MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
From photographs documenting the AIDS crisis to a series of Afrofuturist self-portraits, Lola Flash's work challenges invisibility, preconceptions and stereotypes. This evening, the LGBTQ arts organization Queer Art will honor Flash with an award for sustained achievement. Allyson McCabe has her story.
LOLA FLASH: Agnes Gund, Esther Cooper Jackson, Ruth Pointer.
ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: These are just a few of the women who appear in Lola Flash's portrait series, "Salt." They're all over 70, still actively engaged in their life's work.
FLASH: When we get older, we aren't seen. Up until the age of, I would say, 25 or 26, we're all, you know, like, the it girls, right? And then after you sort of pass over this threshold of maybe 30, 35, you're put out to pasture.
MCCABE: Flash has been taking pictures since childhood.
FLASH: I was a bit of a loner. I was an only child. And so I was playing around with this wonderful little Minox camera, sometimes taking pictures of my fish tanks. I was not at all aware of the power of photography.
MCCABE: But after college, Flash moved to New York City. It was the late 1980s - the height of the AIDS crisis. She started going to ACT UP demonstrations and taking pictures, developing the film on negative paper, a process which reversed the colors and altered the viewer's perspective.
FLASH: It made a beautiful Kodak day look like a crazy storm was about to start. You know, the clouds become black. The cool color of the sky becomes this really crazy red, warm color that just looks like everything's on fire.
MCCABE: In the 1990s, Flash started taking large format portraits. She photographed trailblazers, elders and those whose skin color or gender expression rendered them invisible or pushed them to the margins. KT Pe Benito is one of Flash's models.
KT PE BENITO: I recently found a love for myself through Lola's photography. I'm, like, no longer afraid of the way that I see myself.
MCCABE: At first, Flash showed her photographs in restaurants and pubs. Then galleries and museums caught on. Today, the images appear on the walls of institutions, such as New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Victoria and Albert Museum. But cultural theorist Karen Jaime still sees Flash's work as community-based.
KAREN JAIME: I want to center her as a queer, Black, indigenous artist who's creating this work that's actually giving us a blueprint for queer survival. She's really committed to highlighting the contributions and the presence of marginalized people - not just having you see them, but also recognize that this is a legacy.
MCCABE: Flash's current portrait 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 times, she is seen experiencing moments of joy, envisioning a future where there's equity for all.
HALIMA TAHA: In as much as this is a specific series, the series also reflects and represents a thread throughout her work. Her photography and activism are profoundly connected, fueling a lifelong commitment to visibility and preserving the legacy of the LGBTQIA-plus and communities of color worldwide.
MCCABE: That's Halima Taha, who advises institutions and private collectors on the acquisition of visual work by Black artists. She says Flash's photography has particular value for future generations.
TAHA: They will have a lot of information about people who have made major and significant contributions.
MCCABE: Tonight, it's Flash's turn to be celebrated. Tomorrow, you'll find her teaching visual arts to 9th and 10th graders in Brooklyn.
FLASH: I often say that, you know, if you don't have a legacy, then you can be that person. You can start it.
MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.
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