Early in the evening of Friday, May 17, a small crowd began to collect in the lobby of the Atlanta Cyclorama. Though the regular closing time had passed, almost nothing else seemed unusual: people bought tickets, greeted friends, checked cell phones, looked at the display cases of Civil War artifacts and chatted expectantly as they waited for the doors of the auditorium housing the huge old panoramic painting of the Battle of Atlanta to open. But it was almost certainly the first time so many visitors had assembled there without a clue as to just what they had come to see.
That was the idea of the John Q collective’s “Campaign for Atlanta,” and though the specifics of the event were kept intriguingly vague, its outline was enough to attract this small but curious crowd . The evening had been described as an “Essay on Queer Migration” and, more specifically, a consideration of the life and work of San Francisco photographer Crawford Barton, best known for documenting that city’s changing Castro district in the 1970s and ‘80s. Barton was a Georgia native and for a time a resident of Atlanta; his childhood home was Resaca, where coincidentally the first skirmishes of the Battle of Atlanta took place. John Q’s event — exhibition? screening? reading? performance? no one seemed to know for sure — was to occur in, of all places, Atlanta’s affectedly grand, conceptually dusty memorial and museum dedicated to one of the last major battles of the Civil War.
The proceedings began with a standard turn of the rotating auditorium seating area, which slowly shows the audience the 360-degree, 42-by-358-foot painting of the historic battle. The usual recording played, describing particulars of the event. But a second lap around the painting delivered a history lesson of a different sort, a reading by the three members of John Q (Joey Orr, Andy Ditzler and Wesley Chenault), which considered the natures of maps, memory, visualization, migration, history, conflict, cinema and the pre-cinematic character of panoramic paintings — gob-smackingly broad ideas certainly, but ones that have all sorts of fascinating and very particular intersections both at the Cyclorama and in the life of Crawford Barton.
The audience was then led to a smaller auditorium, which typically shows a short film about the battle, but where this night several short films, home movies really, by Barton were screened.
The three members of the collective are connected through their shared interest in gay and lesbian history and their various capacities as archivists, curators and film historians. They first became interested in Barton while delving into the archives of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, part of their research into the nature and implications of the mass migration of gay people from small towns such as Resaca to urban centers like San Francisco and Atlanta. This was, in a sense, a sort of simultaneous coming out and homecoming for Barton’s reels of film, from the archive in his adopted home of San Francisco. They were likely being shown for the first time since his death in 1993, and some possibly for the first time ever in public.
There is little classifying information about the reels other than titles written on the old boxes; the films shown gave a sense of the major movements in Barton’s life, indicative but not conclusive. There were scenes of life in rural North Georgia: farms, fields and hand-painted signs. There was a dreamlike car trip on a sunny summer day with a handsome, smirking companion, the shifting landscape and the title, “Me and Mark on the Way Out,” suggestive of the migration that was the evening’s subject.
There was the beauty of Barton and other young men roughhousing in a Midwestern wheat field, shots of a beautifully narrow, almost perfectly cylindrical dust devil in a flat landscape, and then the arrival in Oz: the approach to San Francisco, then the giddy hijinks of a Gay Liberation parade in 1973. It was all celebratory, but there was a plaintive note to the soundless footage, as there is in all old pictures of young things. Until his death of AIDS-related illness, Barton spent his life documenting lives widely regarded then, and in some cases still, as unworthy of documentation. Looking at this footage, it was hard not to imagine that perhaps another era’s better, lovelier ethos had passed somewhere along this journey too.
Though the films included several images of the artist — there were shots before and after he cut his long hair as the free-loving hippie ‘60s gave way to the clone-era ‘70s — it was the final image that stuck. In a reel titled “Self P,” Barton appears in front of the camera in close-up, gazing into the lens with a changeable, somber, knowing and alert look. He seemed, and as an artist undoubtedly was, melancholically conscious of the power of the lens. The plaintive note that can be heard in exuberant juvenalia, if sustained, becomes the more contemplative and dominant fully expressed theme of adulthood: it was a lifetime’s artistic journey condensed into 15 minutes. Barton’s imagination obviously would have lacked the details, but it was clearly broad enough to encompass the possibility of what happened Friday night: viewers, total strangers to him, regarding his image. There was a moment of mutuality, of shared curiosity between subject and observer, and perhaps it would even be difficult to definitively determine which was which: the gaze was that thoughtful and thorough.
It was an unexpected, eerie, final curveball in an evening whose framework had previously seemed broadly historical and ponderously conceptual. John Q effectively asked the question, what might come of bringing Barton’s home movies back home? And the most prominent thread turned out to be his prescient curiosity about us, those who had come to look.