Missing, Presumed Dead: PWA Portraiture and Photographic Depictions of Illness and Death Circa Nineteenth Century

Erin Silver

And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it’s moving fast
—Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows [1]

What is the role of the photograph in investigating, representing, and memorializing illness and death? Do photographs merely quantify, rather than qualify their subjects in cultures of death? Of the photograph, Marita Sturken states,

Since its invention, the photograph has been associated with memory and loss. An early emphasis on portrait photography demonstrated the desire to fix an identity in the image, to have the image live after the individual’s death. Hence, the photograph evokes both a trace of life and the prospect of death … In its arrest of time, the photograph appears to hold memory in place and to offer a means to retrieve an experience of the past. [2]

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries bore witness to several wars, natural disasters, and diseases that decimated large amounts of the population. With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1837, the potential to document realistically these demises resulted in forms of portraiture that could more accurately represent particular moments between life, death, and the time after death [3]. Did the modes of representing illness and death during times of mass devastation evolve between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or did photography remain a last steadfast resolve through which to hold on to the dead? How did perceptions of death photography change over the centuries? My subjects of interest in this paper are the mortuary and mourning photographs that were produced during the nineteenth century, during a time of diverse and multiple causes of death, such as Tuberculosis, infant death, Syphilis, and other incurable maladies, and the photographic portraits produced in the 1980s, the first ruthless decade of the AIDS epidemic.

I will divide my argument for the similarities and discrepancies between nineteenth century mortuary and posthumous mourning photography and twentieth century PWA (People With AIDS) photography into three sections:Affliction will examine Michel Foucault’s notions of symptoms, the diseased body and epidemiology, followed by Susan Sontag’s claim about the societal construction of HIV/AIDS as a collection of symptoms that results in anHIV/AIDS diagnosis. Foucault and Sontag’s arguments will be inserted into a photographic framework, culminating in Jan Zita Grover and Edmund White’s location of illness in the photographic body and the public and private reasons for depictions of the diseased body. In part two, Execution, I will survey select notions of the function and localization of death within both the human body and the societal body. I will also contextualize Roland Barthes’s notion of the “that has been” in photography in relation to photography depicting death, followed by an historical account of nineteenth century mortuary and posthumous mourning photography and PWA photography of the 1980s in North America, with examples. The third section of my paper, Decay, will discuss the function of photography after disease and death has occurred. The photograph as memorial will be considered, drawing on the theories put forth by Walter Benjamin, Sturken, and Susan Stewart and considering again the public and private uses of the memorial photograph. These three sections will solidify my argument thatPWA portraiture of the 1980s draws on the private photographic practices of the nineteenth century to put forth the intimacy of illness and death into the public realm. A fourth section, Rebirth, will provide potential solutions to the problems of the public memorial of the private life.

Affliction: Localizing Illness

Before attempting to exemplify the portrayal of illness and death in nineteenth century and PWA photography, it is important to examine varying perceptions of the diseased and dying body, which, in turn, are responsible for varying artistic approaches. Foucault organizes perceptions of the diseased body into three categories: the primary spatialization, the means by which disease is described as a concept; the secondary spatialization, the means by which disease is given space within the body; and the tertiary spatialization, the means by which the disease and the diseased individual are located within the societal body [4]. Foucault refutes nosology (the categorization of disease by the assessment of external symptoms), stating that, “the lesion [is] not the disease, but merely the first of the manifestations by which [the disease] appear[s]” [5]. Foucault’s “clinical gaze,” employed by the viewer (doctor) to examine the subject (patient), “goes beyond what it sees; it is not misled by the immediate forms of the sensible, for it knows how to traverse them; it is essentially demystifying” [6].

In her discussion of HIV/AIDS, Sontag seems to agree with Foucault that the “lesion” conceptualizes the disease, but is not the disease. It is often argued that HIV/AIDS is not a disease at all, but rather, a set of symptoms and diseases that the body becomes vulnerable to through its association with a virus that suppresses the immune system. Sontag argues that, “AIDS … is not the name of an illness at all. It is the name of a medical condition, whose consequences are a spectrum of illnesses … the very definition of AIDS requires a presence of other illnesses, so-called opportunistic infections and malignancies” [7]. According to Sontag, AIDS, believed to be capable of lying dormant for many years (during which time the carrier is said to be HIV positive) until the point where physical symptoms begin to appear, “is a clinical construction, an inference. It takes its identity from the presence of some among a long, and lengthening, roster of symptoms … symptoms which ‘mean’ that what the patient has is this illness” [8]. As with Foucault, the disease cannot be seen; rather, the symptoms fill this role, localizing illness within the body (external symptoms indicate internal illness), and subsequently within the societal body (external symptoms situate the host as a diseased body in society).

The medical ideology put forth by Foucault and Sontag is also an interrogative and telling mode through which to locate illness and to identify absence within the photographic body. Grover confronts the implications of illness on photography, recounting:

September 1986, San Francisco. I photograph a friend in the foyer of the Castro Theater so he can send his picture to a new boyfriend in New York City. He’s wearing a leather jacket, a big grin, and leaning on his tightly wrapped umbrella. A week later, he is diagnosed HIVpositive. Does this make my picture of him a portrait of someone with HIV/AIDS? [9]

According to Grover, in 1986, when the picture was taken, photographs of PWAs were usually taken shortly before or after the subject’s death [10]. In 1986, prior to drug cocktails and other life-prolonging medical treatments, it was assumed that aPWA portrait was necessarily foreboding, metaphoric, and memorializing, a priorithe death of the subject [11]. But before memorializing and despite her subject’s healthy appearance, Grover identifies and situates HIV within her subject’s body, consequently situating her subject within society, and situating her friend’s portrait as a future memorial to both her friend and to the era.

