Albert J. Winn and Richard Sawdon Smith are two living photographers whose works are centered around the complexities of sexual identity for HIV-positive gay men. Based in different countries—Winn in Los Angeles; Sawdon Smith in London—the photographers have collaborated on projects that bring their separate practices and approaches into a distinct spectrum of what it means to sustain a personal life and a creative practice while HIV+. An "examination of how Winn and Sawdon Smith's solo works visually and thematically rhyme" is the focus of BLOODBROTHERS, an online exhibition curated by David Serotte for Visual Aids.
David Serotte cleared time from an internationally packed schedule to discuss specific works and key points from the exhibition with me. What follows is an edited interview completed in August 2012.
Patricia: How did you first discover Sawdon Smith and Winn?
David: I first learned about Sawdon Smith’s work in an issue of the queer ‘zine, They Shoot Homos, Don’t They?. I was fascinated by his obsession with anatomy and the history of visualizing (ill) health through representations of the body. While assisting Jonathan D. Katz with his upcoming exhibition, Art, AIDS, America, I was reminded of Sawdon Smith’s work and then learned about Winn’s photography.
Through working with Katz, I met Amy Sadao and Nelson Santos of Visual AIDS. When they approached me to curate a web gallery for them, I was initially interested in creating a show that addressed intergenerational relationships within gay and HIV+ culture. It seems like people still attribute the apparent divide between different generations of gay men to the legacy of AIDS. Winn and Sawdon Smith’s collaborations offer an interesting counterpoint to that notion, and now my friendship with both of them serves as a kind of triadic intergenerational connection.
Patricia: How do the individual parameters of each artist's practice inform their collaborations?
David: The collaborations in BLOODBROTHERS are the products of the Winn and Sawdon Smith’s earlier solo works. By adding another artist into the same set up for an earlier solo work, Winn and Sawdon Smith’s collaborations enable the viewer to imagine a narrative or dialogue. Fittingly, the collaborative works were conceived without specific meanings in mind, which opens up the dialogue.
Their original, individual works serve to articulate each artist’s subjectivity within the larger medical and cultural discourses surrounding HIV/AIDS. Though Winn and Sawdon Smith have had different experiences living with HIV, their collaborations represent a desire to transcend that experiential, generational and international divide.
Patricia: Parallel to that, there's definitely a photographic generational divide in the visual experience of these photographs. Winn's Psycho Drama series is undeniably nuanced: it reminds me of Peter Hujar's sincerity behind the camera, mixed with early 20th Century photography, especially “spirit photography”. There is an obvious visual preoccupation with the spirit, especially in the way Winn and Sawdon Smith worked with double exposures.
David: The visual comparison between Winn’s Psycho Drama series and spirit photography is spot on. The work also reminds me of Bill Jacobson’s Interim Portrait series, in which Jacobson captured ethereal soft-focus portraits of people with AIDS to evoke the subjects’ fleeting mortality, as well as the limits of effectively documenting such an immeasurable loss.
Interestingly, while Winn employs multiple exposure photography to reveal the multiplicity of his identity, Sawdon Smith uses the same technique to highlight his marginalization as an HIV+ person. Winn’s diverse selves empower him, while Sawdon Smith is haunted by the “ghost” of his sexual isolation.
Patricia: I'm curious about this portion of your curator's statement: "Safer Sex Series' playful title belies the anxiety of negotiating sexual safety within sero-discordant partnerships. In a sense, Sawdon Smith's work anticipates and critiques the practice of sero-sorting, in which people seek sexual partners of the same HIV status."
David: Visually, the work seems to be about sero-concordance since Sawdon Smith is "having sex with himself." But that is actually a reaction to the potentially fraught nature of sex between people of contrasting HIV statuses.
The idea is that because there is so much fear about sero-conversion within sero-discordant partnerships, people have imagined that a better option is just to sero-sort and “stick with your own kind.” While some may find this freedom from fear liberating, for Sawdon Smith, and many others, sero-sorting is just as alienating as any other form of segregation. Also, from what I understand, sero-sorting among anonymous partners is not actually safer since people can always be dishonest/uninformed about their HIV status, and living with one strain of HIV doesn’t necessarily protect you from another.
Patricia: The selections you curated include some images that aren't usually seen in the discourse of AIDS/HIV+ living: the invasiveness of healing. Was including this angle important to you as a curator, or are these key themes consistent among the works of Winn and Sawdon Smith?
