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Guide to the Robert Pruzan Papers, 1950-1992 (bulk dates 1966-1991)
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biographical Sketch
  • Scope and Content
  • Notes on Papers
  • Notes on Photographic Images
  • Material Cataloged Separately
  • Related Collections

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Robert Pruzan Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1950-1992 (bulk dates 1966-1991)
    Accession number: 98-36
    Creator: Pruzan, Robert
    Extent: 25 linear feet in 3 cartons and 61 boxes
    Repository: The Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California.
    San Francisco, California.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    The Robert Pruzan Papers (# 98-36) were donated to GLHS in the Fall of 1998.


    Collection is open for research.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright to unpublished manuscript materials has been transferred to the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California.

    Audio-Visual Materials

    The bulk of this collection consists of photographic images

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Robert Pruzan Papers, 98-36, The Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California.

    Biographical Sketch

    There's a gold mine of material out there that will be of benefit to someone someday. Piece by piece, we have built a body of work of terrific character and density.
    There really is a spirit in the community, and we captured some of that. I'd hate to see it all mold away in boxes stored in apartments like my own. If future generations could experience some of what we felt from the pictures we took that would be payment enough.
    Robert Pruzan, 1991
    A longtime photographer and photojournalist, Robert M. Pruzan made a strong mark in San Francisco, both within and outside the city's gay world. Pruzan's work was published in Drummer, Manifest, Sports Illustrated, and the San Francisco Examiner's Image magazine, as well as in Geoff Mains' book Urban Aboriginals, and were run regularly in the gay newspaper Bay Area Reporter. His accumulated images document much of the history of San Francisco and its gay life during the halcyon period of the 1970s and its darkest days during the 1980s.
    Robert was born in Seattle on September 12, 1946, the son of Marion and Carl Pruzan. He had one sibling, his older sister Lynn. All three currently live in Seattle, where Carl is retired from a distinguished career as a lawyer.
    After graduating from Seattle's Roosevelt High School in 1964, Pruzan almost immediately left for New York City, where he attended Columbia University on and off over a four year period. He also attended Sterling Jensen's Ecolé de Mime of New York for a time before traveling to Paris to train with the master himself, Ettiene Decroux, at his Ecolé de Mime de Paris. He worked with several classes of students at the school, becoming Decroux's first assistant. He even taught mime to some of the great practitioners, among them: Bill Irwin, Geoff Hoyle, Leonard Pitt, and Bert Houle. He also studied diction with Decroux, and translated at least one of his books, Etienne Decroux Speaks with You (1968) before leaving for the United States in 1967. The intricate knowledge of movement and form he learned as a mime student deepened his visual sensibility, which also served him in his photographic art. While he was in Paris, he also trained with Wolfram Mehring at \/ieux Colombier Atilier.
    Moving back to New York in 1967, for the next two years Pruzan attended classes at Columbia, studied Japanese ikebana floral arrangement, and worked professionally as a florist for a time, but his main interest was the Ecole de Mime of New York, where he became an instructor under Sterling Jensen.
    He also used the camera his father had bought him when he left for Paris in 1966. Favorite subjects during the early years of his photography included mime and theatrical performance, flowers and other still life subjects, friends and lovers, and people in the streets and parks of Paris, Seattle, and New York. Seeking to know more about photography, Robert worked as a test model and studio assistant to Ira Mazer at Advertising Images in New York City.
    For several months in 1968 and 1969, Robert performed in King Lear at Roundabout Theatre with Gene Feist, where he played the Duke of Burgundy and later the Fool. He visited Amsterdam and Paris briefly in 1970, where he further documented Decroux's teaching, and even instructed classes himself at Decroux's school on St. Marks Place.
