NAN GOLDIN, over
the last decade, has introduced a body of photographic work that is
unrivaled in terms of its influence over photographers in the art and
AIDS changed everything in my life. Theres life before AIDS, and
We were in Fire Island that first time wed heard about AIDS, in
July of 1981. I was with Cookie Mueller, Cookies lover, Sharon,
and photographer David Armstrong, one of my oldest, best friends, and
2 or 3 other boys. Cookie used to write a monthly art critique for Details
magazine. She was the starlet of the Lower East Side: a poetess, a short-story
writer, she starred in John Waterss early movies. She was sort
of the queen of the whole downtown social scene.
Cookie just started reading this item out loud from The New York
Times about this new illness. David remembers that we all kind of
laughed it off. We certainly didnt think of its magnitude. It
didnt affect us, like: This is going to be our future. Then I
remember an article, just after that, in New York magazine calling
it the gay cancer. Our first friend died in 82 - one
of Davids lovers, a male model.
My art was the diary of my life. I photographed the people around me.
I didnt think of them as people with AIDS. About 85, I realized
that many of the people around me were positive. David Armstrong took
an incredible picture of Kevin, his lover at the time, right before
Kevin went into the hospital. I photographed him when he was healthy.
At that stage, we still didnt know very much. There was a lot
of ignorance. We were very obsessed with what caused it: There were
all kinds of rumors, everything from amyl nitrate to bacon. People were
tested and being told they had something called ARC, that quickly became
medically non-relevant. I was in denial that people were going to die.
I thought people could beat it. And then people started dying.
One of the ways I started becoming involved was through artist and activist
Avram Finkelstein in 86, 87. Id become friends again
with him, having known him when I was 18 and living with the drag queens
in Boston in the early 70s. He was in art school then. In the
1980s he became my hairdresser up at Sassoon. He had helped start the
Silence Equals Death Collective, which turned into Act Up. He was one
of the people who designed the logo Silence = Death, and the triangle.
1988, Cookies condition was worsening. That was the last time
I saw Cookie when she could still talk. She had ARC and wasnt
feeling that well. She went into the hospital. I was in the throes of
my own problems with addiction and people with AIDS didnt become
defined as people with AIDS in my own mind. I continued
to photograph Cookie as I always did. Then I went into detox, partly
because I wasnt able to show up for my friends who were sick.
Somebody had said to me, How can you be killing yourself when
your friends around you are dying? And that woke me up.
When I went to see Cookie in Provincetown, after I got out of the halfway
house, she had lost her voice. Her laughter and her verbal wit had been
so much of her personality. The fact that she couldnt talk, the
fact that she couldnt walk without a cane was so devastating that
I was calling every doctor, screaming at the impotence I felt. At that
point, I was like a child thinking that doctors will still make you
well, and not believing that there was nothing they could do. Thats
when the rage became an obsession with me.
It was only in 89, after Cookie died and I put together the Cookie
portfolio - - 15 pictures taken over 13 years, with a text about our
relationship - - that I realized photographing couldnt keep people
alive. Even though I never consciously set out to create pictures that
would help humanize AIDS, I realized they could affect others.
same day Cookie died, my big show Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing
opened, which I curated at New Yorks Artists Space. 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. It became
a national controversy. The government took away the shows grant
from the National Endowment of the Arts because of David Wojnarowiczs
text, a brilliant dissertation against the government and the Catholic
church for their position and their silence on AIDS. There were 15,000
people at the opening because of the rage at the governments response.
And out of that show, came Visual AIDS. We were the people who started
the Red Ribbon, the idea of artist Frank Moore. We were the people who
started the Day With(out) Art , in 1989, and every December First thereafter.
So, in effect, photography and art addressed this issue in a pivotal
way in the 1980s. A lot of it came from our groups personal anguish
and desire to affect change.
I showed my portfolio and text of Cookie in 1990. And as I said in the
accompanying text, I had always thought that if I photographed someone
enough, I could never lose them. Putting the pictures together had made
me realize how much Id lost. And I went into a long period of
not being able to photograph. I realized how little photography did.
It had failed me. Then, after a while, I started showing the Cookie
portfolio and then the other grids and groupings of other very close
friends who had died in Europe and in New York, I sort of had the support
of Act Up. By then, Act Up was becoming very active and having a major
effect. I went to some meetings and demonstrations, though I wasnt
a member in terms of going every week. But people in the group expressed
to me at the time and over the years that I was sort of doing emotionally
what they were doing politically. And I was never accused of exploitation,
that I was doing anything to advance my career. It wouldnt have
occurred to me to use my friends that way. Ever.
Every show I have at New Yorks Matthew Marks Gallery in the last
few years, I sell a print cheap, 200 of them for $200 or something,
to raise money. I never wanted my work to get elitist and expensive.
Theres always something sold for very little so that people -
- like myself - - could afford it. Im still poor in spite of the
fact that everyone else makes money off me. Last year I raised $75,000
for The Good Doctor in Haiti. The year before, I raised
$50,000 for the Gay Mens Health Crisis to target their addiction
program for free treatment for drug addicts with AIDS.
In large part, my work is about AIDS. In my 1996 retrospective at the
Whitney, there was a room about AIDS. And the catalog that went with
it, Ill Be Your Mirror, has sections on my photo dealer
in Paris who died of AIDS. I photographed him and I was witness to his
death. Gilles had shown the Cookie portfolio. He and his lover, Gotscho,
understood that it was important that I make the same kind of record
of Gilless life so that he wouldnt be lost. It was about
trying to hold onto people, making sure they didnt disappear without
a trace. And my latest work, in the manner of Renaissance altarpieces,
is a grid called Positive. Most of my friends are positive.
It shows people who are positive, living positive lives.
My photography, in the end, didnt do enough. It didnt save
Cookie. But over time, my photographs, and other photography about people
with AIDS, has helped. It has definitely given a more human face to
statistics. We need to keep putting images out there. But not ones that
are digitally manipulated like almost everyone is doing now. In two
years, therell be no more Cibachrome, supposedly. I hate digital
images. We need to have reality instead of this believable-fiction crap
thats become so popular.
Matthew Marks Gallery