Emory sees gay ATL history through artist’s lens

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A lot went down in gay Atlanta in the ‘90s. At a time when attending Pride and being out were more acts of bravery than matters of fact, Alli Royce Soble was documenting it all with her camera.

Now gay-loving Emory announces that Soble’s photos of gay life and the local arts scene in the 1990s will be part of the university's permanent collection.

Like other gay Atlantans and LGBT ephemera hoarders before her, MARBL – Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library – will house hundreds of photos by Soble (above right in 1994 at Atlanta Pride, at right today) and several local event flyers featuring her work. It's an honor with perfect timing for the artist herself.

“I quit my job at La Tavola after 14 years in June to pursue my art career full time,” Soble reveals. “I closed that major door in my life and took a leap of faith on myself. Getting this opportunity to be collected at Emory is validation that I made the right choice.”


When we were illegal


Today’s gay Atlanta observers may think of chef Ria Pell’s memorial or Faerie-Sisters collisions when they think of Soble documenting momentous LGBT occasions. But as far back as when Cobb commissioners passed a resolution banning homosexuals and activists came together to drive out the 1996 Olympics from the county, Soble captured the re-routed torch events. Those photos are part of Soble’s collection going to Emory, and the university is thrilled to have them, says Randy Gue, MARBL curator of modern political and historical collections.

The collection consists of 24 albums that document LGBT life including drag shows, fashion shows, parties and other events at places such as My Sister’s Room and The Tower, as well as Atlanta Pride [second photo] celebrations, an LGBT March on Washington, Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Torch events and other happenings. Soble has annotated the albums, providing captions for most of the photos.

“One of the ways we can understand the city is through the lives of its residents – so in these albums Alli is documenting people, places and events, but she’s also recording stories of the city through her life,” Gue says. “This collection provides a fascinating glimpse not only into this person’s life, but also into these cultures in Atlanta. It’s two stories intertwined, which will give a great perspective to students and scholars.”

Before sodomy was legal and Atlanta Police had an LGBT liaison, before abundant resources for rights, politics and health or local housing for homeless gay youth, Soble says that there was a big gay life here for her as an artist. She is humbled to have those records go down for posterity.


Personal and political


We caught up with her to talk about the collection and reminisce about the gay Atlanta of old. A few more of Soble’s self-reflective shots from the MARBL collection appear below the interview.

What’s the one takeaway you get when you look back at the collection as a whole?

History. Capturing life has always been my strongest passion. The fact that something that I love has become a part of our city's history gives me tremendous pride. I am still blown away that these images of my life, our lives, are a part of a collection for students and scholars to see from now until the end of time. It just keeps me wanting to continue to do what I have always have done.

It definitely is a sign that I am doing the right thing!

What are the most moving images in the collection for you, and why?

The innocence of our youth. We were babies! I was 19 and coming out in Atlanta. I met people that I have maintained relationships over the past 20 plus years. People I met in our community. The fun places we explored ourselves. The parties we threw and went to. The events, like Wigwood and SWA-RA, were something to look forward to and be around like-minded folks. The Pride events every year. We could be ourselves and I captured that time in our lives. It was really a wonderful time.

On a personal note, as an artist, there is documentation of every art show I was a part of up until 2000. It is not only a documentation of my gay community, but it is a documentation of my life as an artist in this city. My LGBT Community was and always has been a huge support in my career as a photographer and as a fine art painter.

What do you think the collection says about the LGBT movement?

When you look back at pictures of Pride in the Piedmont Park, you could see a difference in attendance. Atlanta was always a city with a large gay population, but you can see how many more people are out now than 20 years ago.

You can also see the difference in the parade as well. Before, there were more bars and clubs on floats. Now, you see many more corporations and religious groups being a part of the Pride Parade.

The support of society is much more visible than it was 20 years ago. The fact that we have a Trans March at Pride now is a huge acceptance from 20 years ago.

Bottom line: Higher visibility and respect.

Compare yourself today to the Alli that took these photos.

Consistency and drive have kept me going these years. I will always have that passion and desire to document life. My entire life I have been documenting. I started writing in my first diary, it was Garfield the Cat, in 1982. I was 10 when I was given my first camera, a Kodak Disc. I was always taking photographs and I always wrote about my life.

I stopped writing in my mid 20s, perhaps because I started documenting life with my camera instead of my pen. I photographed my life and the people that filled it. Moments captured in Atlanta, my community, my family and friends.

One huge difference now is technology. I had to practice the art of patience before there was digital photography. I did not have the luxury of editing images as I went. I had to wait to have the film processed.

I remember the joys of getting ready to go out and shoot. Thoughts like, “How many rolls of film should I take with me? Do I have color and black & white film?” The excitement I had when I left the party or event of the evening to rush over to Wolf Camera and drop off my rolls of film in the overnight slot. I wanted them to be the first to get developed in the morning. There was a rush to get those photographs.

You have to remember that a roll of film had between 24-36 shots. You had to make each shot count and then wait for someone to develop them to see. There is a different mind set when shooting digitally. Limitless, Instant Gratification, and Controlled. As much as I appreciate all of those things, film makes you want it harder.

Back in the day, when I ran out of film, I left the party. If I could not document it, I did not feel the need to stay any longer. Now, if my digital camera's battery dies, I leave. If I can't document it, it's kind of like my battery dies too.

How does it feel that the photos will be available for research and for future generations?

Being archived at Emory University is beyond something I have yet to truly grasp. It still is baffling to me that this has even happened.

It is all intertwined as one story.  It is my story, my life and Atlanta through my eyes. It was done out of love and a passion to capture life. How amazing and how humbling it is!

All photos by Alli Royce Soble. Learn more about Soble’s MARBL collection, discover more of her thoughts about it, and visit the artist’s website.


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