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Photographer Lola Flash is honored for creating images that challenge invisibility

Agnes Gund, Esther Cooper Jackson and Ruth Pointer are just a few of the women who appear in "SALT," a portrait series by Lola Flash. They're all over 70 years old, still actively engaged in their lives' work. Flash says the portraits are meant to challenge the way our society looks at these women: "I would say up to the age of 25 or 26 we're the it girls, right? And then after you pass over this threshold of maybe 30, 35, you're put out to pasture. When we get older, we aren't seen."

L: Ruth Pointer, the eldest of The Pointer Sisters; R: Masako "Koho" Yamamoto, an artist and teacher renowned for her black ink painting known as <em>sumi-e.</em>
/ Courtesy of Lola Flash
/
Courtesy of Lola Flash
L: Ruth Pointer, the eldest of The Pointer Sisters; R: Masako "Koho" Yamamoto, an artist and teacher renowned for her black ink painting known as sumi-e.

Flash, who uses she/her and they/them pronouns, grew up in Montclair, N.J. Her great grandfather, Charles H. Bullock, was a prominent leader in the establishment of Black YMCAs. Her parents were schoolteachers.

"I was a bit of a loner, an only child," Flash recalls. She loved taking pictures, first with a small Minox, then a 35mm camera: a gift from her mother, who also helped her to set up a darkroom.

After studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Flash moved to New York City in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis. She started going to ACT UP demonstrations and taking pictures. Unlike conventional photojournalists, Flash used slide film and developed her photographs on negative paper. White clouds appeared black; blue skies looked red. It forced viewers to realize that their eyes had been trained to see the world in a certain way, and invited them to reassess their perceptions.

In 1989, Flash and Julie Tolentino appeared with several other couples in Gran Fury's "Kissing Doesn't Kill" PSA poster, which appeared on billboards, buses, and subway platforms in cities including New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Mimicking the style of Benetton's "United Colors" advertising campaign, the image called out bigotry and complacency at a time when the Helms Amendments hampered HIV/AIDS awareness efforts.

Rio and Xumani
/ Courtesy of Lola Flash
/
Courtesy of Lola Flash
Rio and Xumani

In the 1990s, Flash moved to London, and began a decades-long creative practice centered on challenging invisibility and preconceptions about identity. Using a large-format 4x5 film camera, she creates portraits that foreground her subjects, showing the beauty of older women, LGBTQ+ trailblazers and those whose skin color or gender expression have left them open to marginalization and discrimination.

Flash comes to the work as a queer gender-fluid Black woman, making the portraits for and in celebration of her community. Artist KT Pe Benito describes sitting for their portrait as empowering: "I found a love for myself through Lola's photography. I'm no longer afraid of the way I see myself."

At first, Flash showed her work in restaurants and pubs. Now, her images also appear in the permanent collections of institutions such as New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Victoria and Albert Museum. But cultural theorist Karen Jaime says she still sees Flash's work as firmly rooted in community advocacy, noting her commitment to highlighting the contributions and the presence of marginalized people.

The work she's doing through these photographs is activism, Jaime explains: "She's not just having you see the people in the photos, but to recognize that this is a legacy."

<em>I Pray</em> and <em>Milky Way</em>
/ Courtesy of Lola Flash
/
Courtesy of Lola Flash
I Pray and Milky Way

Flash's current series is called "Syzygy, the vision." At times the artist transforms herself into an avatar subjected to the horrors of racism, sexism and homophobia. Other images show her experiencing moments of joy, envisioning a future where there is equity for all. Flash anticipates that the "Syzygy" series will eventually encompass a hundred photographs.

Halima Taha, who advises institutions and collectors on the acquisition of visual work by Black artists, says the series reflects and represents a thread throughout Flash's work, a lifelong commitment to visibility and preserving the legacy of the LGBTQIA+ and communities of color worldwide.

Today, Flash is being honored by the LGBTQ+ arts organization Queer|Art, which is presenting her with an award for sustained achievement. Tomorrow, you'll find her teaching visual arts to ninth and tenth graders in Brooklyn. "Having the photographs to be able to show that this is our legacy is amazing," she says. "I often say that you if you don't have a legacy, you can be that person—you can start it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allyson McCabe