In 1988, when Rosalind Solomon first put up "Portraits in the Time of AIDS" at NYU's Grey Gallery, she was trying to combat the stigma of a new and particularly terrifying disease. Her previous works strove to bring people together. Seventies-era images of isolated people with their doll companions, images that garnered her major international, and early-80s exploration of memorial rituals in Guatemala, India, and the United States put the focus on commonality and humanity, an essential component in all her art. "When I began taking pictures, I wanted to understand how others coped with illness and the certainty of death," Solomon told me. "When I photograph people, I strip away my cultural and psychological armor." And her photographs in turn strip away her subjects's armor, revealing their inner selves.
So, in 1986, after having just finished a show on rituals at MoMA, and looking for a new topic, Solomon found herself thinking about the ongoing AIDS crisis and the comparison between AIDS patients, mostly gay men, and lepers. She wanted to change the conversation. "Instead of being nurtured, these were chastised. I wanted people to see and empathize with the individuals who were their relatives and neighbors," Solomon said in a recent interview. "I hoped that my pictures would help to raise awareness." Solomon wanted the public to see individuals, "not generic 'people with AIDS,' not hidden, but real, living and trying to survive."
Thomas Sokolowski, then-Director at Grey, wrote that the show was a cultural necessity. "As our awareness of [AIDS] grew through the accumulation of vast amounts of numerically derived evidence, we still had not seen its face. We could count it, but not truly describe it." Solomon's show was to tear back the conceptualization and give AIDS a human, relatable face. That was not what happened.
The show had "an unfortunate air of sensationalism," wrote Andy Grundberg at the New York Times. He admitted that sensationalism may have been unavoidable: "Given that these are among the first explicit AIDS pictures to appear in a gallery context, sensationalism seems a risk inherent in the very nature of the project." But he also lamented a "lack of consistent vision" and lack of "comprehension" that left the show "vulnerable to one of sensationalism's side effects, exploitation." ACT-UP agreed and protested the show, just as they did when Nicholas Nixon staged a similar show at MoMA that same year. But the pieces sparked a discussion, a key goal for Solomon, and for years her images have been used as touchstone in AIDS art critiques, particularly her portrayal of the family and the son. Writing in her 2010 book Not in This Family: Gays and the Meaning of Kinship in Postwar North America, Heather Murray notes that Solomon's image of a man and his parents, seen above, conveys "disjuncture and disorientation" while also showing the dying son's "need or perhaps right to be rooted in families." Like them or not, Solomon's images are seminal.
Now, twenty-five years since "Portraits" debuted, Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York City is displaying those images once again, and they're just as affecting, though perhaps for different reasons. We've been inculcated with new knowledge about the retrovirus and people survive longer thanks to medical innovations, but these images remain a stark representation of a not-that-distant social stigma and serve as a reminder that millions around the world still suffer and also stand as a humbling testament of life's short time span.
As for whether or not you enjoy them, Solomon doesn't seem to care. "I cannot predict what others bring to my images," she said. "I am free in my expression. Others are free to experience my work and like it or not."
So, modern viewer, so worldly and well versed, are these pictures exploitative or full of empathy?