White relates that the production of art itself is, at times, reliant on the disease, in the sense that the “prospect of ill health and death or its actuality inspires a sense of urgency” [12]. Grover’s account of the photograph of her HIVpositive friend is an instance where illness is not outwardly apparent; rather, Grover relies on intimate knowledge, a clinical gaze of her subject, to complete her friend’s portrait. Alternatively, White assumes illness and impending death to be the source from which artistic representation of HIV/AIDS and AIDS-related deaths are launched, and, in that sense, necessarily apparent throughout and after artistic production.

It is here that I would like to examine two different types of photographic depictions of HIV/AIDS in relation to the claims put forth by Sontag, Foucault, Grover, and White: Robert Mapplethorpe’s iconic Self-portrait (1988), and Mark I. Chester’s series Robert Chesley—ks portraits with harddick & superman spandex, #1-6, from the series Diary of a Thought Criminal (1989-1994). The portraits speak to the dichotomous arguments put forth by Grover and White, positioning the body between sickness and health. In Mapplethorpe’s Self-portrait, Mapplethorpe has photographed himself holding a staff, on top of which is a small skull. Although Mapplethorpe’s outward appearance does not necessarily denote illness in that no external symptoms appear to be present, the foregrounding of the skull staff speaks as a memento mori, alluding to Mapplethorpe’s impending death (Mapplethorpe died the following year [13]) . Grover’s description of her friend leaning on an umbrella, the umbrella potentially functioning as an “adumbration of future debility,” is mimicked in Mapplethorpe’s depiction of himself [14]. The symptoms of his illness have been omitted, but an intimate reading of the photograph makes apparent the photographer’s reference to his disease. Alternatively, in Mark I. Chester’s series, Robert Chesley’s symptoms are undeniably present. In the portraits, Chesley wears a spandex Superman costume, half pulled down to reveal the Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions on his torso. Chesley’s erect penis pokes out of his spandex costume, functioning, in conjunction with his Superman attire, to denote virility, strength, and invincibility, despite the lesions which suggest future debilitation.

Though these two photographs employ reverse methodology to result at similar conclusions (in both instances, notions of sickness, death, and health are juxtaposed), Chesley’s external symptoms automatically make his illness known, while Mapplethorpe’s message is coded with art historical references (eg. the skull as memento mori ). In the Robert Chesley portraits, the symptom denotes the disease, even though his Superman costume disguises his illness. In the Mapplethorpe portrait, no symptom is visible; no disease is necessarily inferred. But death is inferred, reassigning illness to the seemingly healthy Mapplethorpe. The symptom is not the disease, but, considering White’s argument that the disease is necessary to the production of the art, the photograph is the disease, that which situates the subjects as diseased despite external appearances. These examples serve as models as to the presence of HIV/AIDS which can always be detected, either immediately or with referential information, in the PWA portrait, if, for no other reason, than that of the “urgency” White speaks of. This “urgency” I would agree, is ultimately responsible for the production of photographs of death.

Execution: Death and the Photograph

In Henry Peach Robinson’s Fading Away (1858), a family is gathered around a young girl in a reclining position, her eyes closed, her lips slightly parted, her alertness waning. Two women, presumably a sister and a mother, hover over the waiflike being, while a father examines the landscape from a nearby window, his hand steadying his heavy head. The young girl, probably tubercular, appears to be in the last moments of life, or possibly the first moments of death. A contemporary photograph that captures a similar moment is Duane Michals’s The Father Prepares His Dead Son for Burial (1991), in which a young man, dying ofAIDS, is prostrated on a mattress on a floor. His head relaxes on a pillow, while his body is kept warm under a white sheet. His muscular arms lie parallel to the wall bordering, above which the busy floral wallpaper stands in for visitors. I describe these two photographs because they can be linked to a third photograph: inCamera Lucida, Barthes describes Alexander Gardner’s Portrait of Lewis Payne (1865), in which Payne, charged with the attempted assassination of Secretary of State W.H. Seward, sits handcuffed, awaiting his hanging. Of this photograph, Barthes states, “The photograph is handsome, as is the boy…” [15]. Robinson’sFading Away and Michal’s The Father Prepares His Dead Son for Burial could substitute the Payne portrait when Barthes elaborates that the boy, “is going to die” [16].

How do implications of death prevail in the photograph that, in its essence, alludes to existence? Barthes would argue that death is present in every photograph, in the sense that the referent, whether dead or alive, will, at an eventual point in looking at the photograph, be dead. The subject may not be dead when the photograph is taken, nor does the photograph prompt death in the future, but the link is inevitable in that the inanimate object, the photograph, may “outlive” the living represented within from without, acting as proof that the referent has been seen in person, even though the referent may no longer exist. Barthes categorizes this to be the noeme [17], the essence of photography, his justification being that, “in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there. There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past” [18]. In this sense, every photograph represents an exit, an absence, a “this-has-been.” The photograph, Barthes argues, confirms existence at one time, but treacherously and fallibly alludes to life.