    He returned to New York and his circle of friends in that city, but by late 1972 he was ready to leave the east coast for good. Loading a U-Haul van in January of 1973 he moved himself from New York to San Francisco, which he would come to call home for the remainder of his life.
    He found a nice cheap apartment at 545 Ashbury Street, almost at the corner of Haight & Ashbury, and quickly set out to explore, and photograph, this vibrant neighborhood. He also began meeting local people. Among these was Will Dodger, who had just opened the United States Cafe on Haight Street. With his interest in and experience with plants luring him, Robert offered to help organize a backyard garden for the Café, and he began to advise upon and maintain this tiny oasis of plants through 1975 when United State Café was turned over to its staff and became the Shady Grove. Because they had watched his progress developing the garden, the staff/owners allowed Pruzan free reign, and he continued to work with the garden until Shady Grove closed in 1979.
    According to Mike Hippler in his Bay Guardian article Photographing Castro Culture (3/13/91) Robert set up his own darkroom in a tiny closet in his apartment in 1974. Not a great deal is known about Pruzan's activities in the mid 1970s, but he did take photos. Hippler quotes him as stating that by 1977, his photographic work was beginning to pay for itself.
    He photographed the first Haight Street Fair, in May of 1978, and continued to document it, the Castro Street Fair, the Gay Day Parades, and later, the Folsom and Up Your Alley Fairs through 1991.
    In 1980, Vicki Leidner opened her Involution Gallery at the corner of Page & Ashbury. Although he had exhibited his photographs previously in such local venues as the Shady Grove Café, the Involution Gallery offered an entry to a wider audience, and Robert often showed there until the Gallery closed in 1982.
    Robert was a true nature lover who loved mountains, vistas, and all living things. Many of his best erotic shoots were taken in natural settings, often on Mount Tam and the Marin Headlands. An avid member of the California Horticultural Society, Pruzan's apartments were filled with rare and exotic plants, his own bonsai creations, rocks, shells, and tropical fish. He was an inspired and knowledgeable horticulturalist who left his touch on numerous gardens in the city. He was also a major inspiration to his friend Nancy McNally when she conceived the idea for the AIDS Memo rial Grove in Golden Gate Park. Many of his most exotic plants were donated to the Strybing Arboretum following his death.
    The majority of his photography after 1980 centered on friends and gay events, especially cultural programs, street fairs and celebrations, the leather world, and attractive men. His photographic forays into the cultural events of the community enabled him to befriend such figures as James Baldwin, Thom Gunn, James Broughton, and Sylvester. Other favorite subjects were famous people visiting San Francisco, local politicians, sailors, leather title contests, cityscapes, clouds, sunsets, and fireworks displays.
    Pruzan was also a devout Wagnerian and regular at the San Francisco Opera who photographed everyone from Pavarotti and Freni to Sutherland and Kiri Te Kanawa. He had a taste for high art and drama, and this interest carried over into his extensive portraits of San Francisco drag queens.
    Robert could be an impressive and tenacious political animal. He was a dedicated reforester and was involved in the planting of trees in Buena Vista Park and in opposing defoliation and other programs to "thin out" undergrowth in order to control sexual liaisons in isolated areas of the Park, a practice he saw as sheer mismanagement on the part of the city's Parks & Recreation Department.
    In 1989, Robert was hospitalized suddenly with breathing problems. He quickly decompensated and was placed on a mechanical ventilator. When he awoke and was taken off the ventilator, he discovered he had been diagnosed with PCP and was HIV positive. He had previously never been tested nor had he been ill until this hospitalization. Weakened after this time, he nonetheless continued to take photographs through 1991. The next year saw a turn for the worse, and he died at age 46 at Ralph K. Davies Hospital on May 29, 1992.

    Scope and Content

    The Robert Pruzan Papers are arranged in two groups, Papers and Photographs. The Papers include all documents that are not photographic images.

