Leather, Lust & Legacy: The Photography of Stanley Stellar

Written by | The Lens

Equality = struggle. In order to fit in, at first you must stand out. This is the oxymoron of queer existence, and it is depicted brilliantly and boldly in the works of Stanley Stellar.

Born in Brooklyn in 1945, Stellar has documented our collective fight from its bloody infancy until today. He was Marsha P. Johnson’s friend before she became the activist and icon synonymous with Stonewall.

“We were threatened all the time,” recounts Stellar in a frank discussion with Interview magazine.

“We were tortured; getting anywhere in the city someone was going to yell some insult at you. We were free shots to them.”

But Stellar fired back, not in the form of bullets or bricks, but rather through representation. He never shied away from our ongoing battle for civil rights, and he transformed the frontlines into a front-row seat to progress in the making.

As the staff photographer for New York Native, a now defunct newspaper for the burgeoning LGBTQ+ movement, Stellar became a big authority on the Big Apple.

“They would send me on all kinds of assignments, this event or that event. I went and photographed the governor. I went and photographed the mayor. I went and photographed ladies who own gay restaurants. I went and photographed sex researchers. Whatever. I felt very comfortable looking at someone’s leather crotch. I didn’t feel embarrassed by it.”

Stellar has carried his barely-blushing bravado from the disco era to the digital age.

“I’ve found on Instagram sex is what always sells. I got all my followers because of ass. Man ass.”

What a peach of a segue. Let’s crack into some samples of Stellar’s posterior pics, shall we?

Ah, there’s no end to our appetite for derriere. Stellar acknowledges his audience’s voraciousness and feeds us like the filthy pigs we are, yet he always tempers his morsels with cultural context.

“We eat images now. I don’t want future generations to not have any clue as to who their ancestors were and what their ancestors’ lives were like… We need tender moments. We need our own history. We need to know we all didn’t just get off the bus at Port Authority.”

Stanley Stellar’s New York is a melting pot of indulgences and indignities. We overcame the cruelty of epidemics and ignorance to arrive at a more enlightened epoch that he helped usher forth.

“I loved being the mirror for 40 years of gay men. It was just beautiful.”

Even when that mirror cracks, Stellar has been there to pick up the pieces. He is the archaeologist of a generation lost and a desire found.

Last modified: August 3, 2021