I would argue that photographic depiction of the PWA is necessarily, if not intentionally, a simultaneous depiction of dying, regardless of whether or not the subject is already dead. Within the photograph, the disease could be conceptualized (the symptoms denote the disease), located within the body (the symptoms of the disease which manifest themselves within the body can be seen on the outside of the body), and located within society (the disease’s host can be categorized by the activity through which they acquired the disease; the host is consequently situated within society as diseased). Does the act of photographing the PWA also, as Barthes argues, situate the referent as having been there? It seems conflicting, in a sense, for this to be the case. When Barthes describes Gardner’s portrait of Lewis Payne as a depiction of a handsome, healthy boy who is going to die, it seems impossible to think of the living referent as dead, as he does not appear to be approaching death. However, the very fact that the portrait of the PWA has been taken alludes to a foreboding death, perhaps a doubly foreboding death, in the sense that the referent of the photograph is always (sooner or later) going to die, but the PWA may die even sooner.

If the noeme of the photograph suggests that someone has seen the referent in person, what of the photograph of the corpse? If the referent is so often assumed to necessarily be alive, does the photograph of the corpse act intentionally to render the dead alive again? Or rather, is the corpse of the deceased being represented in these photographs, or is an attempt being made to record the corpse as death in its temporal and tangible form? Michael Mendelson confronts this question, stating that:

You can stare and point at [the corpse] all day, but you will still not find what you are looking for. It is not Death. Corpses … are vestiges of Death, relics of Death, but hardly something to which you can point and say, ‘There is Death; study it well and learn its lesson’ [19].

Does photographing death, preserving the image of the corpse, further help us to understand death? Does it become easier to acknowledge that a death has occurred, or that death (as Barthes argues) will always occur, when confronted with a photograph of death in its closest tangible form—the corpse? Jennifer Webb suggests that depicting death, particularly in art, is less about representing and memorializing the dead, and more about grasping death “in a way that can’t be sustained in everyday discourse” [20]. Webb continues:

To the extent that we are prepared to meet death, or to clarify life’s contingencies, art provides an ideal starting point because it already “understands” (identifies with) death. There are, for instance, several parallels between contemporary art and death: both are frequently opaque; both are frequently self-referential; both are frequently not quite respectable; both belong “elsewhere” and are frequently excluded or repressed; and both must be disguised in order to occupy a place in society. [21]

To Webb, representing death removes it from exile and “restores its vitality,” as its representation transforms it to a verb, an active state [22].

At the same time, death is an end of life (which notes inactivity), as well as the end of disease [23]. Foucault states:

In eighteenth-century medical thought death was both the absolute fact and the most relative of phenomena. It was the end of life and, if it was in its nature to be fatal, it was also the end of the disease; with death, the limit has been reached and truth fulfilled, and by the same breach: in death, disease reached the end of its course, fell silent, and became a thing of memory. [24]

This is interesting in relation to Foucault’s aforementioned localization of illness within and without the body, particularly in terms of artistic production, and the representation of illness in art. As Foucault states, death exterminates both the individual and the illness of the individual. The suffering brought on by illness also ceases with the arrival of death. However, according to Mendelson, the corpse does not adequately represent death. The two photographs discussed at the beginning of the section, Robinson’s Fading Away and Michals’s A Father Prepares His Dead Son for Burial, emphasize this problem of representing the disease, that which causes death, the death of the particular individual being what one is often attempting to memorialize in postmortem photography. Mendelson argues that the corpse is not representing death, while Foucault argues that disease is also no longer being represented once the body has died. What, then, causes visual depictions produced and reliant on infectious, contagious, or epidemiological disease to so strongly attest to the ravages of the disease? Is the postmortem image in these instances meant to attest to the existence, at one time, of the individual being represented, the individual’s death, or the individual’s inextricable link to the disease, which ultimately controlled his/her life to the point that it caused the end of life?

It is here that an account of the history of postmortem photography and posthumous mourning photography is appropriate. In the nineteenth century, death was not considered to be a mystery any moreso than, as Geoffrey Gorer suggests, “that death is always a mystery” [25]. This is important to note in that, though prevailing attitudes toward death photography have evolved over the last two centuries, at the time of the invention of photography in 1837, death was publicly acknowledged as a commonplace occurrence and, as Gorer states:

Children were encouraged to think about death, their own deaths and the edifying or cautionary deathbeds of others. It can have been a rare individual who, in the nineteenth century with its high mortality, has not witnessed at least one actual dying. [26]

Mortuary portraits, which can be traced back in Western societies to the fifteenth century, are believed to be the result of the rise of individualism and secularism, as well as the trend of the affluent merchant class to attempt to achieve status [27]. Considering that the mortuary portrait portrayed its subject as deceased, the painting could only depict a likeness of the subject as living insofar as it could convey the idea of “the vanity and transience of human existence, by representing the end of the individual’s earthly life; [and] a realistic representation of the optical sensation” [28]. Mortuary portraits were usually intended for the intimates of the deceased, rarely leaving the private domain [29].

Posthumous mourning paintings began to appear in the nineteenth century, and were considered to be a more socially acceptable practice in that the deceased was portrayed as alive, even though they were often based on a postmortem daguerreotype of the subject [30]. In some cases, though the subject was portrayed as alive, symbolic objects, such as willow trees or wilted flowers, suggestive of the subject’s death, were often incorporated into the painting so as to clarify the intention of the painting [31]. That posthumous mourning painting was popularized at the same time as the inception of photography is indicative of the disparate functions of the painting and the photograph in representing the dead; the painting, in its capacity to render the dead alive pictorially, was often preferable to photography, which, in its capacity for accurate and unmistakable likeness, could be considered imperfect in its attempt to portray the illusion of life despite death [32]. As Jay Ruby explains, the “function [of photography] was not to keep the dead alive but to enable mourners to acknowledge their loss” [33].