    Notes on Papers

    The first series of Papers is a small set of Biographical documents. Included here is a one page chronology by Pruzan of his activities and places of residence during the first twenty five years of his life. This is particularly helpful for following his activities during the later half of the 1960s.
    The next series is composed of Pruzan's writings, including a series of journal/notebooks covering the years 1965 to 1985, primarily from the period 1968 through 1973. A small set of writings from high school days, and undated poetry, notes, and drafts of letters entail much of the remaining writings. Significant dated writings include his professional correspondence, opera reviews, and compositions related to Buena Vista Park. A number of notes from his readings of the I Ching document how, at least in part, he tended to make decisions about his life and actions.
    There are two series of correspondence to Robert from others; those from family members and those from a wide range of friends and acquaintances. Among the more extensive of the are letters from the following persons:
    Nadine Skopic Alemian An early friend (from New York?), for several years Nadine wrote Pruzan from Paris, Mexico, Africa, New York and San Francisco.
    Sally Bryan A Seattle friend whose correspondence centers on literature.
    Irvine Andrew Huck A potential love interest, Huck wrote poetry, at least some of which was focused on Pruzan. They had an increasingly contentious relationship, which appears to have ended in 1971.
    Ron Lazard A New York friend, Lazard's letters are focused on news of New York and mutual old friends.
    Yves Lebreton A French friend from his days in Paris
    Margaret Levi Another early friend from Seattle
    Tom Meyer Pruzan's most consistent correspondent, Meyer is a writer/poet, and a mutual friend of Sally Bryan. He often corresponed about meta-physical issues. In a letter written 5/9/89, Meyer evokes his memories of such early San Francisco leather bars as the Tool Box and the Ramrod.
    Norman (last name?) A New York friend and astrologer.
    Other, perhaps closer friends are not well represented here, undoubtedly because almost all of them lived in San Francisco. These include Nancy McNally, Steven Good, Mark Belote, Pharris Garcia, Tullio, Ricardo, Reggie Jones, Veera Wibaux, Bert Houle, Robert Chesley, Curtis Spangler, Sandy & Durk Pearson, and Steve Abbott, all of whom had long and significant relationships with Pruzan. Among his photographer friends Rink and Jan Uribe were the only ones who wrote Pruzan much, and Uribe mostly wrote after leaving San Francisco. Rink sent numerous notes, often with prints or photocopies of prints.
    The series titled "Mime Related Records" holds several significant items, including Pruzan's notes from classes at the Ecolé de Mime, Pruzan's translations of Decroux's Etienne Decroux Speaks With You, and his annotated copy of Paroles sur le Mime. There is also a sub-series of black and white prints of Decroux, his classes, student rehearsals and performances taken by Pruzan that reside in the Photograph Section. Decroux was one of the true masters of mime, and Pruzan's documentation of him at the end of his teaching career is a valuable asset to students and historians of mime. Some of Pruzans photos, two audiotapes, and other materials have been sent to Europe to provide better access to his European followers (see Materials Removed from the Collection below).
    Under Professional Photography Records are correspondence from other photographers and exhibit notices, and copies of published photos (see especially Geoff Mains' book Urban Aboriginals, the Logan's Run feature from Drummer and the two Bare Chest Calendars). Also under this section are an assortment of professional correspondence and legal records. These include correspondence with publishers, orders for prints from a few individuals, model releases, contracts and publishing permits.
    The Buena Vista Park (BVP) series documents Pruzan's efforts to oppose "thinning" of BVP flora by the city in order to prevent sexual contact from taking place there. This was a major neighborhood controversy in the 1980s with both gay and straight residents split on the issue. Despite all efforts to prevent what Pruzan thought of as a desecration to the natural park environment, a good deal of the park was pruned and even denuded over time. Pruzan's photographs document these changes.

