By William Simmons ’14, Harvard College
Laurie Simmons and Jimmy DeSana met on the New York City subway in 1973. “A group of us were taking the A train to Far Rockaway. I can’t remember why,” Simmons recalls (Simmons, “Interview with DeSana” 3). This fortuitous meeting set the stage for a long friendship between the two artists that lasted until DeSana’s death in 1990, an experience that Simmons credits as a source of technical and thematic inspiration (Simmons, “Interview with DeSana” 23). When DeSana was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, Simmons knew that “there wasn’t much time left,” and set about to create a “funny and touching and significant tribute” to her dear friend (Simmons, “Interview with Chrissy Iles”). The result is the Walking Camera series, part of a set of photographs created in 1987 while Simmons was intrigued by the notion of walking objects. Though several prints were made, a particularly evocative photograph is held by the Harvard Art Museums within 1989: A Portfolio Honoring Artists Lost to AIDS. This print is named from the outset as a memorial – Untitled (In Honor of Jimmy DeSana) (Figure 1). It is impossible, therefore, to separate this picture from the circumstances that frame it historically; in the waning days of the 1980s, a decade plagued by rampant fears of a newfound disease, this tribute takes on a special significance. DeSana’s work was clearly affected by these circumstances; as a gay artist and activist, he dealt with the implications of creating art in the face of an unthinkable, personal tragedy (Simmons, “Interview with DeSana” 32). The dusk of his life, as captured by Simmons, is thus the bookending of a decade-long fight for equality. Her choice of the camera goes hand-in-hand with the memorializing function of Untitled (In Honor of Jimmy DeSana), for it engenders a historical memory at the close of the 1980s. The camera costume acts as a memorial object that calls to mind both the process of individual loss and the collective suffering manifest in the AIDS crisis.
Though there is no scholarly work done on this particular photograph, Kate Linker’s recent essay for Walking, Talking, Lying dissects the thematic grounding of the more frequently discussed print from the Walking Objects series, Walking Camera I (Jimmy the Camera). Linker discusses the growing emphasis on consumerism in the time of Simmons’ childhood, the 1950s, an era marked by an “increasing importance of objects” not as useful items, but as outward emblems of class or taste (Linker 9). More importantly, the interplay between objects and people becomes problematic with the use of the camera, for photography has been historically considered a means to excise outer appearances and put them on display. Oliver Holmes’ analysis of the photograph is certainly an example, and from it, Linker concludes that consumerism allowed “superficial appearance…[to become] equal to or more important than real substance” (Linker 14). On the other hand, the significance of the object is not entirely superficial. The Walking Objects unite desire with the object itself, a poignant reminder of the hopes of childhood. It is a common youthful dream that one’s toys can come to life, but there is always the melancholia of knowing that such magic is impossible (Linker 36). Moving on to her discussion of Walking Camera I specifically, Linker makes an important observation:
The prints are large – almost seven feet by four feet – and, like the ensuing Objects, their hybrid subjects are human scale…Although the size of the images encourages the viewer’s identification with these equivocal portraits, their stagy presence and spotlit theatricality detach them from the viewer’s space. The result is that the objects become iconic presences. (Linker 36)
Though Linker makes helpful points for understanding the Walking Objects generally, they are not all applicable to Untitled (In Honor of Jimmy DeSana). On an obvious level, Untitled (In Honor of Jimmy DeSana) is only about 10 inches by 6 inches, which takes it out of the realm of the iconic. Moreover, Untitled (In Honor of Jimmy DeSana) operates specifically within the context of a larger AIDS memorial project; it follows that this portrait takes on a different character. I will therefore argue the opposite of Linker’s take on this portrait, and instead focus on the photograph’s subtle combination of the personal and the universal, as well as the immediacy that results from this synthesis. Linker’s reading is too limited in scope, and I hope to enlist the historical, social, and psychological themes present in this work to bring about a fuller view. Beginning with a formal reading of my own, I will situate this photograph within the time of AIDS, leading ultimately to the combination of historical and psychoanalytic modes.
