Sage Sohier’s series “At Home With Themselves: Same-Sex Couples in 1980s America,” was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Today, apart from a few dated fashion choices, the photos of gay couples in domestic settings don’t seem that shocking. But when Sohier began shooting the series in 1986, AIDS and sexual promiscuity seemed to be the only headlines about gay people.
“My ambition was to make pictures that challenged and moved people and that were interesting both visually and psychologically,” Sohier wrote via email about the project. “In the 1980s, many same-sex relationships were still discreet, or a bit hidden. It was a time when many gay men were dying of AIDS, which made a particularly poignant backdrop for the project.”
Because many people weren’t as publicly out as they are today, Sohier began the project by photographing friends and then friends of friends. She put ads in local gay newspapers when she traveled and also went to gay bars and parades to meet more potential subjects.
Sohier said it was a dark time for many gay people and many felt particularly under siege. While some people were hesitant to be part of the project, those who elected to participate “seemed excited at the idea of being seen, and wanted their relationships to be recognized and valued.”
Sohier shot the work in black and white since that was the medium she fell in love with and worked with exclusively until 2000. Apart from her series “About Face,” about people afflicted with facial paralysis, which was shot in color and in a square format, she prefers to shoot environmental portraiture. “I think that the home environments help to provide additional information about the couples,” Sohier said.
There was also a personal interest and reason for working on the series for Sohier.
In the late 1970s, she found out that her father, who had left her mother when Sohier was a very young child, was gay. “So, the project was additionally inspired by my lifelong curiosity about him and more recent curiosity about his sexual orientation,” she said.
Sohier worked on the project for about two years, stopping in 1988. The work was then widely exhibited until the early ’90s and, while Sohier received numerous grants and support for the project, she knew it was a success when it was blacklisted by the right-wing American Family Association. In 2002 she photographed and interviewed about 10 of the couples who had initially posed for her, and then, in 2004, when same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, she photographed more couples. Sohier said she has no plans to continue working on the series.
“I felt I was repeating myself and therefore making less interesting work,” she said about the work she did in 2004. “It also seemed that, because they had become legitimate, some of the forces that made the ’80s portraits so grave and tender were missing.”