Several nineteenth century Daguerreotypists have described their approaches to photographing the dead, and what becomes apparent is a certain amount of manipulation of the corpse necessary in achieving the intended effect. Josiah Southworth of Southworth and Hawes described the process involved in preparing a corpse to be photographed, stating, in 1873, how:

You can bend [the corpse] till the joints are pliable, and make them assume a natural and easy position … you can carefully turn them over just as though they were under operation of an emetic. You can do that in less than one single minute, and every single thing will pass out, and you can wipe the mouth and wash off the face, and handle them just as well as though they were well persons. [34]

Daguerreotypist Gabriel Harrison described the process of the manipulation of supporting props:

Gently we moved the death couch in the window in order to get the best light, though by a ray. What a face! What a picture did it reveal … The mother held up a white cloth to give me reflected light to subdue the shadows. All was still, I took the cap from the camera. About two minutes had elapsed, when a bright sun ray broke through the clouds, dashed its bright beams upon the reflector, and shedding, as it were, a supernatural light. I was startled—the mother riveted with frightful gaze, for at the same moment we beheld the muscles about the mouth of the child move, and her eyes partially open—a smile played upon her lips, a long gentle sigh heaved her bosom, and as I replaced the cap, her head fell over to one side. The mother screamed.
“She lives! she lives!” and she fell upon her knees by the side of the couch.
“No,” was my reply; “she is dead now, the web of life is broken.”
The camera was doing its work as the cord that bound the gentle being to earth snapped and loosened the spirit for another and better world. If the earth lost a flower, Heaven gained an angel. [35]

An article in the Philadelphia Photographer in 1877 by Charlie E. Orr went so far as to provide a holistic approach to photographing the dead. In the article, Orr wrote:

Place the body in a lounge of sofa, have the friends dress the head and shoulders as near as in life as possible, then politely request them to leave the room to you and your aides, that you may not feel the embarrassment incumbent should they witness some little mishap liable to befall the occasion. If the room be in the northeast or northwest corner of the house, you can almost always have a window at the right and left of a corner. Granting the case to be such, roll the lounge or sofa containing the body as near into the corner as possible, raise it to a sitting position, and bolster firmly, using for a background a drab shawl or some material suited to the position, circumstance, etc. Having posed the model, we will proceed to the lighting, which, with proper care, can be done very nicely… [36]

I emphasize these three examples because they are indicative of a trend in photography of the corpse in which the corpse, that which the memory of the deceased while they were alive the family is attempting to prolong, does not seem to be of importance to the photographer. Lighting, positioning, and props—compositional, external, and artistic elements—are what the photographer deemed to be the ultimate factors in rendering the postmortem photograph that reveals the essence of the being behind the corpse. The photographer occupies himself with the technical elements of the memorializing process, relieving the family of the deceased of this responsibility and permitting for more time in which to mourn. The nineteenth century, witness to photography advertisements stating that, “We are prepared to take pictures of a deceased person on one hour’s notice,” provides examples of both the commonality and commoditization, as well as the embellishment and idealization of the corpse [37].

Often, it was the photographer’s—as well as the family of the deceased’s—intention to depict the deceased as though s/he was not dead at all. A common trend was to photograph the deceased in the “last sleep” pose, in which the corpse was positioned to appear as though it were sleeping, rather than dead. Acquainting sleep with death caused death to appear as easy and painless, “as painless as falling asleep” [38]. The illusion of the corpse that is not dead was also obtained, though less successfully, by positioning the corpse upright, often with its eyes painted on over its eyelids or pried and held open [39]. When not attempting to portray the dead as alive, the corpse was blatantly depicted in its casket, often with elaborate props such as funeral floral arrangements [40]. Ruby states, “The photographs were irrefutable evidence of death while the funeral parlors were ‘slumber rooms’ for the eternally asleep” [41].

Nineteenth century mortuary photography attempted to deny the presence of death, to reclaim the disappearing subject through physical posterity, almost as if death, such a common occurrence, was simply the next phase of a long and winding life. What, then, of the lives abruptly halted by a mysterious and unforgiving disease during an era at once believed to be eradicated of insidious epidemiological disease? How to portray the unrest of those to whom death is the last in a series of unfortunate incidents of unrest? The beginning of the AIDSepidemic in North America can be regarded as such, when hope for a cure, hope for adequate treatment, and hope for a long life, remained, well, hopeless. Physical symptoms often suggested that death was not far behind. Of the epidemic in the first half of the 1980s and subsequent PWA visual representations, Grover states:

Most of the … early portraits [of PWAs] were elegiac, made after or shortly before the death of their subjects. We need always to remember that as late as 1986, the average life expectancy of someone diagnosed with PCP was less than ten months. These early portraits, for the most part, were of terminally ill people … The work was tentative, improvisational, and centrally concerned with the imminence of its subjects’ deaths. [42]

However, while nineteenth century mortuary photography was a private practice, reserved for intimate family and friends of the deceased, the prevalence of AIDSwithin already marginalized communities (gay communities at the beginning of the epidemic in North America) necessitated the prominent positioning of representations of AIDS-related deaths in order to ensure that these deaths were not marginalized as well. Intra-community portraits, according to Grover:

Differed from extra-community ones made by photojournalists and artists because they represented their subjects as individuals surrounded by friends, pets, and the many other compass points that secure us to our lives, rather than as walking pathologies. Metaphorically speaking, intra-community portraits were not made behind shuttered windows. [43]

Rather than depicting merely a corpse, the cause of death stripped from the content of the image and relegated to the memories of family and friends, thePWA portrait in the early years of the epidemic often took on the form of a visual diary, chronicling the life, culture, and communities belonging to the PWA, including the moment of death as part of the autobiographical chronology.

