(Originally published in the San Francisco Sentinel, 1990)
At the top of the stairwell at the Eye Gallery is a string of long tables with various types of exhibition literature on them. Their position allows people entering the current show little space to navigate, so one is immediately confronted by the first series of works in the exhibition, AIDS in Bay Area Photography. I believe this proximity, though a little tight at first, is a good coincidence. It sets the tone for how one might interact with the subject of the show and allows the viewer a level of involvement that might have taken the entire exhibition space to achieve.
Until July, this group show of five photographers organized by three curators presents the theme of our area artists’ responses to AIDS. It is a powerful and informative collective effort. The various approaches to different but interrelated issues around AIDS tie the show together. The artistic variety also splits the show apart. But this rift is constructive. It creates an opening into the larger community, to aspects of AIDS that may be missing on the gallery walls. Viewers, in effect, are offered maps of a variety of experiences, some familiar, some not. This socially oriented art also encourages people to discover and develop their own perceptions about issues which impact everyone.
The most apparent blind spot for this particular show, the nearly complete absence of photographers identified as having AIDS, actually heightens rather than dilutes the overall effect and massage of the show.
It reveals the problem of how many facets there are to the story. The show’s over-arching vision, by this omission, tends at time to depict AIDS as an object, as a slight remove, where there is an invisible line between subjects with AIDS and the people who record them.
Gypsy Ray’s series is the first you encounter. The images generally have one or two people in them. Handwritten statements by one of the subjects are presented just below the photos, framed by the same mat, giving equal weight to each. These letters are intimate and reveal different personalities. Voice combined with images in this way caption each other. Unfortunately, the very first few photos create the dichotomy of photographer/subject. However, Ray presents one of the most unexpected combinations, of an isolated person, Dr. Luff, who speaks about his feelings of loneliness as a doctor to the dying.
Much of the show could be characterized as documentary. Frank Espada’s selections range from educational outreach programs to the so called “second wave” of the epidemic ignored by the media, since it involves people of color, prostitutes, homeless sexual “deviants,” drug addicts – groups who are of minor interest to the general population’s concerns around AIDS.
Ann Meredith’s images, from her larger project of women’s oral histories, appear only with statistical labels beneath the photos. Her work is well placed. by the time you arrive to this part of the room, one wonders how some of these photographs might read without quotes or other information. In fact, the absence of any written component actually become unsettling.
John Bodinger’s ten images are also part of a larger project, “Bearing Witness.” By varying visual proximity to the same subject and shifting the direction of the subject’s gaze, Bodinger guides us through a vision of the progression of this disease. His images start out with the person as an active force. The subject looks directly into the camera’s lens, while becoming more and more abstract, with a shifting focus on the parts of the body, eventually implying some sort of universal pattern.
By far, however, Mariella Poli strikes the strongest note. Her prints are very large and can be seen anywhere you stand. Her introduction describes meeting her subject for the first time, a little boy, Joseph Benko, who developed ADIDS from a blood transfusion shortly after his birth. He ran up and jumped into her arms. His parents told him they wanted to photograph him so they could remember him. Translating this notion, he declared he wanted to photograph Poli so he could remember her too. This sentiment, his artwork, and the family snapshot album breath pure energy into the entire exhibition. The family album of snapshots can be easily missed the first time around the room, especially in the shadow of Poli’s huge photos.
From every aspect, this child’s intelligence and beauty resound. No matter how limited his life option may be by this disease, he is not missing his childhood. The Benko family has provided the incredible gift of sharing their experiences and including us in their world. In their family album, they ask for our comments.
The show at the Eye Gallery will trigger different responses from different people. For example, what I thought might be the most manipulative (using a child to pull for emotions) was actually the most experimental, freeing and clear-minded work. When I asked myself again, why why weren’t photographers with AIDS included in the show? I realized there was one, Joseph Benko.
Postscript: Joseph Benko, 1987-1993