Difficult Subject: Photographing AIDS
Village Voice, June 28, 1988

Photographing AIDS is like photographing God: the visible manifestations are ambiguous; the mystery and meaning are frequently unavailable to the eye. Gazing at photographs of persons with AIDS (PWAs), we look for signs. But since AIDS is a syndrome and not a disease, there are no typical cases and no unique visual symptoms. The lesions of Kaposi's sarcoma come closest, and many photographers are drawn to them. It's shocking to discover that KS, though literally stigmatizing, is among the least life-threatening infections a PWA might contract. Like almost everything having to do with AIDS, its representations require careful decoding.

Last month, Rosalind Solomon's and Tom McGovern's exhibitions of PWA portraits opened at the Grey and the Neikrug galleries, respectively. They are simply the tip of a photographic iceberg moving into New York. That it is photographers, rather than painters, who've made the majority of AIDS related images shouldn't be surprising. With its mechanical grounding in the appearance of reality, photography seems like an efficient way to grapple with the threat of the unknown. That this is largely illusory is what makes AIDS so obdurate a photographic subject.

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In 1988, every AIDS photograph operates within the interpretive context of photojournalism. Never has a phenomenon like AIDS been so radically "mediated": that is, knowable only through the media (except for those with personal experience) and constructed by the media as far more than a matter of public health.

The moralistic media construction of "good" and "bad" AIDS "victims" (hemophiliacs and children, gay men and drug users, respectively) clearly suggests both the complicity of pictures in establishing this image and, more palpably, the nature of photojournalism itself. Newspaper images cannot bear any intrinsic meaning; they float freely, anchored only by their texts and contexts.

This context can be extraordinarily complex. One of The New York Times's most sympathetic gay-AIDS stories to date - a heartfelt piece about AIDS and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus [May 14, 1988] - encouraged readers to identify with gays, but it was followed, a few pages later, by a story (about the gentrification of Hamburg's red light district due to AIDS-related brothel closings) that actually managed to find a silver lining in the epidemic-cloud. Normally, the Times simply renders gays and lesbians invisible, as in a front page story [April 22, 1988] headlined "Researchers List Odds of Getting AIDS in Heterosexual Intercourse," which was no more about hetero- than homosexual risk. Illustrating the chorus and Hamburg articles were pictures of musicians rehearsing and a man on the street; these meant little apart from the contextualizing words.

Can "art" photographs be distinguished from photojournalistic "documents" simply on the basis of a more overt formalism or a more pronounced appearance of subjectivity? Such qualities vary widely. What counts most, as with journalistic pictures, is context.

Consider, for example, the all-too-frequent exhibition disclaimer to the effect that "not every person pictured in this AIDS exhibition is a PWA or even gay." (This point reveals both contemporary litigious instincts and the employment and housing discrimination PWAs face.) Or consider how the same photo/word amalgam functions in a small edition shown in a gallery, or offset for wheatpasting on the streets. Based on such considerations, I've set up some loose and overlapping paradigms for thinking about AIDS-related photographs: the modern picture, the Conceptual Art-derived photo-image, and the activist model of AIDS photography.

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Rosalind Solomon's Portraits in the Time of AIDS (at New York University's Grey Gallery, 33 Washington Place, through July 2) embodies many of the virtues and pitfalls of the modern documentary approach to art photography. Her black-and-white pictures belong to the 20th century photographic mainline that links August Sander and Walker Evans, Lisette Model and Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Larry Clark.

They also make us aware of the difficulties of photographing an epidemic; of the complete irrelevance of the media model of starving Ethiopian babies, and of the absolute necessity of the show's title to tell us who these often ordinary-looking people are. They educate by reminding us that PWA demographics blur the boundaries of race, age, and sexual preference and that PWAs usually live at home more than in hospitals. The sheer quantity of large prints (subjects in close-up are nearly life-size) confronts us with the urgency of AIDS. "There's no escape," this exhibition announces, only a pressing need to engage the crisis.

Such commendably "correct" sentiments do not guarantee effective art; to the contrary, they frequently get in the way of well-intentioned photographers. In the best of Solomon's photographs, such sentiments are necessarily backgrounded. A middle-aged PWA stands in front of his parents. Their eyes averted, they seem to be contemplating the unnatural prospect of burying their child. Or a PWA - or so we assume from the show's title - holds a double portrait of himself and a man we take to be his deceased lover. These poignant and complex meditations on loss convey the emotionally filigreed texture we associate with literature.

But Solomon's photographs can sometimes lose their thematic bearings. Is the sour-looking black man on the fire escape angry at AIDS or the photographer or himself? Like a photojournalistic picture pulled off the page, this image drifts without a sufficiently explanatory context to anchor it.

The emotional complexity of Solomon's pictures usually prevents such drift. What is sacrificed, however, is the appearance of artless transparency, the illusion of spontaneity and adherence to fact that underlies the modernist tradition. Nicholas Nixon retains that crisp factuality in his 8x10 contact prints made from identically sized negatives, but jettisons the "decisive" moment of the single image in favor of the serial portrait. (In September he will be the subject of a retrospective, Pictures of People, at the Museum of Modern Art.)

Literally works in progress, Nixon's images of PWAs are shot at roughly weekly intervals, from which he culls six to 12 images for each portrait. We see the ups and downs of individual PWAs' lives and frequently the context of family and friends. (One disturbing series focuses as intently on a PWA's much younger brother as on the PWA himself.) In the intimacy of his images, the passage of time stands for the process of living as much as dying.

