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January 27, 2023

Acquisition: Nancy Andrews

Nancy Andrews, "The Prom Queen"

Nancy Andrews
The Prom Queen, 1991
gelatin silver print
image: 52.71 x 45.72 cm (20 3/4 x 18 in.)
sheet: 60.96 x 50.8 cm (24 x 20 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of Nancy Andrews and Annie O'Neill
© Nancy Andrews

In the late 1980s, photographer Nancy Andrews (b. 1963) began a project to tell the everyday stories of gay and lesbian Americans and their loved ones. During these years, gays and lesbians were largely closeted, and their daily lives—at home, at work, with friends and family—remained unseen. With extraordinary empathy and commitment, Andrews, herself a lesbian, set out to find queer Americans who were willing to share their lives and sit for her camera. She traveled the country, finding subjects via local newsletters, gay newspapers, and word of mouth.

While working as a staff photographer at The Washington Post, Andrews published her groundbreaking photobook, Family: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America (1989–1993), in which each photograph is accompanied by text drawn from Andrews’s interviews with her subjects. As she wrote in her introduction, “This is the book I looked for when I began to realize that I was gay.” In celebration of the publication, she produced a series of 70 gelatin silver prints, corresponding to the photographs in the book, that were then displayed in an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1994. Andrews has generously donated this set of prints, along with additional photographs and materials, to the National Gallery of Art.

Andrews has described her sense of duty and gratitude “to the people who allowed me to photograph them back at such a tender time.” The portraits she made are deeply touching in their ordinariness, as queer Americans sought to pursue their day-to-day lives free from persecution. Her photographs show blended families, a couple happily attending a dedicated gay and lesbian prom, a gathering of members at an all-inclusive ladies’ garden club, participants in a gay and lesbian rodeo, two different Elvis impersonators, two Mardi Gras krewes, a fraternity, a couple who were together for 63 years, and an Olympic swimmer.

Also among Andrews’s subjects were former members of the military and the civil service dismissed for their sexual orientation, as well as AIDS activists, a pastor of a gay church, and the only two openly gay congressmen at the time, Barney Frank and Gerry Studds. Many of her subjects were pioneers, such as Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who started the first exclusively lesbian political/activist organization in the United States in 1955; the elderly Ruth Ellis, who had created a gathering place for lesbians in the 1940s and 1950s; Cleve Jones, the creator of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt; and Roberta Achtenberg, the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the US Senate for a high-level government position. The sitters lived across the United States and encompassed different professions, religions, generations, and ethnicities. In their interviews, they recalled hardship and discrimination, but also celebration and support. Together, they create a jubilant visual portrait of Americans in the late 1980s and early 1990s—living their lives, finding love, community, and shared humanity.

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