An Unseen Photo Album Preserves Life of Audre Lorde
Victoria Munro, director of The Alice Austen House shares an excerpt from the exhibition focused on the legacy of the author and activist.
“Powerful and Dangerous: The Images and Words of Audre Lorde” exhibition at the Alice Austen House is a celebration of the radical work of Black, lesbian feminist, writer, activist and poet, Audre Lorde. The exhibition was a collaborative process made with some of Lorde’s closest friends, colleagues, and sister comrades. I was so fortunate to have their guidance in the creation of this exhibition. Two of Lorde’s long-time friends, Blanche Cook and Clare Coss, guided my initial explorations into the personal realm of her writing practice. They welcomed me into their home to view their archive of personal photographs and ephemera which spanned decades of personal celebrations and professional intersections.
Cook, Coss, and I discussed Lorde’s time spent on Staten Island (1972 to 1987) raising her two children, Elizabeth and Jonathan, with her partner Francis Clayton. Cook and Coss illuminated the many wonderful afternoons spent on St. Pauls Avenue and the powerful writing and teaching that Lorde produced during these years. Some of these works included her most celebrated: From a Land Where Other People Live (1973), The Black Unicorn (1978), The Cancer Journals (1980), and Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984). She also created a new publishing house with activist Barbara Smith called Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
The most revelatory object they shared with me was a large album of personal photographs they had created to celebrate Audre’s life when she passed in 1992. Up until this point, the only people that had viewed this album were Lorde’s children. I was so moved by Cook and Coss’s generosity when they allowed me to include this personal memento in the exhibition. The album was frail, and it felt urgent to protect and archive the documents so they could be shared with our audience and future generations.
To make this possible, I decided to create a self-published book that stayed true to the album’s arrangement, placement, and personal notes, and could be touched and shared. The entire album was carefully scanned by our archivist and brought back together digitally to make this a reality.
There are so many connections that these unique images make between lesbian artists, activists, and photographers. These images are essential to understanding the forces of creative collaborations and the lesbian community during that period.
This book represents an intimate portrait of Lorde celebrating her contagious energy, love of people, flirty fun lesbian play, and prolific writing practice.
Cook and Coss wrote this statement to accompany the album:
“Soon after Audre Lorde departed this earth, we found comfort and consolation in the creation of an album of our chosen family, featuring some of the happiest shared moments of our lives together. These snapshots illuminate high-spirited flirty fun gatherings: birthdays, holidays at Audre and Frances’ Staten Island home; romps in the Hamptons; Lesbian and Gay demonstrations in NYC and DC; Audre’s alternative cancer treatment in Berlin; our amazing Hawaii eclipse trip; Audre honored as NY State poet; the last sad loving goodbye days on St. Croix.
This is the first time we have shared this album with the exception of our god-children Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins MD and Jonathan Ashley Rollins. We thank curator Victoria Munro for her care and appreciation of our photo memories to be included in the Alice Austen House tribute to Audre Lorde.”
The exhibition, “Powerful and Dangerous: The Words and Images of Audre Lorde,” is open until February 28th by appointment. A virtual tour of the exhibition is available at www.aliceausten.org.
Victoria Munro is the Executive Director of the Alice Austen House and curator of this exhibition.
Correction: The caption on the first photo of this story was updated on Feb. 15, 2021.
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