In Allan, from Sadness. A Monologue with Slides, William Yang presents a series of photographs of Allan, who died of AIDS in 1990. The photographs in the series were taken between 1988 and 1990, and depict Allan in various states of sickness and health. In six of the photographs, Allan is in a hospital bed. In two of those photographs, Allan is in a coma, close to death. Yang has written text under each of the photographs, chronicling Allan’s life during this period of time, as both a PWA struggling between life and death, and as a PWA living life despite possible impending death. In one text, Yang writes:

He tried. He tried really hard to keep up his spirits. Each time he went back [to the hospital] he’d bring decoration, he brought colour to those drab hospital rooms. He kept a diary and in it he wrote down all his hopes and dreams as well as his deepest fears. He wrote, “I think more people die of self pity than die of AIDS.” [44]

Through his detailed, sometimes tangential and anecdotal narrative of Allan’s progression from life to death, Yang situates Allan within his life prior to his debilitation, removing the stigma that could be attached to the photographs of Allan just prior to death, when he is comatose. These images become part of a larger narrative of Allan’s life, particularly in that Yang has also included in his series a photograph of Allan in 1980, young, healthy, and yet to be affected by the future epidemic. In Yang’s series, the depiction of death is no longer a private rite, but a public testament to a life lived.

Nan Goldin provides another type of chronology of the lives of friends afflicted with and dying of AIDS. Having photographed a group of intimate friends throughout the 1980s, Goldin provides a visual account of both the mundane and the monumental moments in her life and in the lives of her friends. A photograph entitled, Cookie and Vittorio’s Wedding, New York City, 1986, depicts Vittorio in a suit and Cookie in a bridal gown. Vittorio smiles; Cookie looks as though she has been crying. In September 1989, Goldin photographs Cookie and Vittorio, together again (fig. 7). Vittorio lies in an open casket. Cookie, dressed in black, stands over her dead husband. Two months later, Goldin photographs Cookie, who lies dead in her own casket (fig. 8). Vittorio and Cookie, three years after their wedding, have succumbed to AIDS.

The juxtaposition of these three images speaks to the life narrative that continues, even after death. Goldin is not attempting to “capture” death, nor is she trying to deny death. Rather, death, like life, happens, and Goldin documents, memorializes, and celebrates all that confronts her social and emotional realm. Of her AIDS photography, Goldin states, “It was all about trying to hold onto people, making sure they didn’t disappear without a trace,” [45] mirroring Simon Watney’s argument that, “Our mourning strives to be public … because it is in the public domain that the value of the lives of our dead loved ones is so frequently questioned or denied” [46]. Where denying illness and death kept the citizens of the nineteenth century in good social graces, intentionally exposing society to the lesions, the dying, and the death in PWA photography is often the only way to ensure that those being mourned grace society at all. Securing prominence is the first step; ensuring that prominence remains is the next.

Decay: Remembering the Dead

Why does the photograph so powerfully serve to recall those who have died? To Walter Benjamin, the value of the photograph is in its capacity to initiate “remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead. For the last time the aura [noeme, essence] emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expressions of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty” [47] To Sturken:

The photograph of personal value is a talisman, in which the past is often perceived to reside so that it can be reexperienced. It evokes both memory and loss, both a trace of life and the prospect of death. Yet, while the photograph may be perceived as a container for memory, it is not inhabited by memory so much as it produces it; it is a mechanism through which the past can be constructed and situated within the present. [48]

Sturken’s claim makes the correlation between the inevitability of both death and the production of memorials of the deceased apparent; Barthes has rendered the photographic referent existent, while Benjamin and Sturken have permitted the referent to exist ethereally and indefinitely. The physical photograph substitutes the necessity of a physical referent, perpetuating the potential for a continuous emotional relationship to the referent that has become absent, rendering death a mere technicality.

The memorial, then, takes on many forms, represents many bodies, lives, and times, and is produced by and for many individuals and cultures. Sturken claims that, “as technologies of memory, photographs play a primary role in the traffic between personal memory, cultural memory, and history … Cultural objects, photographs among them, often move from personal memory to cultural memory to history and back” [49]. To Sturken, the most poignant photographs are those that are created in a personal context that continue on to gain cultural and historical significance. In her examination of souvenirs and collections, Susan Stewart arrives at a similar conclusion, though in reverse. Where Sturken inserts the personal memory into a historical context, Stewart extracts the personal memory from history, in the form of a souvenir [50]. The photograph as memento/souvenir, in its ability to render an uncanny representation of its referent, is regarded by Stewart as, “a logical extension of the pressed flower, the preservation of an instant in time through a reduction of physical dimensions and a corresponding increase in significance supplied by means of narrative” [51]. To Stewart, the souvenir also permits the beholder to grasp history, to claim history as the beholder’s intimate own.

