Portrait show takes touching look at gay culture

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Purple walls highlight the poignant atmosphere of a new exhibit at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York.

Gisèle Freund's portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939, is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Gisèle Freund/National Portrait Gallery/Handout

“Gay Icons”, on show until October 18, features 60 portrait photographs selected by 10 gay people who were asked to choose icons they felt had been inspirational regardless of their sexual orientation.

“The show reminds us of the struggle that gay people have,” said Bernard Horrocks, copyright officer at the gallery whose idea inspired the exhibition.

“There’s prejudice still out there, so if it makes people re-address their prejudices that’s a good thing.”

Among musician Elton John’s selection is a black and white picture of onetime Beatle John Lennon, who was shot dead in 1980 in New York.

The two musicians shared a U.S. hit single with the 1974 duet “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.”

“I had a bet with John that the track would be a number one hit,” John’s descriptive on the wall beside the picture states.

“Losing the bet, he agreed to perform on stage with me at Madison Square Garden, New York ... that happened to be the last live concert Lennon would ever play and it became a defining moment for me.”

Chris Smith, a former British Labour Party cabinet minister, said he made his picks by choosing people he felt had lived lives of real distinction, but for whom life had been difficult.

Among Smith’s portraits are three of people who committed suicide: author Virginia Woolf, mathematician Alan Turing, who invented the computer, and rock climber and psychiatrist John Menlove Edwards.

“Turing was driven to his death because of his sexuality,” Smith said.

“I think it’s an eternal shame that someone who contributed so much to make the modern world what it is, was driven to his death by the attitudes of his time.

“I like to think that couldn’t happen now,” he added.

For Waheed Alli, a co-founder of British production company Planet 24, the show provided an opportunity to represent the journey the gay community has taken in terms of its sexuality.

His choices include the disco group Village People, artist David Hockney and Diana, Princess of Wales.

“This underlines that we are not a community thrown together by our sexuality, we are a community drawn together by the reaction to our sexuality,” Alli said.

One of the smallest pictures on show is a faded sepia image of Sojourner Truth, who was born into slavery in the U.S.

Famous for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”, Truth fought for abolition, temperance and women’s rights.

“She completely transformed the way people thought about black and white and women and men,” author Jackie Kay said.

Editing by Steve Addison