Hal Fischer, Submission, from Gay Semiotics, 1977; printed 2014. Pigment inkjet on porous, resin-coated paper. Museum purchase through the Robert and Sonia Carringer Art Acquisitions Fund. 2019-2-1.12
Hal Fischer, The Best Friend, from Boy-Friends, 1979; printed 2016. Pigment inkjet on porous, resin-coated paper. Museum purchase through the Robert and Sonia Carringer Art Acquisitions Fund. 2019-2-3.1-2
Hal Fischer, Chicago Saleswoman, 1972. Gelatin silver print, 5 3/4 x 7 1/16 in. Courtesy of the artist © Hal Fischer
Hal Fischer, Bobby at the Beach, 1975. Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in. Courtesy of the artist © Hal Fischer
Hal Fischer, Devil's Slide, 1975-76. Gelatin silver print with collage and ink, 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist © Hal Fischer
On View
Aug 26, 2021–Dec 22, 2021
Main Level, Contemporary Gallery

Hal Fischer (United States, b. 1950) is a gay conceptual photographer and an alumnus (BFA ’73) of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Hal Fischer Photographs: Seriality, Sexuality, Semiotics presents a first full retrospective of his work, showcasing all his photographic series, which were created in San Francisco during the late 1970s—the heyday of gay liberation.

Exhibition support provided by Robert and Sonia Carringer. Major support for the symposium "Hal Fischer Photographs: Seriality, Sexuality, Semiotics" provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.


Ricker Library of Architecture and Art has created a library guide for this exhibition with resources for further reading and visual arts research. Hal Fischer Photographs Library Guide

The exhibition includes a generous selection from Fischer’s earlier work (some of it produced in Urbana), which has not been publicly displayed in decades. This earlier work contextualizes Fischer’s development as an artist, from his student days at the University of Illinois to his creative maturity in San Francisco.

Viewing his famous photographic series—Gay Semiotics (1977), 18th near Castro St. x 24 (1978), Boy-Friends (1979), and Cheap Chic Homo (1979)—in light of earlier work makes clear that Fischer’s concerns with portraiture, homoeroticism, formal experimentation, and the tensions between word and image, were present in nascent form at the start of his career. A retrospective view likewise amplifies the viewer’s appreciation of Fischer’s signature visual wit: his images of gay SM iconography document a sexual subculture while also provoking amusement.

In the thick of San Francisco’s conceptual photography ferment during the late 1970s, Fischer pursued his image making in three compelling directions simultaneously. Finding himself “at the center of the gay universe,” he began creating more frankly sexual photographs. Second, he focused intensively on the potential of photographic series, wherein visual meaning derives as much from the relationships between and among photographs as from within any single frame. Third, his heady encounter with the linguistic and philosophical concepts of structuralism during this period encouraged Fischer to experiment with the connections between photography and language. 

Together these developments led to his iconic photographic series Gay Semiotics, in which the subterranean codes and insignia of gay cruising are elevated, not without irony, to a comprehensive sign system. Tongue in cheek, Fischer presents the photographer as an ethnographic explorer, cataloguing and decoding the mating rituals of a distinct urban tribe. His photographs of 1970s gay male life capture a pre-internet era, before online dating profiles, hook-up sites, or Grindr. Fischer’s images subtly reveal how gay men’s visual codes for telegraphing desire resonate with—but also clash with—the visual codes of photography. His work holds special historical interest because he stopped making photographs around 1980. Fischer’s photographs preserve a unique era of sexual experimentation—and, retrospectively, sexual innocence—that ended tragically with the onset of the AIDS epidemic in 1981. This exhibition provides an opportunity to witness and appreciate the full scope of his photographic career.

Guest Curator: Tim Dean, James M. Benson Professor in English


Curator Bio 

Dr. Tim Dean is the James M. Benson Professor in English at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Dean’s research on human sexuality encompasses historical, cultural, philosophical, and psychoanalytic perspectives. He is particularly interested in what kinds of vocabularies are available, at different historical moments, for talking about sex. His books include: Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious (1991), Beyond Sexuality (2000), Homosexuality and Psychoanalysis (2001), A Time for the Humanities (2008), Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (listed in the “Top 10 Books of 2009” by Amazon.com), Porn Archives (2014), and Hatred of Sex (2021). In addition to research on sexuality, he writes about poetry and poetics, and teaches courses on poetry in the University of Illinois English Department.