Artist: Laurie Simmons
Title: Walking Camera (Jimmy the Camera), variation (in honor of Jimmy de Sana)
Medium/Support: Chromogenic print, Crystal archive-type chromogenic print
Dimensions: image: 25.4 x 15.1 cm (10 x 5 15/16 in.); sheet: 60.8 x 50.8 cm (23 15/16 x 20 in.)
Credit: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Richard and Ronay Menschel Fund for the Acquisition of Photographs, P2003.8.7
Copyright: Allan Macintyre © President and Fellows of Harvard College
To begin, an object replaces DeSana, which emphasizes a signifier rather than a physical body. It is not just any representative object, however, for the camera has a special significance as a symbol of both DeSana’s craft and the working relationship between the two artists. This signifier, however, has all the fullness of a real body. No aspect of the picture can escape the blur; everything from the movement of the leg, to the body of the camera itself, takes on an ethereal quality, as if it is vibrating with inner life. The sense of motion imparted by the subtle blur, which can only be experienced fully in person, imparts upon the object-as-human an elusive depth. This is especially noticeable in the multiplicity of blurred folds of the camera, as well as the cylindrical lens, which come together to suggest interiority within the costume. Simmons compounds this deepening of the photograph with the severe side lighting, the source of an all-encompassing shimmer effect. The contours of the camera, epitomized by the viewfinder, capture the light and create shadows that enhance the three-dimensionality. Light’s effect on the movement of the leg is particularly indicative of this drive to lend life to the inanimate, as the interplay between light and motion fences in a cubic section of space. The camera costume becomes simultaneously a rejection of the physical body and a reminder of what lies inside it.
The pictorial liberation of the body is further marked by DeSana’s agency in the creation of his final portrait, both literally and pictorially. Simmons states that she simply shot while DeSana danced as he pleased, ultimately choosing those prints that “felt the most like him” (Simmons, “Interview with Chrissy Iles”). Simmons undoubtedly asserts the freedom of her model, even in the face of a debilitating illness. Furthermore, the very clear presence of the backdrop indicates that this is, in fact, a performance, and is therefore a demonstration of skill and agency. The brushlike, fluid motion of the leg, which balances the pictorial and physical weight of the flash bulb, accentuates the grace of the body. All of this occurs in a space that seems to have no floor. A close examination of the photograph reveals the combination of DeSana’s tense muscles, seen through the ballet shoe and tights, and the nonexistent floor. The subject’s physical presence and strength are manifest as a result, and the viewer cannot help but be amazed by the equilibrium of the pose in an area lacking material grounding. The picture attains an aesthetic balance; standing on the black surface, the camera-as-man performs a nimble dance that belies his true condition. Linker’s vision of theatricality has no place here; the combination of interiority and performance leads not to separation, but rather to an engagement with the performance. Though there is no doubting the stagey qualities, they exist to emphasize inwardness within action, something that a mere icon cannot accomplish. There is a sense that this space, though clearly constructed, is an extension of our own; the camera faces outward, and the chimerical substance of the image invites the viewer to engage visually with DeSana’s dance. Through performance, DeSana controls his own self, and by extension his visual fate, a stark departure from the images that circulated in the era of AIDS.
