Behind the Lens with Lola Flash

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Lola Flash (they/them) is a portrait photographer whose work is at the forefront of gender queer politics. Born and raised in Montclair, New Jersey, they became interested in photography at a young age. The award- winning photographer is dedicated to preserving LGBTQIA+ and communities of color worldwide. 

Their work is in the permanent collections of Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Flash’s book, Believable: The Portraits of Lola Flash, (2023) was named one of the best photo books of the year by Smithsonian.

Senior Planet recently spoke with the 65 year-old Manhattan based photographer.

Early Life

SP: How did you get interested in photography?

LF: My mom’s boyfriend gave me a Minox- it was like a toy. That was the beginning of my framing the world. In high school I got a 35 mm and I took photos of my friends. My mother bought me a dark room and this made me realize photography was going to be my life. First, I wanted to be a scientific photographer and shoot through a microscope. But when I got to college, I decided I wanted to be a fine arts photographer and make images about identity.

SP: What motivated you to document the queer community and take pictures of LGBTQ people? 

LF: I never thought of myself as a documentarian. It’s about the love of my community, about changing bias. I am pushing the limits by making images of those often deemed invisible. That’s the power of photography.

My idea of beauty is not always shown in the media or in museums. Today we do have more visibility and I think I may have been a part of that. But there are still societal norms about what men and women should be.

SP: Your early work is very political – meshing social justice into your art. Did that start when you got involved with ACT UP?

LF: You can’t be Black without being political. Same with being gay. Just  kissing your girlfriend is political. ACT UP was a pivotal time in my life. I was too young to participate in the civil right movement. ACT UP gave me the chance to put my body on the streets and to photograph. I went with the flow of the demonstration, sometimes I was a photographer, sometimes I was a demonstrator. I have always felt like I was an activist, like Angela Davis.

The AIDS crisis brought us together as a family. That was a time when guys and girls started working together. It galvanized us. The year I graduated college in 1981 was the first year someone was diagnosed with AIDS. I felt like I had to do this work. I vowed never to take a beautiful picture-like a flower- until the AIDS crisis was over.

Artistic Development

SP: Was that the time period when you developed your style of Cross Colour?

LF: A lot of the work I did around AIDS is in that style of flipping ideas around color. I created cross colour images for 20 years. By flipping the colors, I flipped the narrative. Then in 2000, I started doing “normal” color portraits. Each series has its own theme, like race or age.

SP: Could you talk about the satisfaction you get from doing this work? 

LF: I only photograph people who have a good spirit. I like to acknowledge  people who have a good heart, people who are proud to be gay or seasoned  or Black.

My mom and dad were both teachers. I love that I can teach through my work. When I get a new acquisition from a museum, I feel blessed to be validated as a Black lesbian.  And I also felt validated when Ruth Pointer (of the Pointer Sisters) told me she was proud of my work, and thankful that she is part of my SALT series.

SP: What is the SALT project? What led you to photograph women over 70?

LF: I feel like I’m sociologist behind a 4×5 format camera.  I’m aware that photography is a colonial tool and I’m changing the way it’s used.

This series is an homage to my mom and my grandmother. I never took a professional photo of them, so this is a tribute. Older women deal with being looked down upon in the US but these women know my thing is beauty and that Lola thinks they are beautiful.  They look so regal and proud.

I decided to photograph older women in their homes to show the fabric of their lives. They can pick the kitchen or the mantle- it’s a collaboration.

I’m going to keep working on this series until I’m 70. Then I will take a self-portrait and it’s over.

SP:  How do you define aging with attitude?

LF: It’s the way I dress, the way I talk. When I was teaching at a high school in Brooklyn, I loved the energy of the teens and their music. It’s important to have a variety of friends- straight friends, trans friends, white friends, Asian friends, etc. I love swimming at the pool with my dear older women friends We need to check in and share with all kinds of people on this planet.

Photo credit for head shot of Flash: Christa Holka.

Photo credit for Insets

Inset Left photo of Ruth: Lola Flash

Inset right photo of Maria:  Lola Flash.

Kate Walter is the author of two memoirs: Behind the Mask: Living Alone in the Epicenter; and Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, New York Daily News, AM-NY, Next Avenue, The Advocate, The Village Sun and other outlets. She taught writing at CUNY and NYU for three decades and now works as a writing coach.

Photo of Kate Walter by Su Zen

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