Hal Fischer. Signifiers for a Male Response, from the series Gay Semiotics. 1977. Pigmented inkjet print, printed 2014, 18 1/2 × 12 3/8" (47 × 31.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Geraldine Murphy Fund. © 2017 Hal Fischer

In 1975, the photographer Hal Fischer moved to San Francisco, where he was soon featured in the important group exhibition Photography and Language. Although the artists included were not part of a formal movement, they were interested in combining photographs with text in a way that expanded, reinterpreted, or contradicted the imagery. Contributors to the exhibition catalogue analyzed the work using principles of semiotics, the study of how meaning is created and communicated through signs, each consisting of a form (a signifier) and what it represents (the signified).

Fischer’s 1977 series Gay Semiotics, acquired last year by the Museum, brought these theories to bear on gay culture in San Francisco’s Castro and Haight-Ashbury districts. A “lexicon of attraction,” as the artist has called it, this work classifies styles and types while acknowledging their ambiguity. For instance, images of men with handkerchiefs in their pockets feature text that explains the possible meanings of these items according to the “hanky codes” that gay men used to convey sexual preferences, but which also points out that the men could be carrying them for blowing their noses. Other images in the series consider gay fashion, media stereotypes, and BDSM culture.

Organized by the Department of Photography.

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