Reigning Queens

The lost photos of Roz Joseph

Untitled (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

Roz Joseph (1926–2019)

Joseph was a San Francisco-based photographer who in the mid-1970s captured the pageantry and activism of the city’s diverse drag cultures. 

Untitled (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

Joseph was known for capturing Gay Freedom Day parades, Halloween celebrations, Imperial Court coronations and especially the elaborate drag and costume balls that attracted thousands of revelers to the city.

San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade (1978) by Crawford Wayne BartonGLBT Historical Society

Born Rosalind Malamud on June 30, 1926, in the Bronx, Roz received a bachelor’s degree in education in 1947 from City College of New York, where she also pursued postgraduate courses in art and photography.

San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade (1978) by Elaine Gay JarvisGLBT Historical Society

In 1948, she married advertising professional and writer Elliott Joseph. The couple lived in Paris from 1950 to 1951, then returned to New York. During extensive travels in Europe, North Africa and elsewhere, Joseph found people and places to capture in black and white.

Gay Freedom Day Parade (1978) by Elaine Gay JarvisGLBT Historical Society

Some of her images recall the great French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, and all reflect her eye for composition, the built environment and human stories. One of her shots received the 1963 Saturday Review Photo Prize.

The fun, the color, the wind...

Joseph began documenting drag queens in June 1975 at San Francisco’s annual Gay Freedom Day Parade.

Like most people,” she wrote in the late 1970s, “I’ve always loved surprises, and the parade was filled with them. The fun, the color, the wild, unpredictable and good-humored scenes. Images I could not let pass by.”

Untitled (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society




She spent the next three years shooting eye-popping looks and gender-bending theatrics, decades before RuPaul became a household name.

Untitled (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

The Imperial Court

In 1970, the couple moved to San Francisco, where Joseph turned her lens to documenting the city’s drag queens. Many of the queens were associated with a charitable organization called the Imperial Court.

Spit Curl (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

Founded in 1965 by celebrated drag performer and gay activist José Sarria, the Court raises funds for social service and activist organizations.

Untitled (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

Dick Elridge:

"When a person has been involved in the gay community life, to be very actively engaged in it, he may choose to run for the office of Emperor or Empress with the expectations of, if being elected, he can do a better job for community relations between the gays and the straights"

Ricky (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

"Primarily, either office — Empress or Emperor — is a figurehead of the city to represent the gay community in the city or if they go up and down the coast or wherever. They hold various functions like the Closet Ball, the Beaux Arts Ball, and things like that."

Untitled (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

"Sometimes it’s directly in their name of their court or it’s for the Tavern Guild or the Council of Emperors — to raise funds for Operation Concern which is an organization out at Presbyterian Hospital for gays in the hospital..."

— Dick Elridge

In search of images, Joseph attended many court events in San Francisco, including the Coronation of the Empress de San Francisco; the Grand Duke and Duchess Ball; and the Closet Ball, at which men who had never before dressed in drag were coaxed by friends to “come out.”

Imperial Princess contingent (1978) by Crawford Wayne BartonGLBT Historical Society

A Royal Discovery

Images Joseph captured document the last generation of drag before AIDS devastated the city. The GLBT Historical Society's Obituary Database reveals many of the individuals in this exhibition died of HIV-related complications in the 1980s, about a decade after Joseph's photos.

"Frieda, Ninth Empress of San Francisco's Imperial Court (1976) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

Joseph hoped to publish a book based on her drag-ball series, tentatively titled Golden Gays, but she was not able to find a publisher.

Ambi Sextrous (1976) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

She stored the photos and negatives in her Russian Hill apartment until donating them to the GLBT archives in 2010. Lost from public view for almost four decades, they attracted national attention after becoming the subject of Reigning Queens: The Lost Photos of Roz Joseph 2015

Untitled (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

"Why do I dress in drag? Fun mostly. Maybe for its shock value. To shock the people who are not expecting it - straight society. The term is 'gender fuck'." - Jeff Fleckenstein

Untitled (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

"It is like a theater in the open. To enjoy life. To enjoy fun." - Mylen Ann

Untitled (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

"What I do is a social satire, in a sense. I'm trying to throw people's stereotypes in their faces." - Ambi Sextrous

Jack and Bill (1970) by Roz JosephGLBT Historical Society

"I think drag is an art, a lost art. It started on stage a long, long time ago. You know, at one time they didn't allow any women on stage, only men. It started way back in Greece, Rome, England, all over. I enjoy it as an art - to create an illusion" - Herman

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