Drag queens, strippers, love and lust: A raw photographic tribute to the subcultures of the 1980s

Drag queens, strippers, homeless men, and the Klu Klux Klan — a soup of characters unlikely to mix in reality come together in Love, Lust, and Loss — Billy Howard’s photographic tribute to the subcultures of the 1980s. Cast in monochrome and intimacy, the series gives us insight into the lives of the exotic and atypical. His work serves as a magnifying glass to the era, forcing the viewer to realise that the eighties was not as glamorous as we make it out to be—that it was trifled by an AIDS epidemic and numerous instances of poverty—but simultaneously reminds us that it was a time of great creativity and cultural innovation.

Following a brief stint with reporting, Howard returned to photography, driven by a lifelong interest in the humanistic and unconventional. He admits his earlier work lacked purpose and value, however (“I didn’t really have a goal other than to have the experience.”) But the eighties served as a whirlwind of self-discovery, and as he was swept into a world of exotica and struggle, he began to develop his values and a trademark photographic process. 

In comparison to the average photographer, Howard’s technique is—like his subjects—extraordinarily unique. His emphasis on simplicity, truth, and singularity in each photograph allows the viewer to form an immediate connection with the subject. And while most photographers aim to seize the moment, Howard prefers to take his time and build a relationship with the subject.

“I have found that if you build trust, people will reveal themselves to you in a way that you might not achieve if you simply show up to take a photograph,” he says. 

These artistic elements are the key reasons as to why Love, Lust, and Loss is so successful. Viewers can look at any photograph from the series, and without any background information, and feel as if they know everything about the people depicted.

See the full interview and imagery, below.

We’re focusing on your series ‘Love, Lust, and Loss: A Photographic Memoir of the 80s’ could you explain where this idea came from? 

“I was coming of age as a photographer in the 1980s and my camera was a ticket to explore the fringes of society, entering into everything from homeless shelters to drag shows in search of something more exotic than I would normally be exposed to.

“I didn’t really have a goal other than to have the experience, but the people I met taught me valuable lessons about acceptance and humanity that have influenced my work and life.”

Detail, if you could, how the scenario of this series was formed, how emotionally involved did you become in the project?

“At the time I was shooting the images, I had no clue what I was going to do with most of it. I shared the images with my subjects, had some of them exhibited, but it was only in retrospection, decades later, that they began to make sense to me as a series.

“During the ‘80s, curiosity was a powerful motivator for me and youth trumped caution as I entered into worlds inhabited by individualists who bucked societal norms, some for survival, and some to express themselves honestly in a world that demanded conformity.”

I was interested to know the response to your series, given the fact that you offered a glimpse into certain sub-cultures of the 1980s which, at the time, didn’t receive much positive publicity...

“The response when I put this work together has been enthusiastic, most notably being included in the Photolucida Critical Mass 50 in 2017, which led to international coverage of the project. At the time I was shooting the work in the 1980s, I didn’t exhibit or publish much of it; a lot of the images came from personal work where the only agenda was my fascination with the people I photographed. 

“There were two of my projects in the ‘80s that did reach out to broader audiences in a way that helped change preconceived notions people had at the time. One was a book and exhibit on the homeless population in Atlanta, Georgia which resulted in a book and exhibit. I pulled together work from 33 local photographers, including myself, who had photographed homeless people and we exhibited the work alongside art work created by the homeless in Atlanta themselves. The book, Can You See Me? Images of Atlanta’s Homeless, went on to raise money for the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless and the Atlanta Community Food Bank. The ability for photography to have an impact became a motivation for me in my future work. 

“In 1986, my dentist, who had become a friend, died from AIDS and I was looking for a way to respond to my grief. He suddenly quit his practice and moved back to Florida to live, and soon die, at his mother’s home. The stigma of the disease made him afraid to reach out to the people who should have been there for him as he went through his ordeal and I wanted to make a statement that people did care. I was inspired by the work of Jim Goldberg as I photographed people living with HIV/AIDS and had them write in their own hand a statement under their images. The resulting book, Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of AIDS was the first full length photo documentary book on the AIDS pandemic and was also later translated and printed in Japan.”

Given your inspiration, could you run us through your process? What distinctive imagery are you looking for? 

“My goal when I meet a subject is to create an image that is authentic to them, that the subject will look at and say ‘that’s me!'”

“I am not interested in work that exploits or diminishes them or puts them in a bad light, (with the exception of people in fringe racist groups whose very essence is bad light.) The part of my process I enjoy most isn’t taking the photograph, it is being invited to share in the world of my subject, gaining their trust, and getting to know them.

“I consider my process as a collaboration between me and the person I photograph. I cannot claim full credit for my best images, they come out of the relationship we build between us and their willingness to reveal themselves honestly. I have found if you build trust, people will reveal themselves to you in a way that you might not achieve if you simply show up to take a photograph. 

“I love photographing people in their homes, seeing the things they choose to display, what they hang on their walls, the memories they reveal as sort of a talisman to their past. I always look for a way to incorporate that into the photograph when I can. My goal is to take a simple photograph that reveals something about the subject with pathos and dignity.”

How have you developed your own distinct aesthetic within photography?

“In high school I would pour over photo magazines and books looking for images that inspired me. The images that impacted me the most were documentary images of people from the edges of society and I thought it must be an amazing adventure for the photographer to be let into those worlds.

