Christian Walker’s Candid, Caring Photos of the Combat Zone and Other Taboo Subjects

A retrospective of the SMFA alum’s work comes home to Boston at the Tufts University Art Galleries

Christian Walker: The Profane and the Poignant, a major retrospective of work by the multidisciplinary artist, curator, and critic is now on view at the Tufts University Art Galleries (TUAG) through April 21. A portion of the show comprises work that Walker shot and developed while a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (now SMFA at Tufts) in the early ’80s. 

During that time, Walker (1953–2003), who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, often spent nights with a camera dangling from his neck, trawling the Combat Zone, a now-defunct adult entertainment district in Boston’s downtown. In particular, he frequented the Pilgrim Theater, a dilapidated old building with regal columns and private boxes frequented by queer men looking to connect. 

Although some of what went on there was considered criminal at the time, to Walker, who identified as a queer, Black man, the Combat Zone offered friendship, love, and the opportunity to create art examining racial dynamics and sexual desire from the inside out. 

a woman and boy in the Combat Zone

Christian Walker, "Untitled (Boston’s Combat Zone)," c. 1979-83, gelatin silver print, collection of David VanHoy.

The traveling exhibition is organized by the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York City, an institution known for collecting and exhibiting work by LGBTQ+ artists and work that examines LGBTQ+ themes. Noam Parness, former associate curator and exhibitions manager at the museum, and independent curator Jackson Davidow served as co-curators. The TUAG iteration of the exhibition was organized in partnership with TUAG Curator Laurel V. McLaughlin. 

Davidow, who has Boston roots, reflected, “Experiencing artworks in the environments and communities in which they were originally produced can be incredibly powerful. Whether they know it or not, all Bostonians are shaped by the histories of sexuality, race, class, nightlife, and difference that Walker so powerfully addressed in his practice.”

With the help of Dan Santamaria, director of the Tufts Archival Research Center, the curators dug through Tufts’ collections to find Walker’s dogeared student ID from 1984, the year he received his SMFA diploma. The ID is now tucked in a glass display case as part of the show. 

two men recline together

Christian Walker, "Untitled (Matt and Lester)," 1982, gelatin silver print, collection of Lester Stockman.

As a student, Walker worked closely with photographers Bill Burke and Bonnie Donohue, both SMFA professors of the practice who still teach today. 

“When Walker was at SMFA, he was one of the only Black students at a school that was, at the time, a predominantly white institution,” McLaughlin leveled. “Looking back at this institutional history, this exhibition deeply considers accountability in understanding historically marginalized Black and queer histories.” 

McLaughlin suspects the isolation Walker may have felt in not being represented at the school likely led him to look for deeper belonging elsewhere in Boston. The result was one of his most powerful bodies of work, The Theater Project, a series of portraits documenting a community of LGBTQ+ people who spent their nights in the Combat Zone. 

It’s impossible not to wonder how Walker captured such candid photos at a time when queer intimacy was considered taboo and people engaging in it were forced into the shadows.

McLaughlin observed, “It wasn’t uncomfortable for Walker to go inside and ask people if he could take their photos because he was part of that community.” 

a man holding a boom box and sitting in a wheelchair

Christian Walker, "Untitled (Boston’s Combat Zone)," c. 1979-83, gelatin silver print, collection of David VanHoy.

The access that Walker had was built on trust—and that impacted the strength of the portraits. The exhibit includes a series of four photographs taken in bathrooms. None of them look staged. In one, two people of different skin colors kiss passionately in blurred darkness inside a stall. Walker manipulated his darkroom chemicals to consciously bring out a grainy effect in the gelatin silver prints. 

“You can sense urgency and desire in this shot conveyed through the movement,” McLaughlin said. 

Another wall is devoted to a series of portraits Walker took at a group home for people with disabilities, where he worked a side gig to pay for school expenses. The subjects look directly at the camera in a way that shows their agency—they are choosing to be photographed rather than being exploited. 

McLaughlin observed, “He drew upon the work of Diane Arbus, who also photographed folks with disabilities. Rather than being a voyeur and exploiting them, Walker gives these subjects a lot of dignity and tenderness.” 

After graduation, Walker moved to Atlanta, where he found a strong community of Black artists, produced work at the Nexus, and began publishing his writing. There, he established himself not only as a photographer but also as a critic and curator. “At the time Walker lived, many artists were engaging in activism,” McLaughlin explained. “Adding critic, too, was novel.” 

During the AIDS crisis, Walker felt increasingly compelled to speak up against rampant stigma and discrimination. Three posters he produced for the 1988 group exhibition The Subject is AIDS are installed at TUAG. Walker photographed and interviewed people with HIV who engaged in intravenous drug use. He approaches them affectionately and personally, pairing the portraits with text explaining that syringes and needles “are shared with friends and lovers as tokens of affection.” His call not to share these objects is stirringly empathetic. 

gallery visit of installed Christian Walker exhibit

"Christian Walker: The Profane and the Poignant" is on view at the Tufts University Art Galleries in Boston through April 21.

Today, many SMFA graduates straddle multiple practices, and the boundaries between mediums, the art market, academia, social justice, and art publishing are far more fluid. Walker helped pave the way for those who followed. 

Walker died in Seattle in 2003. The circumstances of his demise are unknown, and his final works have never been found. McLaughlin hopes that the show may encourage audiences to reach out with answers.

Meanwhile, she said, the existing works are just as important to appreciate for their historic importance as for their technique. “The range of his photography is incredible—from documentary to experimental processes, using pigments and varnish in a way that I've never seen before,” McLaughlin said. 

The exhibition, she hopes, offers the “path-making” artist the recognition he always deserved.

Christian Walker: The Profane and the Poignant is on view at the Tufts University Art Galleries, SMFA at Tufts, 230 Fenway, Boston, until April 21. Fifteen additional portraits from Walker’s series The Theater Project are part of an accompanying exhibitAs the World Burns: Queer Photography and Nightlife in Boston, also on view at TUAG until April 21.

Back to Top