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Another way to assault the limitations of the modernist single image is through words. This may also allow the crucially important PWA viewpoint, typically absent. Nixon is planning to pair his images with interviews, but they will appear only in book form. (This separation of word and image is typical of many photographers, including Ann Meredith, who photographs women with AIDS, and Sage Sohier, who photographs gay and lesbian couples.) Portraitist Gypsy Ray saves her texts from functioning as footnotes to images by insetting her subjects' typed or handwritten commentary directly into the mats of the prints. Her photo-works also bring word of the AIDS "culture": a doctor who "struggle[s] for the energy" to serve his PWA patients; an elderly volunteer who writes that "the closeness I feel with my AIDS clients is touching me in a way I find no words to describe….To truly care is to allow my clients to remain independent and in control of their lives."

While giving the syndrome a human face is vital, Ray's pictures remind us that AIDS images don't necessarily have to be embodied in PWAs. Those who've moved away from portraits to other AIDS-related subjects - the scientific and medical industries and the body as the site of psychic and representational conflict are two obvious examples - often rely on Conceptual Art-derived strategies. Anti-photographic in modernist terms, these approaches include the coupling of words and images, the fabrication of studio setups, and the use of found images, historical approaches, and traditionally nonart subject matter (such as the role of medicine in defining "normality" and gender).

Nancy Burson pairs microscopic images of diseased and healthy cells as objects for visualization; her images of the HIV virus may soon appear in billboard format. Linda Troeller's scrapbooklike photographs juxtapose her mother's TB with AIDS. Joe Ziolkowski evokes (homo)sexual desire in ghostly, metaphorical images of male nudes, sometimes with nooses. Richard Hawkins' installation of 24 photographs and paintings coupling Kafka and Tom Cruise is an Apache dance of desire in the media/AIDS age. Each of these artists raises issues of power and social control and demonstrates the quality of analysis required to combat the Right-wing politicization of AIDS. Such "deconstructing" strategies tend to relate more closely to pioneering feminist/Conceptual works of Martha Rosler, Mary Kelly, or Victor Burgin than to the mass media-oriented postmodernism of Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman.

For Gary Borgstedt, making the personal political means turning to the historical model of John Heartfield's anti-Nazi photo-montage. His viewpoint is explicit in the titles of his painted photographs - including Held Hostage to Moralism and The Police Wore Rubber Gloves. For AIDS Patient on AZT, Borgstedt collaged the face of a young masked man with a wire fence and snippets of text that read: "AIDS patient on AZT doing will wishes to share rent with positive people only. Enjoys life, takes care of self. $300 limit rent. Please leave message. Honest sincere people only." Not only are the underground status and limited resources of this PWA (and by inference the high costs of AZT treatment) revealed, the viewer must also imagine how he or she would respond to such an ad. Will the tenant's health decline, making him unable to take care of himself? Would you choose to get involved?

Not every artist creates work for gallery contexts. Some artists take their work directly to the streets. Steve Evans - who primarily makes Constructivist-looking installations that include images of the Nazi treatment of gays - decided last year to put his artwork to activist purposes. Then living in Atlanta, he designed color posters that collaged found images and phrases. Pictures of a laboratory, a face, and a crowd were paired (respectively) with phrases that read: "A situation many could profit from," "Know who is what," and "You live near a center for control." (The Center for Disease Control is in Atlanta.) The ambiguity of the last phrase enabled Evans' poster to migrate from the streets onto official bus placards: Evans believes that it was approved because some higher-up assumed it referred to drug control!

Evans's forceful work can be slightly oblique, and that's not a luxury an activist group intending to reach a diverse audience is allowed. Gran Fury is a collective of 12 to 15 artists, designers, and filmmakers associated with ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power); it's named for both their anger and the Plymouth Fury. (ACT-UP/Gran Fury will take over the White Columns Gallery, 325 Spring Street, during July.) Gran Fury's work may be familiar: the window at the New Museum of Contemporary Art (Let the Record Show), the "Silence = Death" logo/symbol it's helped popularize, or its eye-catching informational posters about AIDS. (A widely circulated one brought us the horrific news that one in 61 babies in New York City is born HIV-positive.)

Gran Fury also designs posters for ACT-UP demonstrations. The most striking of these were two that announced the Kiss-In, the kickoff event of nine days of AIDS-related demonstrations in April and May. One showed sailors kissing in a '40s-style image. The other showed one woman on her knees in front of another in what appeared to be an Edwardian photograph. The message "Read My Lips" bisected each.

These posters tip their hats to Barbara Kruger's word-image works, which are, in turn, derived from advertising. But where Kruger offers analysis, Gran Fury advocates action. The message is spelled out on the posters themselves: "We kiss as an aggressive demonstration of affection...We kiss so that all who see us will confront their homophobia." Both gay and nongay audiences are addressed.

As frustration and anger about the mismanagement of the AIDS crisis grows, people are responding with increasing energy and ingenuity. Last February, photographer Diane Neumaier shot a remarkable series of images that merge photojournalistic document, Conceptualist strategy, and activist methods.

Her subject was an action in the New York subway by the Metropolitan Health Association. The guerrilla group plastered bilingual how-to information on using condoms and cleaning drug "works" on subway ad placards along with messages like "find a cure" and "action = survival." Their interventions were quickly removed; according to Neumaier, Upper West Side trains were returned to a pristine state of commercialism in just 12 hours!

Neumaier does not consider her photographs of this action her own work, in the usual sense. "I've given them to people who speak about AIDS. They have been seen in a show...But basically I'm not concerned about authorship."

Not merely documents, her images of the strategically placed messages are also spirit-lifting testimony to the pleasures of radical disjunction. A double mug shot of Koch and Cardinal O'Connor reads: "Don't let anyone tell you what they said. Hear them say it! Money for AIDS, not for war." Or out of the mouth of a glossy beauty smiling seductively at her tuxedoed boyfriend: "Find a cure. Find a cure. Find a cure."

© 2002