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On Top of the World With His Camera: Jerry Pritikin's View of San Francisco in the 1970s

If you're ever trying to contemplate the breakneck hell ride and joy ride of being gay in America over the last 70 years, get to know Jerry Pritikin.
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If you're ever trying to contemplate the breakneck hell ride and joy ride of being gay in America over the last 70 years, get to know Jerry Pritikin, and look at the pictures he took along the way.

He was a teenager in Chicago in 1950s, when being gay was a problem without a solution. "You knew it was taboo," as he puts it, "but you knew it was you."

There were only a few gay bars in town--so few, in fact, that frequenting them virtually guaranteed word would get back to your family, and your family would be embarrassed. "I didn't feel like hurting my family with something that was my choice," he told me for a profile a few years ago in The Reader.

In 1960 he moved to San Francisco not because it was particularly gay friendly--no American city was gay-friendly then--but mostly because it was far away. He found a cheap place to live, picked up odd jobs and started taking photographs. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, he told me for the Reader piece, "San Francisco was the center or the earth" and Pritikin was "on top of the world with my camera."

His photographs, on display this summer at the Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University, portray, in Pritikin's puckish style, the cultural transformation that took place in San Francisco. The movement was marked by obscure events like when the police softball team shockingly agreed to play against the gay softball team, and iconic moments, like Pritikin's famous picture of Harvey Milk, speaking into a bullhorn on Orange Tuesday, June 7, 1977.

"San Francisco was where the news was emanating from," he told me for the Reader piece, "and I perched myself there and managed to be where things were happening. I was an eyewitness to history."

But Pritikin's perch proved precarious.

Around 1980 everyone he knew began dying of a mysterious disease referred to then as "gay cancer." Watching "big, strong, good-looking people" waste away covered in lesions--it was too painful, and in 1985 Pritikin moved back to Chicago. "People were dying in Chicago too, but more were dying in San Francisco. And the people dying in Chicago weren't my friends."

He achieved local fame as the Cubs' whimsical super fan the "Bleacher Preacher," and subsisted on Social Security, odd publicity jobs and the proceeds from copyright lawsuits regarding his photographs.

He's amazed at how far gay rights has come since he faced that taboo in the mirror in the 1950s. The nation is now debating gay marriage and went in droves to see a heroic movie about Harvey Milk. "I am even speaking to a group of kids at the gay/straight alliance at Walter Payton College Prep high school," he says with astonishment, adding, "I left high school here because I had those kinds of tendencies."

But the 1970s were the time of Pritikin's life, and he's looking forward to sharing it with all comers to the Gage Gallery, at 18 S. Michigan Ave. The show runs through August 13.