Kahlil Dowdy on Hal Fischer’s Gay Semiotics

Hal Fischer, Keys, 1977, inkjet print. Courtesy of MoMA.

On a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), I had the pleasure of viewing
some of the works of Hal Fischer. This specific photo series from 1977, Gay Semiotics,
describes a “lexicon of attraction” according to Fischer. More plainly, Fischer’s
documentarian lens offers an academic insight into interpersonal signals for gay hook-
up culture of the seventies, aka “cruising.” Fischer’s photographs highlight the
dichotomy of the act of cruising. These signals are both hyper specific and dangerously
vague. Furthermore, Gay Semiotics shows the conflict of masculinity with queerness,
balancing carnal desire with “passing” as straight. These photos, printed in 2017, depict
many of the same subtle codes that are more commonly known to mean “gay” today.
Even today, young boys are dissuaded from accessorizing in ways depicted by Fischer.
This speaks to the pervasiveness of such coded language. Accidently being perceived
as gay may be something to avoid. Even a nebulous choice, such as which ear a man
has pierced, may give a gay perception.

Keys, by Hal Fischer, 2017, inkjet, is a photo of two men (we presume given subject
matter) standing back-to-back. Fischer captures the subjects from about the ribcage
down to knees. His models are posed in such a manner that we can see a set of keys
hanging from their beltloops. This perspective puts us in the shoes of an outside
observer, and one whose focus is on the non-verbal signal communicated by the
symbol and the piece’s namesake. The two models and their keys are in shallow depth-
of-field, so our eyes are drawn to the keyrings. This is aided two-fold by liner marks
made by Fischer which point at the keys, but more aesthetically, by the fact that the
keys are the highest point of contrast in the image. The background is minimal–the
fence in the right vertical third allows us to discern that this was taken outdoors.
Handwriting on the bottom third provides context for what the keys represent to a
cruiser, and then offers up how many others carry keys the same way. This conflicting
desire to be noticed but blend in can be seen in the style of dress.

Fischer highlights two men in denim, the shape of their obscured bodies, and their faces
cropped from the frame. We cannot identify these men, but Fischer’s context leads us to
assume that they are two gay men seeking sex. In the front-facing model, there is an
effeminate tilt of the hip, a subtle hint. In this way, we shift from observer to participant
as we engage with Keys; the ambiguity in the photo allows the subjects to be perceived
as gay men seeking sex or straight men with keys. Within a toxic society that sees
queerness and masculinity as completely divested, this ambiguity is often vital to