One must reflect upon the bigotry and condescension that characterized the American response to AIDS with special attention paid to visual representations of the illness. Utilizing Mark Blechner’s argument in “Psychological Aspects of the AIDS Epidemic: A Fifteen Year Perspective,” DeLaite points out that alongside the shock of the disease came irrational attitudes that precluded meaningful action from being taken on a significant scale, the most important of which being the need to apply the label of Other to AIDS victims as a means to assuage fear of infection (DeLaite 27). DeLaite concludes that the sense of the queer community as a distant, separate minority only exacerbated the problem, as the general population was more than willing to defensively relegate AIDS to the realm of gays and minorities (DeLaite 27). In the report of the 1991 National Commission on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, the authors affirm that the concentration of AIDS in “segments of society already at a disadvantage…permitted too many Americans to detach from the fray (National Commission on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome 1). The fear of AIDS thus became an opportunity to justify racism and homophobia, as if sexual and racial outsiders were the only ones susceptible to the disease. AIDS became a “punishment for deviant behavior…that…threaten[s] the innocent,” both “something incurred by vulnerable ‘others’ and…(potentially) everyone’s disease” (Sontag qtd. in DeLaite 28). Indeed, “the media repetitiously threw up images of street prostitutes and stereotypically gay men as paradigmatic ‘risk group’ members” (Grover 35). Equating AIDS with social outcasts legitimized a national reluctance to respond. Indeed, “white, male, heterosocial society [had] magnified the difference between themselves and homosexuals” (DeLaite 28). Not only were AIDS victims barred from society by class and race, but also by an unreasonable air of moral superiority. On top of the general distaste for homosexuality, queer Americans had to endure oppression compounded by bigoted assumptions about class, race, and sexuality.
Tragically, this denigrating social response precluded the proper mourning of the dead. DeLaite notes that “the lack of public acknowledgement of AIDS losses and the necessity of their mourning problematize[d] gay men’s attempts to mourn in traditional public settings” (DeLaite 37). Drawing upon Simon Watney’s Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS, and the Media” DeLaite analyzes the creation of a “psychic impediment” within the funeral process as a result of the need for secrecy and the maintenance of proper masculine roles (DeLaite 37). The complex process of grieving is thus truncated and unfulfilled for the dying and their families. There was a struggle against societal preconceptions, a struggle often marked by revulsion and ridicule (Lerner 2). Since AIDS carried the double weight of disease and assumed homosexuality, dying became a clandestine, shameful activity. The inability to mourn or die with dignity presented an incredible psychological burden, one that added insult to injury for an entire group of Americans. It is this psychological pretext that inspired a movement to restore dignity to those who live with AIDS, as opposed to the constructed vision of the victim. According to Judith Butler, this would be a difficult fight, however, since American society maintains a “preemption of the possibility of homosexual attachment,” thereby allowing the “mourn[ing] [of] the loss of homosexual attachment only with great difficulty” (Butler qtd. in DeLaite 26). If love experienced between same-sex partners has no legitimacy, there is no need for supportive spaces for mourning. What results is “a construction of homosexuality as [a way of life] in which some losses necessarily remain unmourned” (DeLaite 26). In this light, Simmons’ project takes on special significance, for it is a part of a necessary step to reclaim the mourning process from the influences of prejudice.
Simmons’ work is also in conversation with the dominant modes of representation of AIDS victims that imposed yet another difficulty on mourners. When the media depicted people with AIDS, there was a tendency to portray the stereotypical AIDS victim, a condescending construction that, once again, attempted to divide the mainstream from the diseased Other. The press photographed those suffering from AIDS as they depicted felons, that is, with identity-masking shadow produced by extreme backlighting, in a disingenuous effort to protect the parties involved from retaliation (Grover 32). In doing so the ill were separated visually, “as if they had something to hide, as if they were criminals” (Grover 32). This demonization of AIDS in the press only exacerbated the antagonism harbored against the gay community by casting them as a mysterious minority. The problem was not a collective one, because it was only applicable to the shadowy, promiscuous homosexual whose mere existence threatened the safety of white, heterosexual society (Crimp 90). Some of the coverage became circus-like, and paraded people with AIDS in front of the camera to titillate and terrify a mainstream audience. Crimp relays the story of a Frontline exposé on AIDS that featured an African-American, gay man named Fabian Bridges, whose lack of familial support and insurmountable poverty led him to become a hustler (Crimp 92-97). The camera crew followed him as every family member turned him away for fear of his disease, and even had him explicitly discuss turning tricks on camera (Crimp 94-95). Frontline did not offer Fabian any assistance; instead, “they said to this lonely, ill, and scared young man, in effect, ‘We’re gonna make you a star’” in exchange for permission to air his tragedy for all of America to see (Crimp 97). The viewer was therefore prompted to feel revulsion, superiority, and separateness, rather than empathy. It is exactly this kind of opportunism that slowed the progress of legitimate empathy or assistance for the dying. “Cut off from life,” people with AIDS were subjected to a nonstop “penchant for seeking out the most visibly ill,” or, in the case of Fabian, those on the fringe of society (Grover 32).
