White to photographing boy surfers at Bondi Beach. He might head later to an event by the queer performance group Sylvia and the Synthetics — including the now-iconic figures Doris Fish and Danny Abood — before capturing sculptural men’s bodies at the sex-on-premises venue Ken’s Karate Klub in Kensington.
William became famous for recording, and even co-creating, the idea of Sydney as a centre of cultural daring, originality and excitement.
Like many who contributed to Sydney’s innovative cultural ambience in those years, William was an outsider. He had arrived in 1969 after growing up, completing architectural studies and writing for theatre in Queensland. The idea that one’s self could be discovered and formed in the anonymous and diverse energy of cities was at the heart of their late-twentieth century magnetism.
Since Sydneyphiles William has had at least 26 solo exhibitions, along with countless group shows. He has become internationally famous for his monologue slide show performances, which were digitally filmed and televised through the 2000s. His early photographs from the 1970s capture the youthful exuberance of the soon-to-be-famous, the already established and the anonymous. By the 1980s, fame and celebrity were a global force, part of the cultural conditions of neoliberal capital accumulation, proliferation of mass media and global communication. All this kept William busy making images for the print media. Simultaneously, gay male identity politics in Sydney was becoming more clearly articulated and by the 1990s William’s photographs both recorded and helped create a set of narratives around the new queer subcultures.
A selection of William Yang’s photographs from Sydneyphiles
Mardi Gras parades and parties became signature locales for William’s astute and politically eclectic eye through the 1980s and 1990s. His 1997 book Friends of Dorothy made it clear that one of his principal concerns was to capture the specific visuality and affect of Sydney’s diverse gay male cultures. A compelling image dates from the early Mardi Gras period in which Peter Tully became known as ‘Mister Mardi Gras’ and the ‘originating genius’ of the visual conception of the annual Gay Mardi Gras parade and huge dance party.
Peter had been instrumental in the formation of the Mardi Gras Arts Workshop and was its artistic director from 1982 to 1986, mentoring the volunteers who turned up looking for inspiration. Peter, quoted by journalist David Leser in an article for HQ magazine in 1992, saw it like this:
The gay community was coming together with a political identity and I thought, along with the political identity, there should be a cultural identity … there was great sense of liberation reaching a peak in Sydney and huge numbers coming out of the closet.
At the 1981 parade, William Yang photographed Peter Tully wearing a version of his ‘Ceremonial Coat for the Grand Diva of the Paradise Garage’, a sculptural outfit now held in the National Gallery of Australia. In this costume made of fluoro plastics, vinyls, holographic reflective strips and found objects, Peter pays homage to the aesthetic influence of the gay, African American and Hispanic dance club The Paradise Garage that ran in New York for a decade from 1977. This profoundly impacted his later work, which Peter titled ‘urban tribalism’. This was the moment when artistic creativity and brave politics were Mardi Gras’ driving force, before corporatisation, before HIV/AIDS.
William captured a moment of fugitive optimism in the Mardi Gras parade of 1985: David McDiarmid and I are captured as ‘Flower-Heads’. Flowers cover our heads and faces in an arrangement David created using chicken wire and fresh flowers; we are both wearing our everyday clothes which happen to be textiles painted by David. This was taken ten years before David’s death from AIDS-related conditions in 1995. It was also ten years before I became his executor, copyright holder and curator of his visual legacy, a development that galvanised major changes in my own life as I researched and wrote about the times through which we had all lived.
Although I now know that David had suspected by 1985 that he was HIV-positive, he had not then been tested. None of us — William, David or myself — could have had an inkling of the specific ways in which our lives and stories would become interconnected into the future. Since the late 1990s, William and I have become professional fellow travellers as we — as copyright holders — facilitate use of images for each other’s respective projects and publications.
Sadness in 1999 was the first of William’s monologue slide shows that I attended. While it wasn’t only about AIDS, it was one of many affecting cultural artefacts created about the impact of the epidemic. It wasn’t self-pitying, melodramatic or sentimental, just deadpan factual. But the imagery — both glamorous and abject — spoke eloquently of the lives formed in Sydney, the careers and politics expressed there, and the wakes and candlelight vigils held to celebrate and mourn the lives lost.
From the eclectic exploratory perspective of an introvert-outsider in 1977 — ‘thoughtful, not extraverted’ is how he described himself in 2008 — William’s work is now honed into a series of visual and philosophical enquiries grouped under gay male life, AIDS, family, fame, male bodies, Chinese-ness, beach, landscape and history. He characterises his work as ‘story-telling’. Since the late 1990s, he has brought himself out from behind the camera to create his monologue slide shows, performing the stories of his time. To quote the title of his 2021 solo exhibition at QAGOMA in Brisbane, his career is one of both ‘seeing and being seen’. Visually, textually and performatively, he has crafted legendary accounts of Sydney: the times, places, people and events he encountered there.