CYNTHIA O’NEAL is the president and co-founder, with director Mike Nichols, of Friends in Deed, an organization devoted to helping people confront life-threatening illness and grief. (An auction for Friends in Deed’s tenth anniversary, co-hosted by Nichols and Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, will take place at Christie’s, in New York, on September 10):

The connection between photography and AIDS is embodied in the person of John Dugdale.

One night about four years ago, John walked into a group meeting of Friends in Deed. It was the first he ever attended. About two-thirds of the way through the meeting, he raised his hand and proceeded to tell us what he’d been through. In a manner completely without self-pity, he described his strokes and seizures, how he had lost his hearing in one ear, how he had lost almost all of his sight. In his left eye there is a tiny, tiny bit around the lower periphery, so he usually has some idea of what people’s chins look like. The view out of his right eye is black velvet. That night, he explained that what he is, first and foremost, is a photographer. And he insisted that despite his condition, and without changing anything else in his life, he felt committed to continuing his work.

Which is exactly what he’s done. He’s done an exhibition every year. They are extraordinary. The themes of John’s work encompass a sense of loss, a sense of stillness, a deep appreciation of beauty, both man-made and natural. A door ajar. An empty chair in front of a window, as though someone were sitting in it, looking out, except no one is there.

John does a lot of self-portraiture. His own body, nude, lying on the floor, with his arms and legs up, all twisted, is meant to represent his own seizure. There is a photograph depicting an experience with his friend Anne. Anne was going to take him to have eye surgery. He was swooning, as if he couldn’t go through with it. He was sitting in a chair and he felt as though his spirit was leaving his body. Anne came, stood behind him and held onto him, and he said, ‘It’s all right. We’ll make a picture of this when this is done.’ He did indeed. He made it through the surgery and then created a picture of himself sitting in the chair, no clothes on, with Anne reaching over and holding onto him. So he’s taken elements of the AIDS experience and made photographic images that are just astounding. The work allows you to see him transcending his illness.

By and large, his prints are blue, cyanamide, made with a process that requires no chemicals. His apartment is on the top floor of a beautiful brownstone. Beyond his dormer windows is a roof where he can lay his images out and let them develop in the sun. You come in and you wash them off in the kitchen sink. His dedication includes the process he uses to print the pictures, his apartment, his house in the country.

Imagine what he goes through. He’s almost sightless and he has to negotiate his way around a huge 8 x 10 or 11 x 14 camera, collaborate with his subject, walk back and forth between his subject and the black cloth, trade places with his subject while his subject focuses, then trades places again to click the shutter. John’s work is inspiring. But beyond the work, his will to pursue a life as a photographer has been such an inspiration to people with AIDS, people whose lives have changed for some physical reason and have felt defeated by that. And then there’s Dugdale.

He has donated his prints to Friends in Deed with such generosity you cannot imagine. His work now goes for thousands. Maurice Sendak has a Dugdale collection. Elton John, I think, has a room in his house in the south of France that has only John Dugdales. He’s done four incredible books: Lengthening Shadows Before Nightfall, New Suns Will Arise, The Clandestine Mind and Life’s Evening Hour.

John is the essence of the kind of courage that we see in a lot of people with AIDS: An absolute determination to live with the virus in as full and complete a way as is humanly possible.

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