The arguments put forth by Sturken and Stewart are relevant to the discussion of death photography for several reasons. For one, both Sturken and Stewart make reference to the tendency to memorialize historical events. The event can take on the form of a war, a natural disaster, a political conflict, a royal wedding, and each event prompts the production of mementos; medallions, newspaper clippings, postcards, photographs. When does disease become a historical event to be memorialized? I would argue that the disease that takes on epidemic proportions, in that its repercussions cause mass devastation, warrants memorializing. Of epidemic disease, Foucault states:

An epidemic is a finer-grained constitution, with more constant, more homogenous phenomena … [T]here is no difference in nature of species, therefore, between an individual disease and an epidemic phenomenon; it is enough that a sporadic malady be reproduced a number of times for it to constitute an epidemic. It is a purely mathematical problem of the threshold: the sporadic disease is merely a submarginal epidemic. The perception involved is no longer essential and ordinal, as in the medicine of species, but quantitative and cardinal. [52]

Foucault continues on to state that each epidemic disease is entitled to its own gaze, in that each epidemic “has a sort of historical individuality, hence the need to employ a complex method of observation when dealing with it” [53]. By sheer numbers, the epidemic affects a population to the point that its occurrence cannot be forgotten. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the main cause of population decrease was the plague, creating what Mikhaël Elbaz and Ruth Murbach call a “culture of death” [54] and resulting in iconography dominated by skeletons and the danse macabre [55]. Tuberculosis in the nineteenth century resulted in artistic production (in this case, literature) that Sontag describes as “almost symptomless, unfrightened, [and] beatific” [56]. I highlight these examples to exemplify the historic individuality of each epidemic, as well as the forms of cultural documentation an epidemic can assume. The individuals collectively produce what becomes an epidemic, and take back what can be salvaged in order to remember the devastation. The term “devastation,” in this sense, can be applied to that which affects the individual and their intimate circle, part of a much larger devastation that can be held accountable for personal devastation.

It is my belief that this is what occurs in the visual memorializing of PWAs. Unlike death by accident, by old age, or by countless other form of disease, “death by AIDS” assumes a cultural currency that cannot be completely separated from the individual death. Communicable diseases, diseases that thrive through transmission from one host to another, particularly in contexts in which the communicable factor is somewhat reliant on cultural and subcultural practice, results in returning to the source in a cyclical and self-referential way. That said, the memorial, whether private or public, is necessarily infused with a cultural element that identifies the subject within said culture. Sturken states, “Camera images … play a vital role in the development of national meaning and creating a sense of shared participation and experience in the nation” [57]. However, I can’t help but consider the potential for exclusion in memorializing and historicizing in relation to marginalized communities. Do images of PWAs actually emerge from the communities that have created them, or are they just as apt to remain private testaments to lives lived as nineteenth century mortuary and mourning portraits, rather than instances of greater cultural memory?

Timothy Murphy argues for the purposes of the AIDS memorial:

The grief of the epidemic and the incentive to memorialize are no mere biological reflexes—they are an assertion against the leveling effect of death that persons are not replaceable, that death does not nullify presence [58].

To Murphy, to memorialize is to fend off absence, to ensure that the space once physically occupied by the deceased is never empty of that presence. However, memorial, in this sense, becomes a broad term: it seems as though the private memorial aims to memorialize the individual, while the public memorial removes the personal element, memorializing the disease that only maintains its power in its very leveling of individuals. The personal photograph very quickly comes to depict a “symptom” of a society rather than the individual it originally intended to depict. Nicholas Nixon’s 1988 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was criticized for this very reason [59]. The exhibition featured a collection of photographs of PWAs by Nixon in which the PWAs depicted were secondary to the symptoms of their illness, portrayed as “people to be pitied or feared, as people alone and lonely” [60]. To Grover:

Nixon’s PWA photographs … are close-ups or shallow-focused medium-range shots that shear away the markers of personal identity besides AIDS. The final images in his series treat the subject’s face as his or her sole possession; hugely magnified, shorn of the relationships, possessions, and surroundings that bear so largely on our construction of self, Nixon’s subjects become little more than fields on which to read disintegration. Now, arguably this is a state to which most of us eventually come some time before dying; in that sense, Nixon’s final, pore-level portraits of his subjects may be distressingly accurate. [61]

However, as members of ACT UP stated in their manifesto against the exhibition, Nixon neglected to remember that, “the artist’s choice to produce representational work always affects more than a single artist’s career, going beyond issues of curatorship, beyond the walls on which an artist’s work is displayed. Ultimately, representations affect those portrayed” [62]. A paradoxical situation arises here: how to represent and how to memorialize, in the public forum, the individual, as well as the epidemiological disease from which they are dying, without simply perpetuating stereotypical representation of the physical affects, that which can be seen and easily understood by the general public? Why should the general public be made to remember the private living and dying of the individual with whom they have had no personal relationship? Does the photographic depiction sacrifice its subject at the frontlines in order to draw attention to the greater battle at hand? Should the photograph that encounters illness and death remain, as in the nineteenth century, in the private domain in order to maintain a sense of integrity of the subject that may be lost upon the subject’s photographic “exposure”?

