A gaunt man stares into the camera. His bony hands hold a framed photograph from an earlier time: two handsome men with strong arms slung over shoulders and smiles full of joy and promise. His wide eyes, however, reflect the new reality: the despair and horror of AIDS in the 1980s.
His is but one of many stories told by Portraits in the Time of AIDS, 1988, a collection of images of persons afflicted with AIDS made by renowned photographer Rosalind Solomon, now showing for the first time in twenty five years at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery. Each portrait exquisitely captures the singular experience of its subject, while, as a whole, the collection is a stunning portrayal of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
The Advent Of AIDS
Solomon made the portraits from 1987 to 1988, a time when a diagnosis of HIV often meant ostracism and death. Roughly 82,000 cases of AIDS had been reported in the U.S. to date, along with approximately 62,000 deaths. Treatment was almost nonexistent – the first antiretroviral drug had just received FDA approval the previous year.
Meanwhile, fear and ignorance ran rampant. In 1987, the Ray brothers – three young boys with hemophilia who contracted HIV – had to seek federal court intervention in order to attend a local elementary school. Only a week after a decision in their favor, their home was burned down. In her personal statement, Solomon recalls a quotation from a New York Times article suggesting that people with AIDS should be isolated in the same way as those with Hansen’s disease (commonly known as leprosy).
In spite – or perhaps because of – the prevailing social climate, Solomon created these intimate portraits of people in varying stages of illness and isolation. Some are resilient and still vibrant, while others waste away or have already gone. Some are alone, shunned by society or standing as the last survivors, while others are with their loved ones, who are tender and affectionate, grave and impassive or resigned and ashamed. Each of Solomon’s subjects looks directly into the lens, beseeching (rather than daring) the viewer not to look away.
As she explains in her personal statement, Solomon’s work responds to a calling “to interact with people dealing with difficulties in life that they could not control.” Such compassion is evident in these portraits. Her gentle depiction of the physical devastation wrought by the disease is always subordinated to the subject’s emotional suffering. Even in the portrait of a young man baring his lesion-covered chest and face, it is his eyes that demand the viewer’s attention.
Then And Now
Portraits in the Time of AIDS, 1988 first showed at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery in 1988. The collection was controversial not only for its subject matter, but for its presentation as fine art rather than documentary. Critics accused Solomon of exploiting her subjects for her own artistic intentions, despite the fact that her subjects’ reactions to their portraits were positive. The images showed only briefly before they were stored away for over two decades.
The passage of time has only added to the resonance of Solomon’s portraits. In twenty five years, significant advancements in education and treatment have been made, but Solomon’s subjects almost surely did not live to benefit from them. Today, Solomon’s portraits ask us to honor their memories. They ask us to remember the millions of people who are living with HIV today. They ask to recognize the alienation, fear and shame along with the physical pain suffered by these individuals. And they ask us to consider whether at least some of their suffering could have been – and can be – avoided.
Article by Marisa Office