Specifically, photography became a tool of anxiety, a means to delineate those who were susceptible to AIDS and those who were not. Watney calls this phenomenon “the spectacle of AIDS,” which attempts to “ensure that the subject of AIDS is ‘correctly’ identified…[within] bodies of individuals who clearly disclose the stigmata of their guilt” (Watney, “Spectacle of AIDS” 78). Following Watney’s analysis, Gagnon considers this an “imperative to visualize, confirm, and fix AIDS in the body” (Gagnon 61). It is interesting, then, that Simmons takes up a medium that is fraught with negative historical weight, especially the combination of a voyeuristic fascination with AIDS victims and a patronizing pity stemming from images of imminent death. Photography’s connection with reality is important to consider here. The medium has a privileged role of being able to reproduce reality as it appears. It follows that “knowledge, then, can be produced visually, and knowledge of HIV infection and AIDS is produced, in many ways, invented by the photograph” (Gagnon 61). Fear requires an alleged basis in the real, as well as a concrete assurance that what is feared will stay in its own bounds. Photography as a medium is perfect for this purpose, given its ability to portray a verifiable, physical truth that is both real and distinct from the viewer. Victims bore visible signs of illness; AIDS was tirelessly centered in withering bodies whose fate was hopelessly sealed. The placement of the effects of AIDS onto individuals denied both the humanity of those who suffered from AIDS, as well as any attempt at a collective identity or memory. The AIDS victim, alone and unsupported, appeared to be suffering in a vacuum, removed indefinitely from other humans and other victims alike. Indeed, the question of the representation of AIDS, combined with the callous response exacerbated by sexual and socioeconomic divides, presented a difficult hurdle to clear for the dying and their allies. All of this amounts to a refusal to give autonomy, both visual and emotional, to people with AIDS. A potential weapon for a prejudiced society, the image is a product of power relations, the efforts of one group to impose a relegating gaze onto the AIDS victim. Surely, the dominant mode of portraying the dying assuaged the fear of the majority. In response, the term “people with AIDS,” or PWAs, came onto the scene with the publishing of the Denver Principles, a document that asserted that “we [PWAs] condemn attempts to label us as victims, which implies defeat…passivity, helplessness, and dependence on the care of others” (Lerner 191). A search for a new, dignified means of representation was necessary in a society that added such unnecessary weight to the final days of life. Certainly, the return of personal freedom to the image of the AIDS victim had enormous psychological implications. Schulz indicates that retaining control in the face of the ultimate loss of control, that is, death, is essential to avoiding psychological and physical harm (Schulz 79). Still, the question remains, is a photographic representation of the dying ever entirely respectful? “Pictures of people with AIDS always stack the deck in one way or another: being too arty or artless, too negative or too positive – editing out (or in) certain details or symbols to elicit a particular response in the viewer” (Baker 151). It seems, then, that photography cannot do justice to the subjectivity of the nation’s incalculable losses. The role of photography is certainly precarious; perched between the degrading and the irrelevant, the medium faces an uphill climb for credibility, especially in the 1980s.