    Notes on Photographic Images

    Negatives and Contact Prints
    The following pages list subjects of the 35 mm photo negatives which form the backbone of the collection. These were shot by Pruzan in the course of his daily work as a photo journalist, documentarian and artist. While some of the earliest of these negatives may have been developed by Pruzan, the vast majority of negatives were processed by commercial photo labs.
    They were kept by Pruzan in large manilla envelopes which were loosely marked with the subject(s) and sometimes dates of the inclosed negs. Some 98% of these were accompanied by contact prints. Upon removal of the collection from Robert's apartment following his death, all envelopes were placed in a series of cartons, which were labeled M through U during Lynn Pruzan's initial inventory. Each envelope was then numbered sequentially within these individual cartons, providing the outline to the system of arrangement described below.
    During archival arrangement, the negatives of each set were placed in polypropylene negative preservers, held in non-acidic file folders. Pruzan's original subject heading or description of each set were used to label each folder. In addition, subject listings and other annotations made by Pruzan on the original envelopes were photocopied, and these copies placed into corresponding folders to preserve whatever additional clues they might contain.
    All negatives and their corresponding contact prints were numbered before being segregated into two series. The contact prints, along with copies of Pruzan's annotations and occasional pertinent ephemera, are housed in titled folders, providing the primary access to Pruzan's photographic collrction. The negatives make up a complimentary series; these negatives are commonly held in groupings of 3 to 6 subjects per folder.
    Except for sets that were split or purposefully re-arranged (such as the chronological runs of Street Fairs, the Gay Day Parades, and the Gay Games), there is no particular order to these series. Researchers should note that particular events, individuals, and other subjects were often shot on two or more rolls of film. Therefore, photos from a single event may be found in more than one folder, which may be in another location altogether. A keyword search of the inventory of this series can be conducted when trying to locate or identify shots from a particular subject, although title variations and other ambiguities may obscure some images.
    Prints and Slides
    The majority of black and white prints are 8 x 10 and 5 x 7, with a smaller number of 11 x 14 and small prints. The majority of these were printed by Pruzan.
    Snapshots refer to commercially produced prints that are either 3½ x 5 or 4 x 6 in size and are mostly in color or in sepia tones. A sizeable number of these were originally kept in two small cardboard boxes where they were arranged by topic. The photos in these boxes are what Pruzan let friends and potential buyers examine. These, now located in boxes XIII and XIV under the title Robert's Selected Prints, continue to utilize the original categories he employed.
    Slides refer to commercially developed 35 mm color transparencies. Many of these are sequences of clothed and nude men modeling. A two page set of individual slides from various shoots was made to help identify these men, and the folder containing these pages is filed at the end of the slide section, in Box S-12.

    Material Cataloged Separately

    A small percentage of slides and prints were culled and given to Lynn Pruzan. These were either of poor quality or redundant. The later includes slides and prints of fireworks at night, clouds, sunsets, and frequently shot landscapes. A sizeable selection of images of each of these subjects was retained.
    Most intact ephemera of a generic nature, primarily periodicals, programs and flyers, were transferred to the GLHS ephemera collection.
    The following materials relating to Mime were donated to where they will help to document Etienne Decroux and his work.
    • Etienne Decroux Handwritten Manuscript
    • Words on Mime, by Etienne Decroux, Translated by Mark Piper, 1985
    • Ce Sont les Dieux Qu'il Nous Fait , Charles Dullin, 1969
    • Articles on Mime, 1960s
    • Mime Schools & Programs
    • Etienne Decroux Association
    • Audiotapes (2) of Etienne Decroux teaching class at his Ecole de Mime in Paris, (ca 1967?)
    • Selection of (but not all) photos of Decroux, students, rehearsals, performances

    Related Collections

    The GLHS Ephemera collection includes programs and other material on many of the events Pruzan chronicled, and the GLHS Periodical collection features full runs of the Bay Area Reporter, Drummer, and other publications that published Pruzan's photos.
    Chuck Cybersky's (94-3) Male Entertainment Network videotaped several, if not all, of the Men Behind Bars shows, which Pruzan documented with still photographs.
    The Papers of Geoff Mains (89-3), Robert Chesley (93-6), and Duke Armstrong (96-12) have significant material on San Francisco's leather culture during the 1980s. Mains and Chesley both include Prints by Pruzan. The Papers of Kerry Bowman (98-30) include Records of the Ambush, a major leather bar until it closed in the mid 1980s. Pruzan had at least one major exhibit at the Ambush.
    Collections of other San Francisco photographers who were Pruzan's contemporaries are also held by GLHS. The largest is that of Crawford Wayne Barton (93-11), a friend and fellow artist whose work is concentrated on denizens of the Castro district in the 1970s.
    Among other contemporaries photographers whose photos are in the GLHS Archives are Jeff Kriger (95-10), Guy Corry (95-18), Richard Roesner (95-19), Steve Frasheur (95- 21), and Stephen Lowell (95-21). Most of the images in these collections were also taken in the 1970s.