Robert Giard: Portrait of a Photographer
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Published in: January-February 2003 issue.


TWO WEEKS AFTER the death of the photographer Robert Giard this past summer, I was asked to call several friends of his, unknown to me, who might not yet have heard the bad news. It was also an occasion to inform them of the memorial service which was to be held a couple of weeks hence. Each call was uniquely difficult. When I phoned a female friend of Bob and his lover, Jonathan Silin, to inform her that Bob had died suddenly and unexpectedly on a bus en route to Chicago, she cried out on the other end, followed by a pained question, “What’s happening to the world?” She had it exactly right. The world was out of joint if it was a world without Robert Giard in it.

Not only was Bob a superb photographer, whose contribution to the cultural store of the gay and lesbian community will now, one hopes, find its truest and deepest measure, but he was also regarded by vast numbers of people as a person of wisdom, enormous sympathies, wide but lightly-worn erudition, and an innate nurturing quality. Many in our community know of Bob Giard as the man who had been photographing gay and lesbian writers across America for two decades. Though this was an ongoing project, by the mid 1990’s Bob had a critical mass of portraits, enough to allow a significant portion of the collection to be published in 1997 by MIT Press in a volume entitled Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers. The following year, no less an institution than the New York Public Library exhibited a substantial selection of these images in an exhibition under the same name. Other exhibitions of the work followed, including one at the San Francisco Public Library which, like the NYPL, was beginning to collect portions of his corpus of work—some six hundred portraits at the time of Bob’s death.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, 1989

To his death at age 62, Bob was a person of modest manner and means. Never having gotten a driver’s license, he biked around the communities of the South Fork—fashionably known as The Hamptons—doing the daily chores like shopping and picking up the mail at the local post office. He was a man who carried his equipment in a backpack, who flew to cities across America and then traveled by subway, bus, or arranged a car pickup through friends, to reach his portrait models. By the time he got to a writer’s home, he had read all or much of the writer’s work. He worked quietly, efficiently, putting himself and his sitter at ease. The qualities that distinguish his portraits might be summarized as honesty, rigor, directness, and empathy. 

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The Robert J. Giard, Jr. Memorial Fund has been formed to preserve Robert Giard’s photographic legacy. For details, see Bulletin Board, page 48, in this issue.


Allen Ellenzweig is the author of The Homoerotic Photograph (1992) and a frequent contributor to this journal.