However, Simmons employs this possibly oppressive technology in order to dismantle structures of persecution. Her photograph is contrary to the prevailing use of the camera and proves that the practice of photography can be as liberating as it is destructive. The choice of placing DeSana in a camera costume is more than a nod to his passion; it could be an allusion to photography’s historic role as the preserver of life in the face of passing time. The camera has the potential to return ownership of an image to the subject, something that was denied to people with AIDS. One of the rallying cries of ACT UP was, “Stop Looking at Us; Start Listening to Us,” an overt reference to the predatory use of photography that came to the fore with Nicholas Nixon’s Pictures of People exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Crimp 86). The camera prop then becomes a symbol of this awareness; DeSana performs for the camera, and, in doing so, brings to the fore the spectacle of photography, a characteristic of the medium that can be both exploitative and empowering. Moreover, the camera costume is a reminder that AIDS does not preclude one from being a producer of his own image. DeSana embodies the image-maker even as he is being captured by it. Additionally, the correlation between the camera and a central tenet of homosexual self-presentation, coming out, is doubtless relevant. Indeed, the camera can be viewed as a “form of ‘coming out’,” a celebration of the “pleasures of personal freedom, self-acceptance, and spiritual, as well as sexual, satisfaction” (Meyer 162). In this way, photography can be a vehicle for the laying bare of the self through a freely given, personal disclosure that is not forced upon the subject by a relegating societal gaze. ACT UP’s mission is thus vigorously taken up by Untitled (In Honor of Jimmy DeSana) insofar as it depicts the subject as both the object and the producer of the photographic gaze.
In addition, Untitled (In Honor of Jimmy DeSana) depicts a figure in limbo; at once, the subject is objectified and given spatial richness. In this way, Simmons walks the line between body and not body, thereby eschewing the convention of only showing physical manifestations of illness. A symbol of passion embodies DeSana, a non-corporeal marker of an inner life beyond outward sickness. The physical body is certainly present, but it is freed from the constraints that fueled American journalists. The factors traditionally used to separate the ill have no hold; race, class, gender, and deterioration are not present here. What exists in their place is a combination of interior and exterior, a human form that is not limited by physical circumstances. The artist employs the body not for its capacity for specificity alone, but rather for its ability to speak to truths more important than the purely corporeal. The figure of DeSana stands for the universal, a conflation of the collective, unspecified body and the highly personal interior, quite literally directed at the viewer by the lens. There is a feeling of unity, a chance for photographic representation that inspires community, as well as the return of individual agency to the subject.
To elaborate on the point of the individualized nature of this photograph, Simmons’ portrait is indicative of the deeply personal process of longing and loss that was denied to many in the 1980s. To combat this, the use of an object in order to portray the dying has more than symbolic significance. The object is imbued with psychological meaning by virtue of the diction used to discuss the stages of grief, as well as the melancholic association of objects with their deceased owners. DeLaite effectively uses Sigmund Freud’s conclusion in “Mourning and Melancholia” in the context of the AIDS crisis. Freud’s notion of mourning is a process that begins when “reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it demands that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachment to that object” (Freud qtd. in DeLaite 14). It is clear, then, “the pain associated with the mourning process must involve detachment of the ego from the memories of the object, the individual who has died,” a process that was interrupted for survivors of the AIDS epidemic (DeLaite 14). Schulz describes this phenomenon as being a part of the intermediate phase, in which the survivors “[search] for the deceased,” afraid all the while that their loved one cannot be found (Schulz 147). More specifically, “many of the activities that were previously shared tend to psychologically evoke the presence of the deceased” (Schulz 147). It follows that longing for a loved one is undoubtedly a powerful psychological event that finds a place in physical representations of the dead. Some reconciliation needs to be made between the desire for closeness and the reality that no such hope can be realized. There is always the sense that “detachment is not complete, as memories and emotional bonds typically remain after some resolution of grief” (DeLaite 21). DeLaite’s argument connects grief to the importance of objecthood through Judith Butler’s reading of Freud, which clarifies this process of object detachment that is especially relevant for the loved ones of people with AIDS. Rather than complete detachment, “lost objects remain as identifications within the ego,” thereby complicating the achievement of a complete resolution of grief (DeLaite 22). As discussed above, Simmons unites DeSana’s body with an object that is representative of his life and his work, which certainly is in dialogue with the process of mourning outlined by Freud and Butler generally and by DeLaite within the context of AIDS. Acting as mediators between the tangible and a memory, objects function as souvenirs, or temporal connections of life experiences that are essential to the grieving process.
