There is so much we take for granted in 2023—with LGBTQ issues front and center we forget that in the not-too-distant past many of those who loved members of their own sex were closeted in one way or another. The images in Patric McCoy’s exhibition at Wrightwood 659 were made in the mid-eighties, after the advent of HIV, although it was still not understood. Black homosexual men suffered unusually high HIV/AIDS losses, and many of McCoy’s subjects as well as his friends and lovers were lost to the disease.
McCoy, who initially rode around Chicago on his bicycle with a point-and-shoot, was amazed at how many men asked him to take their photo. Although his father and brother were deeply involved in photography, for McCoy it was simply fun to capture people he met. In 1984, at the urging of a friend, he upgraded to an SLR and became determined to teach himself how to use it. He committed to carrying his camera everywhere and stopping to take the photo of anyone who asked, a pledge he carried through.
McCoy found a fertile hunting ground for portraits at the Rialto Tap and The Cellar, where Black men gathered to socialize and hook up. Drag queens mingled with gay professionals, creating a continuous cast of characters for McCoy. The work in this exhibition was not made at the Rialto, but many of the men in these photographs undoubtedly hung out there since it was one of the only places gay men could meet. In the photograph “Enoch,” a fit Black man seductively pulls a white T-shirt over his head. In “Two Young Men and the Waves,” we see a scrupulously created hairstyle on a man with his back is to us, while the second man’s smile shows to his left. McCoy loved creating puns with his images. One photograph has a muscled guy flexing in front of an awning that reads “Famous Fried Chic…,” the final syllable covered by his head. In another, a man sits on the back of a bus bench emblazoned with the words “Rent me, I’m Ready.” The meaning is clear, and you can almost hear McCoy chuckling as he snapped the photo.
The last image in the show is a shot of McCoy with his bike, the Chicago skyline as a backdrop, by Terry Smith. McCoy, in a yellow tee and matching cap is grinning at the camera. Looking at the photograph, one senses that bike-riding and image-making was his dharma in those early years. McCoy, who went on to become an environmental scientist, is a prolific and well-known art collector with a collection of more than 1,400 items and is also the founder of Diasporal Rhythms, a Chicago organization comprised of eighty like-minded collectors. Clearly McCoy has lived large and has clearly enjoyed every minute.
“Patric McCoy: Take My Picture” at Wrightwood 659, 659 West Wrightwood, on view through July 15.