A crowd of about 40 students and writers gathered Thursday afternoon at a Jonathan Edwards Master’s Tea and photography exhibition to listen to accounts of the life and work of deceased photographer Robert Giard ’61.
Robert Giard Foundation President Allen Ellenzweig, author Barbara Ulrich, and Jonathan Silin, Giard’s former partner and executor of his estate, shared their experiences with and perspectives on Giard. They focused on Giard’s quest to chronicle the experiences of gay and lesbian American writers, and recalled memorable interactions they had with Giard, in what Jonathan Edwards College Dean Kyle Farley described as “half memorial service and half celebration.”
Giard, a self-taught portrait, landscape and figure photographer, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Hartford and majored in English literature at Yale, where he also served as treasurer of the Yale Film Society. After college, he began photographing deserted landscapes in Long Island, portraits of friends and nude figures. Giard soon became known especially for his portraits and undertook the ambitious project of photographing as many gay and lesbian writers as he could. Excerpts from this collection — titled “Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers” — were featured in yesterday’s exhibit, along with other selections from his work. Ellenzweig, a published critic and commentator of art and photography, spoke about his mission at the foundation.
“We are doing our best to bring alive our friend Robert Giard,” Ellenzweig said. “Achieving recognition for Bob’s work has become the task for those of us who remain behind.”
Giard died in 2002 of cardiovascular problems while traveling to a photo assignment.
Ellenzweig also spoke of Giard’s exceptional ability to capture the true essence of the subject’s state in his portraits.
“He had captured a quality of melancholy in my character which was so true to who I was at the time and which I thought I was very successfully hiding from the world,” Ellenzweig said.
Ellenzweig then explained Giard’s decision to undertake the Particular Voices project. He said that Giard had been inspired in the early 1980’s, when he saw two plays: William Hoffman’s “As Is” and Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” which both dealt with the crisis of AIDS in the gay community. It prompted Giard to “capture the breadth of expression of gay men and lesbians of his era … living forbearers who laid and important groundwork,” Ellenzweig said.
Silin, Giard’s longtime partner, early childhood educator, and author of the book “My Father’s Keeper: The Story of a Gay Son and His Aging Parents” read an excerpt from novelist Matthew Stadler, which related his impressions of Giard’s work.
“Only Bob Giard has ever made a picture that shows me as I believe I am. … It is the best photograph ever taken of me, the most accurate record,” Silin quoted Stadler as saying.
Sillin and the other speakers all tried to convey a larger point about the political and personal experiences of the gay and lesbian community in the United States today. In particular, Sillin recounted the hardships he faced when dealing with Giard’s death.
“I could neither sign for the cremation that Bob wanted nor the remains,” Sillin said. “My own outrage is unabated. After thirty years together, the law deemed me unsuitable to carry out Bob’s wishes. Doing what is necessary means above all to remember Bob’s singular sense of mission.”
Danny Jimenez ’09, said he was at first unsure of photography as an art, but changed his mind after hearing the speakers’ accounts.
“The way he takes a picture of somebody that shows who they are or captures somebody in a melancholy pose changes my view of photography as an art form” he said.
Kai Thaler ’09 said he enjoyed “hearing about Giard’s life.”
“The anecdotal stories offered perspectives of different people about being photographed,” Thaler said.
Tim Oyen ’09 said he liked listening to speakers’ stories about Giard.
“The personal stories gave the photographs a human quality that was not always apparent from the pictures themselves,” Oyen said.
The Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library recently acquired a copy of Giard’s “Particular Voices” anthology, part of which was displayed during the Master’s Tea.