“I felt compelled to create work that could communicate emotion and reach people. One of my early influences was Dennis Darling whose document of Hell’s Henchmen, a motorcycle gang in Chicago, was featured in one of the magazines I had when I was in high school. It felt exotic and dangerous and the images held a mesmerising fascination to a forbidden world. I wanted to take photos like that. In one of life’s gifts of serendipity, years later as I was beginning my career, Darling was living in Atlanta and I met him, and that led to a lifelong friendship and mentorship. I owe him a great debt for showing me the possibility of photography to be a passport of sorts into all kinds of worlds very different from my own. 

“While I was inspired by photographers like Darling, Diane Arbus, and Mary Ellen Mark, I wanted to develop my own style. What I hope resonates in my strongest images is not so much the composition as my interest in the subject. I believe that if I am truly interested in the person I photograph, that should also resonate with the viewer. That at least is what I hope my style conveys .I want my photographs to work not so much as a photograph but as an introduction to the person photographed.”

Generally, speaking, what attracts you to a certain subject or field?

“During the 1980s, I was discovering myself at the same time I was growing as a photographer. The subjects that attracted me then, were people that expressed themselves uniquely, either in their fashion or their lifestyles. I discovered that some of the people most shunned by society were also some of the kindest, most empathetic people. The adage ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ came to life for me as I met people who were far from the mainstream but, perhaps because of their dismissal from broader societal norms, were deeply attuned to empathise with and support others, including me.

“After working on the documentary of people with HIV/AIDS, I became focused on covering issues around health and how people dealing with physical and mental health diagnosis responded to life. I rarely do street photography anymore, preferring to have a more specific and focused project to work on, but it is that early interest in all things human that still informs my approach.”

With that in mind, is there a specific moment that you can recall that made you want to pursue photography?

“My father always had a nice camera. He was a terrible photographer, always managing to have a finger partially in front of the lens that created a distinctive smudge-like presence in the corner of his photographs. But as a kid, I thought his cameras were as cool as he was, and despite his lack of skill in photography, he was plenty cool. I remember taking photos of the Washington Zoo as a 9-year-old with a Brownie camera and going around the neighbourhood with a Kodak Instamatic camera aimed at whatever crossed my path. But it was in high school, where a fellow student’s father taught a one-week photo class, that I processed and printed my first photograph and saw a bigger possibility.

“I took that skill with me to college where I became the yearbook and college newspaper photographer, although as an English major, I didn’t see it as a likely career. When I graduated, I took a job as a reporter, but always envied the photographers at the small weekly newspaper I worked with. After a year, I told my editor I wanted to switch my position from reporter to photographer and that was the beginning of my career as a photographer. I learned from the other photographers on the staff and despite the starvation wages, loved the job.”

What do you think makes a certain photograph stand out from the norm? What makes a certain photograph memorable?

“I think the answer to that varies from person to person as we each bring our own histories, values, interests, and life experiences into how we see the world around us. A simple portrait might not interest one person at all, while it deeply connects to another viewer. I am attracted to simplicity, photographs that express something honestly without bells and whistles.

“The first thing I see in a portrait is the expression in the subject’s eyes, and somewhere within that, I feel is the reflection of the subject. In my own work, I might make 30 images that on a casual glance look exactly the same, but almost always, there is one within them that stands out from the others, and many times it’s because of a glint or suggestion in the eyes.”

What did you seek to capture most in your series? 

“When I was photographing this series of images, I didn’t originally see it as a series. I was simply capturing my life, the people around me, the experiences I was having, and documenting the people and events around me. I remember at the time thinking about what I was doing and questioning what my purpose was. It took me a lifetime to grow into the answer. One of my favourite quotes, and one that has given me solace, is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet:’ Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present, you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.” 

“During the ‘80s, I was seeking answers that I am only now realising I could not have found at the time; only through life and experience are they gradually revealing themselves to me.”

Did the atmosphere change when you began to understand more about your process? 

“After defining within myself what I wanted to do with photography, I gained more passion for what I was doing and a deeper sense of responsibility to tell stories. I discovered that I could give a voice and an audience to people who lacked one and was able to present their side of difficult issues to others, hopefully opening hearts and changing minds. I love wit and humor, but if anything, as I grew into my photography, I became a more responsible person. The photographs in this series represent my growth from shooting random subjects to finding my own passion.”

Do you have any ideas in terms of which sphere of life you may be exploring next?

“I have had the good fortune of working with organisations that share my values and have worked on health-related projects for The Carter Center, CARE, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other non-profit and governmental organisations that fight disease and poverty around the world. While I have pursued my own projects, the ability to help these organisations communicate their work has been one of my life’s most rewarding pursuits and I am always excited for what comes next. 

“Some of my other projects that have been meaningful to me include documenting children with cancer, people with disabilities, the blind and visually impaired, and teens and young adults struggling with mental health issues. I have been profoundly affected by the courage and humanity of the people who have opened their lives to me in a way so unexpected when I began my journey in photography and it will be from that community, people who struggle with seen and unseen issues, that I find my next work. 

“I continue to review and edit photographic negatives I have taken during the 1980s and plan to publish more images, as well as develop new projects around issues I have been involved in, including the amazing humanity within our immigrant communities, the quality of mercy within our prison system, and the issues affecting those struggling within America’s dystopic healthcare system

“I am lucky to live in a very supportive photography community in Atlanta and I currently serve on the board of Atlanta Celebrates Photography which puts on the largest community based photography festival in the country. We have sponsored everyone from Annie Leibovitz to Pete Souza—President Obama’s photographer—to a host of amazing local photographers who exhibit their work in everything from coffee shops to our internationally acclaimed High Museum of Art. Each year I am reenergised to the remarkable ability of photography to communicate. Like poetry, it is a language read through the heart and when I pick up the camera, it is my heart that I let guide me.”

To view more of Billy Howard’s work, visit his website here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Delivering curated content