Rebirth: Witnesses Against Vanishing

I would argue that it is possible to avoid this tug-of-war, this question of public interpretation of private lives, while continuing to promote awareness about the subject’s cause of death and the implications of the cause on society. A popular term during the early AIDS epidemic was “witness.” In 1989, Goldin curated Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, about HIV/AIDS, at Artists Space in New York [63] (of the exhibition, Goldin stated, “It was the first major show done by people in the community where all the work was done by people with AIDS or by people who had died of AIDS” [64] ). The term “bearing witness” has become synonymous with remembering people who have died of AIDS. Of the AIDSepidemic, White states, “we are witnessing not just the death of individuals but a menace to an entire culture: all the more reason to bear witness to the cultural moment” [65] The term “witness” becomes important here in that, returning to Barthes’s argument for the ability of the photograph to stand testament to the existence of the referent necessitates an examination into the existence of the photographer, s/he who has been witness to the referent whose existence is also being proven. In Camera Lucida, Barthes recounts an occasion on which he was given a photograph of himself he could not remember having had taken. Barthes recounts:

One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself which I could not remember being taken, for all my effort; I inspected the tie, the sweater, to discover in what circumstances I had worn them; to no avail. And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there… [66]

Barthes’s mention of the photographer who gives him the photograph is an acknowledgement of two witnesses: the photographer, who has rendered Barthes in photographic form, and the photograph, which, in itself, undeniably represents Barthes. It is this quality of the photograph, the inherent notion that the photograph supposes a photographer who has witnessed the occurrence of the photograph being taken, that is important to the discussion of photographic representations of AIDS. To witness assumes a personal perception of an event or an object; the witness has perceived a moment that, in retrospect, develops its own unique qualities dependant on the witness’s perception, resulting in a highly subjective interpretation. In terms of photographic projection of a witnessed moment, it is my argument that, in assuming the role of the first person to view the moment being photographed, the photographer creates an invisible boundary between the photograph and the viewer. The moment portrayed in the photograph can no longer be witnessed by the viewer (they were not present when the photograph was taken) as the photographer has witnessed the moment, and the photographer knows this, creating an instance in which the photographer is also presenting his/her findings not as facts, but as a testament to his/her presence when the photograph was taken. In this sense the photograph is objective rather than subjective, in that the photographer has simply documented what s/he has seen.

In this sense, I believe it is possible to represent the PWA in a manner that does not sensationalize, tokenize, or stereotype the subject, as this mode of representation suggests what has been seen, rather than what necessarily is. The intra-community portrait supposes a close proximity to the PWA, or status as aPWA, resulting in one type of witnessing, while the extra-community portrait, created by someone from outside the AIDS community, results in a different type of witnessing. When the photographer acknowledges him/herself as a witness instead of as one who is necessarily expressing a truth, the viewer is given the ability to interpret the photograph for him/herself, maintaining the photograph’s role as a memorial to a moment or object while prompting for a critical engagement with the idea the photograph presents rather than with the photographer’s ethical or unethical intentions.

I would like to examine three more photographic examples to conclude my argument about the function of the photograph in representations of AIDS and death and the power of the witness to portray and memorialize publicly in a less problematic way. I would like to consider this potential with three different types of portraits: the PWA portrait by the seronegative person; the PWA portrait by another PWA; and the PWA self-portrait. In Felix, June 5, 1994 (1994-99), AABronson presents fellow General Idea member Felix Partz shortly after his death from an AIDS-related illness. In the portrait, Felix lies in a bed that looks oversized due to Felix’s emaciated body. Unlike Michals’s The Father Prepares His Dead Son for Burial, Felix’s death is undeniable. His cheekbones jut out of his face, and his eyes are wide open, as if his eyelids simply cannot reach over his eyes. However, despite Felix’s lifeless state, the portrait nevertheless seems celebratory; Felix wears a black and white patterned dress shirt (albeit many sizes too large), and is surrounded by an array of colorful and clashing blankets, sheets, and pillows. Covering Felix is a red and black plaid blanket, contrasted with a sheet made up of hundreds of circles in blues, yellows, pinks, greens, and reds, solid-color pillows emphasizing the circles. The photograph, in its luminescence, almost appears as a painting, rather than a photograph, due in part to the distorted remnants of Felix, but also because of the crazed collaboration of the multitude of colors, drawing comparisons to Gustav Klimt [67]. Of his work depicting Felix (as well as Jorge Zontal of GI, who also died that year) inching toward death, Bronson states:

At a certain point, I realized the only thing I had to start with was that experience of going through their deaths and that last time we spent together. The works that I began then were autobiographical. It was a means of processing everything and starting to move forward. [68]

To Bronson, the last surviving member of General Idea, the urge to document the deaths of his collaborators came from a personal space, a personal relationship with his subjects that was inextricable from his own being. In this sense, it is almost impossible to argue against the photograph for its depiction of the PWA, for Bronson has simply carried on documenting and portraying those elements of life that have always been important to General Idea. To omit the depiction of Felix’s death from an AIDS-related illness, after a decade of AIDS-related artistic practice, would be to close the books prematurely on an issue of obvious relevance to the group in both their professional and personal lives. To depict is to continue to acknowledge the lives lived and witnessed by Bronson throughout his life.

