Stories Questioning Queerness: An Interview with Caldwell Linker
Before Caldwell Linker’s All Through the Night photo exhibition closes on September 15th, I would love to share some valuable insight from the artist. Caldwell has been documenting the queer community of Pittsburgh since they moved here a little over six years ago. All Through the Night is Caldwell’s first museum exhibition, and they have visited the museum often over the past few months to discuss the photos with friends, family, and acquaintances. I hope you will enjoy hearing more about Caldwell’s process for designing the exhibit, in addition to what local and national issues they feel are most important to the people in Pittsburgh who identify as queer.
Through my interviews with others in the Pittsburgh community, I have learned that you prefer not to be referred to by the pronouns “he” or “she.” Why do you choose not to identify with any gender?
For quite some time, I have not felt particularly attached to gender. I feel like gender is kind of a commodity, and I don’t always resonate with things that are “masculine” or “feminine.” If people are looking at my photos, reading about me, or hearing about me, I would rather they not have conceptions in their heads with regard to my age, sex, and gender.
What inspires you to document queer communities?
Several things inspire me. I was a women’s studies major, so I would see a lot of photos related to second wave feminism and the early gay and lesbian movement, which I found inspirational. But I would also be talking to people about certain things happening in queer communities that there were no photos of. So, that was one motivation.
I also feel pretty strongly about the fact that this world needs to be improved. I am personally not good at a lot of things activist-wise, like going to meetings or writing letters to folks in Congress. But what I can do is document, and I feel that is a very important part of a political movement.
I only feel comfortable documenting things I am a part of, so I don’t photograph people I don’t know. Another one of the reasons I take pictures is that I want my friends to see themselves through my eyes, so that they can see how gorgeous I think they are. And hopefully I’ve succeeded.
How did you decide which photos to include in the exhibition?
The selection process was really intense; I would say that it took 6-9 months to complete. We decided to narrow it down to just Pittsburgh photos, and then I just started going through folders of pictures and pulling out ones that I liked.
There was a period of time when I was thinking of framing the exhibition as one long day in the life of a queer person in Pittsburgh, which I kind of dropped and moved toward thinking about it in terms of themes. I talked to people about themes that I see in the queer community and in life, in addition to what is really important to them as queer people. So, I looked for high quality, entertaining pictures that expressed these themes.
I printed out 400-something 4×6 photos, which I had all in my house. I got rid of about half of those and taped them all up on my walls. I had a “no” door and a “yes” wall, so it was really easy to just move them from wall to wall. Then, about ten or so people came over during the whole process, and I got them to initial the backs of photos that they found authentic, moving, or just likable. From there, I narrowed it down to 75 or 80 photos. The final cut was chosen by me and some Warhol Museum staff – the museum director, Eric Shiner; the curator, Nick Chambers; and the curatorial assistant, Jen Melvin.
How did you come to this curatorial decision to put all of these photos on one wall?
When Nick Chambers and I started talking, I had some stuff at a tattoo parlor, and it was hung in this same way on one wall. This was primarily because I got the photos in just three hours before the show started, so I had literally three hours to put these up on the wall! I actually liked the result, and so did Nick.
One of the things that I think is important about the photos is that not everyone pictured is best friends with each other. A lot of these people don’t talk to each other, but all of their lives are somewhat interconnected. If one person does something, it can have a ripple effect throughout the entire community. So, that’s one reason why I like these all on one wall.
Also, I just like things cluttered. Someone was looking at my slideshow for the September 7th performance, and they said, “Wow, this is like an emotional roller coaster – it’s up and down and up and down.” And I thought, “Yeah, this is how it’s supposed to be!” It’s not like life builds up in this crescendo where everything sucks for a while, and then everything’s great all of a sudden. It’s more of a roller coaster – chaotic and cluttered.
Why do you and many of the people you document choose to identify as queer, rather than as people within a more specific group on the LGBT spectrum?
One of the reasons I identify as queer is because queer does not gender myself, and it does not gender partners that I have had, currently have, or will have. It’s not really true for me to identify as a lesbian. I have exes who have transitioned, and others who are on different places on the gender spectrum. Also, I feel that a lot of times, transgender folks don’t get a lot of acceptance or recognition from the larger gay community. So, for me and for other people I know who identify as queer, the word “queer” is really intrinsically involved in transgender acceptance and transgender rights, and it is stepping away from the gender binary.
I think the queer community supports more radical political ideas than just gay marriage. Queer issues extend to race, class, healthcare, and almost every other type of problem. It’s kind of like feminism; to me, feminism involves basically every issue on the planet (except for maybe erectile dysfunction!), because every issue on the planet affects women.
How do you think your exhibition is reflective of the Pittsburgh queer scene?
I didn’t really focus on it being uniquely about Pittsburgh, even though all of the photos were taken in Pittsburgh and/or were of Pittsburgh people. In general, things are dirtier here. You don’t see a lot of fancy clubs, and you don’t see things that cost a lot of money because the queer community isn’t super well-funded here. We have a group of people who try really hard. We have people who want to make a situation work, even though we don’t have the best circumstances. And I haven’t traveled enough recently, but that, to me, is how the queer community is in a lot of places.
One thing I don’t like [about the Pittsburgh queer community] is that it’s a little behind the times, politically speaking. I think that shows up in this exhibit because there aren’t a lot of pictures of political activism. There’s that one photo showing someone with a sign that says, “sex work is work,” which I specifically put in not as a reflection of what Pittsburgh is doing, but of what it should be. Actually, most of the people in that picture don’t live in Pittsburgh, but they came here from California for G-20. Had I taken those pictures in another city, there might have been a lot more I could have worked with in terms of political action photos.
Your exhibition contains a few photos of drag performers. How do you think the drag scene differs from the other queer communities you are documenting?
One of the things I have always really focused on is queer performance, so that’s where the drag thing kind of came into my documentation. But I don’t like it when people think I’m a drag photographer. I do take pictures of drag queens, but it is part of a much larger thing that I’m doing.
There’s some crossover [among the drag and queer scenes], as it is a small town. But I do think that the drag community is often misinterpreted as being apolitical. The drag queens are often not as overtly political in their work as people are in some of the other queer communities. So, they’re not always just holding up protest signs. But they are often political in a different way than some are in the other queer communities; they just have another way of expressing themselves.
And even if drag queens aren’t political, they are literally on the front lines, as they are the people who are getting beat up on a regular basis for walking around with a differently reflected gender. A lot of people put them down as airheads who just don’t care about things, but I don’t think they often realize how hard it really is to be a drag queen.
Overall, what do you hope that people understand when viewing your exhibition?
I’m pretty new at exhibiting photos, but I just wanted for this exhibition to feel like an authentic piece that accurately reflects my experiences. And the photos may not reflect those experiences of a lot of other people in the queer community of Pittsburgh, but I wanted them to reflect mine.
Please stop by the Warhol Museum by Sunday, September 15th to check out Caldwell’s All Through the Night exhibition!
To learn more about Caldwell’s work, visit their website: www.caldwelllinker.com