According to Susan Stewart, the souvenir is inherently a part of the search for an authentic experience (Stewart 133). This is especially important when speaking of the dead and dying, for one is always hoping for new ways to speak of and remember deceased loved ones. A remnant of a lived experience, the souvenir allows the recalling of the original event. “It is an object arising out of the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia” (Stewart 135). It exists as a physical reminder of someone or something that no longer exists, along with all the attached memories. Those in mourning are driven to both reject and keep the object, for it simultaneously connects them to a previous experience, while encouraging them to remain in emotional stasis. At its core, the souvenir represents a past that is perfect only in retrospect; more specifically, the displacement of natural time from “the domain of struggle into the domestic sphere of the individual and the interior” allows life to take on a rosy hue (Stewart 145). The collector of souvenirs seeks to form a subjective, individualized history marked by the conversion of the purely material into something personally significant (Stewart 140). Still, this evocation of the past is sullied by melancholy and regret. The souvenir is “always incomplete…[because] it will not function without the supplementary narrative discourse that both attaches it to its origins and creates a myth with regard to those images” (Stewart 136). The object thus walks an emotionally fraught line of memory and loss. In either case, it functions as more than an inanimate stand-in; it is psychologically necessary to the attempt to find, situate, animate, and recall authentic experiences. Certainly, this is very different from the distancing effect that Linker notes, since Simmons’ portrait extends into the subjective and individualized, yet undeniably human, realm of memory.
Given that objects carry more than physical value, it can be said that the specific employment of the camera prop serves an important service, both as an object itself and as a representative of the photographic medium. As we have seen, the camera suit is a physical object, albeit one imbued formally with visual plenitude. It then becomes clear why such a picture would be included in a portfolio dedicated to artists who died of AIDS. Simmons recognizes the process of mourning as being one of conflicted feelings and attitudes, especially with regard to AIDS. The deep longing for some distant past, brought closer to reality by the souvenir, is certainly a large part of grieving. People with AIDS sought a means for remembrance beyond their deteriorating physical state, and the art object is certainly a means of both bodily and spiritual preservation. In the face of disappearing sensuality and physical beauty, the subjective self is unfailing (Baker 152). The camera suit, though only a costume, is a marker of a past that exists in the present, a continuation of the essential self, the self that lives in the memories of survivors even after physical death. It implies a story, a memory constructed out of the desire to retain an emotional hold on the dead. It is part of an experience so powerful that its bygone importance is manifest in the here-and-now. Still, Simmons’ photograph does not escape the sorrow associated with the souvenir, that is, the realization that a surrogate cannot fully encapsulate actual life. The camera costume is not alive separate from the story that is attached to it by survivors, or, in this case, the photographer. Still, it is a powerful picture that brings together all of these conflicting feelings in an effort to offer a multifaceted tribute. A memorial object is undoubtedly paradoxical in nature, but its emotional complexity is what gives it true value.
One might assume that such a playful portrait cannot have the same emotionally replete character as other ways of representing the dying. In fact, it is exactly this combination of the theatrical body with the masking thereof, as well as the juxtaposition of hope and loss, that give Untitled (In Honor of Jimmy DeSana) its power. It captures more than the physical characteristics of DeSana without forgetting that he is a human being. There is little doubt that this inclusive image, devoid of class and race, leads the way in forming the collective identity that was denied to marginalized Americans. The issues manifest in this particular photograph can be extrapolated to art as a whole. One must wonder what role art has in giving light to social issues, especially concerns about traditionally underrepresented groups. With Untitled (In Honor of Jimmy DeSana) as a model, it is clear that art has an enormous and unique role to play in the face of social and ethical inquiry. In any case, we can be sure that this picture, though certainly meaningful within its historical and social contexts, is both touching and thought-provoking for its whimsical sincerity, its simple, elegant farewell. Simmons recalled fondly that DeSana “loved the photograph,” and we, as viewers, can certainly feel the strength of that relationship even after all these years (Simmons, “M. Victor Leventritt Lecture”). This is surely a testament to Simmons’ skill as a photographer as well as the emotive capacities of the medium itself.
The author would like to thank Jennifer Quick for her helpful comments throughout the process of preparing this paper.
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