In Untitled (Hujar Dead) (1988-89), David Wojnarowicz relates a similar experience and alludes to his own foreboding demise. Recently diagnosed HIVpositive, Wojnarowicz depicts his best friend Peter, shortly after Peter’s death from AIDS. Nine black and white photographs of Peter are laid out, surrounded by a collage of torn paper money, snippets of words, and maps cut out to resemble sperm. On top of the photographs of Peter is a long text, in which Wojnarowicz warns that, “as each T cell disappears from my body, it’s replaced by ten pounds of pressure, ten pounds of rage” [69]. Wojnarowicz’s text juxtaposed with the photographs of Peter simultaneously reflects Wojnarowicz’s grief over the death of his friend, as well as his grief over his own diagnosis. In a way, the death of Peter allows Wojnarowicz a place to vocalize his anger over his own pending illness, and to memorialize Peter, dead from the same disease that has also come to be part of Wojnarowicz’s life.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (1992), a photograph of an unoccupied bed that became a billboard in New York, can be read as both a portrait and a self-portrait. The photograph was made after the death of Gonzalez-Torres’s lover, Ross Laycock, and symbolizes the widespread losses of lovers, family, and friends to AIDS. Of the public positioning of the photograph and its intended audience, Gonzalez-Torres stated, “When people ask me, ‘Who is your public?’ I say honestly, without skipping a beat, ‘Ross.’ The public was Ross. The rest of the people just come to the work” [70]. Despite the absences of both Gonzalez-Torres and Ross, the photograph functions as a relocation of the private into the public domain, in two senses: the bed, and the bed when occupied (particularly by two gay men), has been removed from secrecy and societal shame, and has been plastered on a billboard for all to see. That the bed is empty denotes the absence of its usual occupants, forcing Ross’s death, as well as Gonzalez-Torres’s loss into the public realm.

I highlight these examples because, by situating personal homage to death within society rather than away from society, each artist helps to ensure that not only they, but also any stranger confronting each photograph, continues to be witnesses against vanishing.

1. Leonard Cohen. Everybody Knows (Columbia Records, 1988).
2. Marita Sturken. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), p. 19.
3. Mary Warner Marien. Photography: A Cultural History (New York: Prentice Hall, Inc. & Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002), p. 13.
4. Michel Foucault. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception trans. A.M. Sheridan (London & New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 110.
5. Ibid., p. 217.
6. Ibid., p. 149.
7. Susan Sontag. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (New York: Doubleday, 1990), p. 104.
8. Ibid., pp.108-9.
9. Jan Zita Grover. “OI: Opportunistic Identification, Open Identification in PWA Portraiture,” inOverexposed: Essays on Contemporary Photography, ed. Carol Squiers (New York: The New Press, 1999), p. 105.
10. Ibid., p. 111.
11. Ibid.
12. Ted Gott, ed. Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS (Melbourne, London & New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994), p. 132.
13. Robert Atkins & Thomas W. Sokolowski. From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS (New York: Independent Curators Inc., 1992), p. 42.
14. Grover, p. 106.
15. Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981) 96.
16. Ibid. 
17. Ibid., p.77.
18. Ibid., p. 76.
19. Michael Mendelson. “The Body in the Next Room,” in Images of the Corpse: From the Renaissance to Cyberspace, ed. Elizabeth Klaver (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), p. 187.
20. Jennifer and Lorraine Webb. “Dead or Alive,” in Images of the Corpse: From the Renaissance to Cyberspace ed. Elizabeth Klaver (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), p. 212.
21.  Ibid., pp. 213-4.
22. Ibid., p. 214.
23. Foucault, p. 172.
24. Ibid.
25. Jay Ruby. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), p. 60.
26.  Ibid. 
27. Ibid., p. 60.
28. Ibid., p. 29.
29. Ibid. 
30. Ibid., p. 36.
31. Ibid., p. 37.
32. Ibid., p. 43.
33. Ibid. 
34. Ibid., p. 45.
35. Ibid., p. 57.
36. Ibid., p. 58.
37. Ibid., p. 52.
38. Ibid., p. 64.
39. Ibid. 
40. Ibid., p. 64.
41. Ibid., p. 77.
42. Grover, p. 111.
43. Ibid. 
44. William Yang. Allan, from Sadness. A Monologue with Slides (1988-90), in Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS, ed. Ted Gott (Melbourne, London & New York: Thames & Hudson, 1994), pp. 34-51.
45. Nan Goldin. “Voices: Nan Goldin’s Statement” [link] in The Digital Journalist [link].
46. Gott, p. 12.
47. Walter Benjamin. Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1955), p. 226. 
48. Marita Sturken. “The Image as Memorial: Personal Photographs in Cultural Memory,” in The Familial Gaze, Marianne Hirsch, ed. (Hanover and London: Dartmouth College/University Press of New England, 1999), p. 178.
49. Ibid., pp. 178-9.
50. Susan Stewart. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 138.
51.  Ibid.
52. Foucault, p. 25.
53. Foucault, p. 26.
54. Mikhaël Elbaz and Ruth Murbach. “Fear in the Face of the Other, Condemned and Damned: AIDS, Epidemics and Exclusions,” in A Leap in the Dark: AIDS, Art & Contemporary Cultures, Allan Klusaèek and Ken Morrison, eds. (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1992), p. 3.
55. Ibid., p. 3.
56. Sontag, p. 16.
57. Marita Sturken. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997), p. 24.
58. Gott, p. 57.
59. Grover, p. 112.
60. Ibid., p. 113.
61.  Ibid., p. 118.
62. Ibid., p. 113.
63. Nan Goldin. “Witnesses Against Our Vanishing.” Artists Space, New York, 1989.
64. Nan Goldin. “Voices.”
65. Gott, p. 132.
66. Barthes, p. 85.
67. Ikon, “AA Bronson” [link] in Artfacts.net [link].
68. AA Bronson and Matthew Hays, “Getting the General Idea,” Montreal Mirror, October 25, 2001.
69. David Wojnarowicz. Untitled (Hujar Dead), 1988-89. Mixed media.
70. Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Felix Gonzalez-Torres” [link] in Wikipedia [link].