“Not only a symbol of stability, we are the ‘go to’ couple for both our families and our friends alike…But in 2008, as the only same-sex couple, we were the ones without the federal rights. Those who were on their second, third and fourth tries at lasting relationships had more rights and recognition than we did, and it all seemed so unfair,” reads the introduction of photographer B. Proud’s culmination of 10 years of work, “First Comes Love.” A riveting collection of photographs and stories of enduring LGBTQ+ relationships, the “First Comes Love” project, along with being a published anthology, is a traveling exhibition that has now made it to Vassar. It is a project that aims to celebrate the trials and triumphs of these relationships, represent their beauty and complexity and, ultimately, showcase how the status of a relationship, LGBTQ+ or not, really has no bearing on what comes first—love.
While 34 of B. Proud’s portraits will continue to be on display in the Palmer Gallery till Mar. 5, 2018, an opening reception, featuring an appearance and book signing by the artist herself, took place in the gallery on Feb. 1, 2018. With members from the Vassar community as well as the larger Poughkeepsie community in attendance, the reception was an opportunity for viewers to engage with the artist herself, while simultaneously immersing themselves in stories that highlight the sheer multidimensionality of relationships.
Representing love across boundaries of race, class, sexuality, age, access and more, the show had the overwhelming impact of depicting a breadth of human experience, as people delved into what it meant to be romantically involved with another person—what it meant to take on another’s good times and bad times as one’s own, to share moments and lives, to be united in common identity as well as in celebration of each other’s diversity.
Proud emphasized how important it was to delineate the “normalcy” of these LGBTQ+ relationships: “When I first met the people in these photographs, I asked all of them what it takes to be in a long-term relationship, and none of them said sex or even mentioned their sexuality. They talked about respect and they talked about trust. There’s nothing more or less special about these couples than any others, except perhaps the endurance of their relationships.”
Proud continued, “That’s why I made all the portraits black-and-white. A lot of the time, LGBTQ+ couples are only portrayed in the context of rallies and marches, waving the pride flag. You don’t see this; you don’t see them as real people. I wanted to strip away all the rainbows.”
Associate Director of the Palmer Gallery Monica Church reinforced this sentiment, mentioning her thoughts on the works displayed: “I just think it’s about love. When I read these stories, all I think is, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ B. Proud has got a way of making a subject that is political—that I don’t think should be political—about what it really is. Moreover, B.’s experience as a documentary filmmaker, commercial photographer and educator really comes across in her work given that all her photographs are technically gorgeous, in terms of their composition and vision.”
Church also elaborated on her hopes for the Vassar community’s relationship to the show: “We’re trying to host shows that are about art but also about social issues and I think this is a really important one to support, especially with the college’s active LGBTQ+ community, as well as our access to the general Poughkeepsie community.”
Additionally, the exhibition held significance within the theme of this year’s Modfest. An annual festival at Vassar that celebrates and explores the creative arts in the 20th and 21st centuries, Modfest involves collaboration between Vassar’s Music Department as well as Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD). Each year, it brings a series of artistic events to campus, and this year’s theme is “Adapting.” Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator Tom Pacio commented on how the theme emerged particularly strongly in the wake of the 2016 election, in a time when the world and people’s perspectives on it are changing, and how it’s pertinent to talk about what it means to be in the process of adapting when we are a year into this new way of thinking and being.
Pacio further elucidated how “First Comes Love” seamlessly ties into the overarching goals of Modfest 2018: “Entering the Palmer Gallery and seeing the series of photographs that recognize these longstanding relationships — all of which have had to adapt over the past several years — it’s a unique celebration of partnership, and until it’s commonplace to talk about and see queer couples that are together for 50 years in the same way that many heterosexual couples are, it deserves a little bit of a spotlight if you ask me. We really wanted Modfest to act as an avenue through which we could shine a light on the remarkable and underrepresented voices and stories that might not have gotten it otherwise.”
The innovative and moving nature of B. Proud’s work has led to a collaborative initiative between the LGBTQ+ Center and the student photography org, Phocus, to create “Vassar: First Comes Love,” which will go on display in the College Center, rather appropriately, around Valentine’s day. With plans to facilitate photography sessions with Vassar folk who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, this project hopes to highlight not only the long-term relationships that some LGBTQ+ faculty, staff and administrators are in, but also the relationships that the queer, trans and non-binary students on our campus have experienced. In this way, the collaborative effort — one that spans a Campus Life center, a student org, a gallery, and Modfest — hopes to reconcile a generational gap within the community, uniting younger and older people across similar powerful experiences.
“There’s usually a bit of a disconnect with older folks in the queer community,” explained Director for LGBTQ+ and Gender Resources Jodie Castanza. She elucidated that the generational representation offered by Proud’s work has the extremely potent ability to connect to the experiences of Vassar youth, and perhaps provide them with some hope regarding what healthy, long-lasting queer relationships could look like for themselves too.
Proud herself drove home the importance of acknowledging the varying experiences of the LGBTQ+ community as one moves from generation to generation. “I hope what Vassar students take away from this is an understanding of the generational aspect of our community and what it takes to make these relationships endure over such long periods of time,” articulated Proud.
She further elaborated on her perspective: “Nowadays the social climate has started to change in terms of acceptance, but the fact is a lot of these people depicted here didn’t have that sense of freedom when they were in college. For their relationships to have persisted against all odds, in those days, is a really beautiful thing.”
Castanza, conveying her final thoughts on “First Comes Love,” mentioned that she and her family were planning to have their photos taken for Vassar’s version of the project, partly due to the moving nature of the original concept: “It’s hard not to have emotions rise, especially as a member of the queer community, when you’re surrounded by pictures of LGBTQ+ long-term relationships. I can’t really explain what it means to stand in a space filled with pictures of people who share an identity with you that is often marginalized, and not often represented well in the media. To then have these beautiful pictures and wonderful stories of them is a really touching thing, and it’s what we want to recreate with Vassar’s community members.”