“I worked with Brian for a year before I knew he was an artist,” Ric says. “We were more focused on building the movement.”
“ACT UP was awash with artists in the eighties,” Patrick adds. “Because everyone was an artist, no one talked about it…There was a feeling that art was not a responsible response to the crisis.”
It’s Sunday afternoon, and we’re in ICA’s auditorium for a conversation about photographer and activist Brian Weil—about how his art and his AIDS activism intersected. How to think about the grainy, scratched, sometimes blown out, often riveting black-and-white images he made before dying in 1996 at 42? The Brian Weil retrospective currently on view at ICA presents several bodies of work, each exploring one of several insular, marginal communities in which Weil immersed himself and which he then photographed. The Sex pictures show images of S&M and bestiality, the Miami Crime series shows the bodies of the dead Weil encountered while riding sixteen-hour shifts with the police. There are pictures of boxers and bodybuilders, photographs of Hasidic Jews, and video for a final project, never completed, about the transgendered community. But it’s the AIDS photos Weil is best known for, and he himself believed his AIDS work was the most important he would ever do.
In a talk preceding this afternoon’s conversation, curator Stamatina Gregory, who organized the show at ICA, tells us that at the start of his involvement with groups like ACT UP, Weil had no intention of photographing AIDS subjects. It wasn’t until an HIV-positive graduate student he knew asked him to photograph her baby daughter, Flavia, who was dying of AIDS, that Brian brought his camera to the cause.
“Photography for Brian became a way of making sense of the crisis,” Stamatina says. Eventually he would travel all over the world, imaging the crisis in Haiti, in South Africa, in the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. But over the course of this more than ten-year undertaking, a number of intriguing, difficult tensions emerged. For example:
• That Weil characterized this work as alternatively an activist project and as an artistic one, depending on who was asking.
• That Weil welcomed the use of his images to educate the public, but remained ambivalent about his own artistic endeavor.
• That he believed “artistic skill can engage the viewer without them turning away,” but at the same time he had concerns about presenting the work as art.
Ric Curtis, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, worked with Weil on New York City’s first needle exchange program, which Weil founded. Of Weil’s AIDS photography, he says, “I think Brian felt it [taking photographs] might cheapen the process.”
Patrick Moore, Deputy Director of the Andy Warhol Museum, who worked with the photographer in ACT UP, says, “I think it’s really hard to take a picture of someone who’s dying.” He describes an exhibition of AIDS photographs at MoMA in the eighties by a different artist—how the activist community protested that show, feeling it objectified its subject. “How do you have it mean something?” he asks. “Not just shock.”
What makes a given body of work art or exploitation? Art or education? Good art or bad art? Does the intention behind the work matter, or only the result? There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions, but viewing Weil’s work makes them palpable, urgent. The answers seem to shimmer in the stark, hugely mediated images, then recede before one can grasp them.
Patrick speaks admiringly about the intimacy of Weil’s photographs. He talks about the supersaturated blacks and the blown-out whites—how they make you feel about the photograph’s subject that “this person is almost somewhere else.” There is a way in which the essential humanity of the subject is captured even as the details of the physical body blur and fade. One image of a woman in bed catches my eye every time it cycles by on the projection screen. Because of the overexposure, all we see of her is hair, hands, eyes, lips. The rest of her’s bleached out as though she’s already bone, or ghost. Pure light.
When he died, not of AIDS as many assume, but of a heroin overdose, Weil was right in the middle of his work. He was still using all the tools at his disposal—time, an extraordinary ability to connect with people, and of course a camera—to capture experience as most people never see it. To open our eyes to the brilliant lights and the terrible darks, to the grainy indeterminacy, of life.
In regard to his AIDS project, Brian Weil was clear-eyed about the way a difficult photograph should operate: “You need to seduce them, you need to amuse them, and then you need to show them the truth.”
Brian Weil is on view at ICA through March 31.
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