MAIRA KALMAN, illustrator, author and designer, is a guiding force behind M & Co., the design firm started by her later husband, Tibor Kalman:

Tibor didn’t think of himself as a designer. He really was an editor and a journalist who believed that he had a moral obligation and a political desire to expose issues and make them as sexy as possible so an audience - - primarily kids, but really everybody - - would look at them. He understood that because people have short attention spans, they have to be engaged quickly.

Advertising is a powerful tool for selling ideas. Tibor didn’t think it was a crime for companies that really cared about what they were espousing socially to also make money. So within this context, he considered advertising that would focus on AIDS awareness as beneficial and worthy.

Tibor, working with Oliviero Toscani, had helped create campaigns for Benetton and was the editor of Benetton’s Colors magazine. In November, 1990, while reading Life, Tibor ran across a black-and-white documentary photo. It showed an Ohio family around the bed of David Kirby, a 32-year-old man dying of AIDS. Tibor and Benetton approached the Kirby family and the photographer, Therese Frare. Benetton contributed generously to an AIDS foundation, with the family’s consent. The family approved of the use of the image and came to New York for a press conference. There was a collaborative feeling among all involved that you had to really punch people in the face with this incredibly epic and devastating moment and make them aware of it. You would stop and look at it. You would have a conversation about it, whether you hated it or loved it. It would promote heated dialogue. Tibor and his team spent a long time agonizing over colorizing the image, which they did, to take it out of the journalistic field and make it appear more as an ad, so that it was even more shocking in its context and would hopefully be more arresting. For a while, the photo and the ad became a central focus of the AIDS debate.

In June of 1994, Tibor conceived and helped create an image of Ronald Reagan for Colors - - showing Reagan’s face, manipulated electronically, as if he had contracted AIDS. Reagan was villainous in Tibor’s eyes for having done virtually nothing during his administration to address the concerns of people with AIDS. To make the leap and visually give Reagan AIDS was so shocking and so courageous. The text that accompanied the photograph was a fake obituary that spoke to how Reagan was a national hero because he not only admitted that he had AIDS but he had diverted funds from the defense department to fight it. It said that we mourned the loss of a courageous leader who had done all the right things from the very beginning when AIDS was first becoming an epidemic. It was photography as political parody.

Tibor believed in the photograph as the universal communicator, for AIDS and for many subjects of significance. As such, issue thirteen of Colors, which came out in December of 1995, had no words at all. The exploration of visual expression led him to ask, in the spirit of Edward Steichen’s "The Family of Man" exhibition or Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten: How can we have the most eloquent, resonant dialogue with no words at all? You’re telling a story, preferably with humor, and everybody from a 10-year-old child to a 90-year-old, in any culture, could get it.

(Tibor Kalman passed away in 1999 due to complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.)