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Vallejo photographer unveils ‘Gay in America 1999’ exhibit – Times-Herald

As it turned out, Earth didn’t explode and there wasn’t Armageddon when 2000 arrived. Not that 1999 didn’t nearly kill Vallejo photographer Andreas Schmidt — emotionally, if not physically and financially.

In February, 1999, barely four months after the horrific torture and hate-crime murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, Schmidt embarked on a national search to find one gay man in all 50 states willing to tell his story, reflect on Shepard’s death, and literally bare all in a sit-down interview and photo session.

It wasn’t easy. Not even close. This was 1999.

“People (gays) were in hiding still,” Schmidt said. “There was no gay marriage. The internet was just coming about. People generally didn’t have a cell phone yet. It was a different world.”

Initially, Schmidt intended on spotlighting rural gays. It became basically any gays when he realized how challenging it would be to get volunteers.

“I focused on the ‘average’ person; all ages, all socio-economic backgrounds and ethnicities,” Schmidt said.

After nine months, he succeeded. One subject from every state, including Hawaii. Shooting at least 300 photos of each subject, with an audio recording of many, he would unveil the show and take it on the road. Then life happened. And delays. And, finally, Schmidt figured a 20 year anniversary would be the perfect release for the project — then COVID hit.

One of the photographs by Vallejo’s Andreas Schmidt that he unveils in the exhibit, ‘Gays in American 1999,’ Saturday at the Bay Terrace Theatre. (Contributed photo/Andreas Schmidt)

Finally, the time’s arrived and this Saturday, “Gay in America 1999”  in all its glory is showcased in a fundraiser at the Mira Theatre Guild’s Bay Terrace Theatre in Vallejo.

Earlier this week, Schmidt started displaying the 50 photographs. The memories returned.

“It’s overwhelming, to be honest,” he said. “I got to know these people, sometimes spending days with them hearing their stories, meeting their families and getting an intimate view into their lives. The show is an overwhelmingly large project.”

Schmidt interviewed a Blackfoot Shoshone Indian who was a potato inspector in Idaho. And an electrician in a Nevada gold mine.

“It was a good cross-section of people in all locations,” Schmidt said.

Again, merely finding a suitable subject wasn’t easy.

“A lot of challenges,” Schmidt said. “The requirement was that people would be nude.”

Schmidt insisted “it wasn’t pornographic. I wanted people to be vulnerable.”

There were those who signed up — and didn’t show.

“There was a lot of frustration,” Schmidt said. “In Delaware, it took me two weeks to find someone who would sit for me. The whole time, the clock is ticking by and money’s clicking by.

In some states, there were several ideal subjects, “but I could only choose one. It was extremely challenging physically with the travelling and the stress trying to convince people to be involved.”

Schmidt would survey each subject, “trying to find out what the attitude was in their community, if it was known that they were gay and if they were ever subject to physical violence.”

Because the interviews were recorded to complement the photographs, “you’ll be able to hear these folks talk about their lives,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt kept a journal the experience, hoping it becomes a book.

“Of course, the journey is the story,” Schmidt continued. “I was in a camper for nine months; never stayed in a hotel the whole time. I had to roll into these cities preparing to be confident and together. I had to create an aura that this was something special.”

Only once did Schmidt feel threatened.

“One model turned almost psycho on me,” he said.

Apparently, the subject wanted more than a subject-photographer only relationship.

In Utah, the interview subject had his brother-in-law present “which was very strange,” Schmidt said.

Some subjects didn’t use their real names “because they weren’t even ‘out’ to their families,” the photographer said. “I think it would be mostly different today.”

Schmidt went old-school on the entire project, using actual film and going through darkroom processing. And he was so exhausted from nine months on the road, it took two years to print many of the photos.

Don’t think he didn’t ponder packing it all in prematurely and heading home back to Vallejo and his partner, Hugo Vides.

“That was a constant conversation, especially if I wasn’t having a good time or should I say, an easy time,” Schmidt said. “I was under a lot of stress and I wasn’t eating well. And the minute I’d leave my camper, I worried about things getting stolen. Driving to Alaska, I worried about the grizzlies getting to the camper. At times, I would doubt myself.”

In the end, it definitely worked, said Kat Cook, executive director of the Mira Theatre Guild.

“You sometimes go into these things with stereotypes in your head and a lot of these stereotypes were broken through this photographer,” Cook said. “I think ‘vulnerability’ and ‘rawness’ were my take-aways. It’s really moving seeing some of these portraits.”

It was definitely a learning experience when it comes to who would make a great interview subject, said Schmidt

“I learned to never ask a drag queen or a bartender,” he said chuckling.

Andreas Schmidt’s photo and audio exhibit, “Gay in America 1999,” makes its debut this Saturday, Dec. 11,  5:30 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. photography and audio presentation, Bay Terrace Theatre, 51 Daniels Ave., Vallejo. General admission $25. Masks required. For more, (707) 552-0400.

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