WESTON NAEF is
curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles; previously,
he had been in charge of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
AIDS has had a tremendous impact on photography. I lived in New York
City from 1969 through 1984, which was a heyday for photography in general.
It also coincided with both the rise of photography as a major form
of creative expression for a younger generation and the rise of the
collecting of photographs by an older generation. For reasons that cannot
be fully explained, both on the collecting and creating sides, there
were a disproportionate number of individuals who eventually came to
be impacted by the AIDS crisis.
of those people, in particular, have special meaning for me. One is
Sam Wagstaff, a curator of 20th century art who was first a collector
of paintings and sculpture, and then a collector of photographs. Sam
truly discovered Robert Mapplethorpe and believed greatly in Roberts
genius. Sam helped Robert by introducing him to people who could instruct
him and advance the creative side of his life, and eventually made it
possible for Robert to achieve complete financial independence.
I was a close by-stander to the development of their relationship, to
the unfolding of Roberts creative side and to observing Sams
nurturing of this process and to the early formation of a collection
of photographs that I am proud to say has been in the custody of the
J. Paul Getty Museum since 1984. Sam died of HIV-related problems in
1987. Robert did subsequently as well, in 1989.
The HIV epidemic brought about many changes. It caused the demise of
many talented individuals in the art world, but it also brought together
people in unexpected ways as they attempted to deal with an illness,
of which the means of transmission were then obscure and for which initially
there were no effective treatments. Unprecedented alliances between
arts organizations and newly founded charitable organizations came into
being in order to raise money to try to alleviate suffering, to care
for the sick, and to find a cure, or at least to understand the causes
of the epidemic. It also drew together sufferers and survivors in a
new kind of compassionate community. This malady was a crucible of suffering
from which, however, some positive elements emerged.
shaped many photographers work, including bringing greater depth
to the later stages of Mapplethorpes development as an artist.
Similarly other artists like Peter Hujar, whom I met through Robert,
were influenced by the course of their illnesses. Other photographers
were moved to respond to the sickness around them, like Nicholas Nixon,
who photographed individuals using a tripod-mounted view camera that
exposed negatives 8 by 10 inches in size. His was not a quick take.
He produced a studied analysis of the geography of a persons face
and of a body in the process of withering. Nicholas chronicled the visual
results of the ailment with such extraordinary and poignant detail.
And then Nan Goldin, younger than Sam Wagstaff, circulated in a community
ravaged by AIDS as well, to which she reacted sensitively with her camera.
What I experienced in New York, first of all, were the deaths of people
who were very, very important to me as friends. Then, to see history
changed not only as a result of their actions through creative works
but, by denying us what they might have created if they had lived longer.