David: I would say both. While the clinical aspect of living with HIV is only one layer of each artist’s body of work, I think both artists have turned to photography as a way to preserve themselves through physical trauma, as well to bring awareness to past and ongoing medical challenges experienced by HIV+ people.
Talking to Winn and Sawdon Smith about their work taught me a great deal about the brutality of many HIV treatments. While the medications for people living with HIV today are more effective and less toxic than earlier drugs, it is critical that these medical advancements not erase the historical and present state of HIV/AIDS.
Patricia: Your show portrays that very well: the photographs situate life with AIDS as life itself, a life lived with spectrums of desire and emotion.
David: I see Winn and Sawdon Smith “owning” their experience with HIV through their work. Not only are they demonstrating how HIV has shaped their lives, but they’re giving shape to the disease through their lives. In doing so, they take HIV/AIDS out of an abstract realm and create a more complex understanding of HIV as a “manageable” disease.
Winn first addressed the need to contextualize HIV’s place in his life through an autobiographical project called My Life Until Now. He began the series in 1990 following his AIDS diagnosis (technically, once you’re diagnosed with AIDS, you’re always considered to be “living with AIDS”). In contrast to the predominant images of people with AIDS as tragic victims, Winn documented his life as a gay Jewish man living with AIDS and his HIV- partner, Scott. Winn told me that when the he first started the project, people were bothered by the matter-of-fact depiction of this sero-discordant partnership. In a way, the work was radicalizing the normativity of AIDS.
Patricia: How does Winn reconcile his Jewish faith and practice with his HIV+ status?
David: When Winn underwent frequent blood testing in order to participate in early AIDS drug trials, he likened the sensation of a tourniquet cinching his arm to the binding leather straps of tefillin, which in Judaism are wrapped around the arms and head during prayer. As a result, this painful and impersonal medical ritual became a meaningful one.
Winn has made other works incorporating Jewish traditions to inform his experience with HIV/AIDS. In 1996, he created an installation at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, CA., entitled Blood on the Doorpost...The AIDS Mezuzah. The work featured a mezuzah on a minimalist door frame, only instead of housing small scrolls with Hebraic text, the mezuzah contained Winn’s HIV+ blood.
The piece connected the plague of AIDS to the ten plagues of Egypt in the Exodus story, in which the Hebrew slaves were spared the final plague, death of the first born child, by smearing lamb’s blood on their door posts. Not only did the work act as a symbolic prayer for survival, but it served as a way to shake the Jewish community out of their silence regarding HIV/AIDS.
Patricia: Your selections highlight personal narratives of the AIDS aftermath, a chronology fractured by physical invasion(drugs, tests) and medical/social neglect. And aftermath is certainly one of photography's prerogatives. Sometimes I look at certain photographs and consider the medium of photography as one elastic monument to The Aftermath...to Consequence. A record is hardly enough for prevention, but within a contextualized visual record resides the power of dispensing awareness. I see BLOODBROTHERS as an intersection of lived experience and awareness.
David: I know that Winn’s work is shown to medical students in courses addressing bioethics. There is an ongoing debate in the world of HIV awareness/prevention over the ethics of representing people with the disease. Positive, uplifting imagery supports those personally affected by HIV/AIDS while misleading others about the severity of the epidemic.
Negative imagery can shock and/or encourage people to practice safer sex while demonizing those living with the disease. Yet, this dichotomy doesn’t account for more complex, multi-dimensional images of people with HIV. In a way, I think Winn and Sawdon Smith’s work offer just as much awareness about the disease as they do regarding the forces surrounding it: medicine, science, religion, gay culture.
Patricia: Yes, their work does present autobiography in relation to a fuller spectrum of awareness. At times it's subtle, at times it's emotionally blunt, but that intersection is very present. But there is also more...
David: While BLOODBROTHERS focuses on the autobiographical aspects of Sawdon Smith's work, it is important to note that the artist conceives of his work as a complex conflation of reality and representation in which his self-portraits actually depict personas named The Damaged Narcissist and The Anatomical Man.
These fictional selves establish a critical distance between Sawdon Smith and his image, as well as illuminate the limits of perceiving a subject's "real" identity and (ill) health based on representations of the body. For instance, the realistic tattooed veins and arteries seen in Observe 1994-2011 (2012) are not based on Sawdon Smith's actual circulatory system, but rather on a 1850s anatomical drawing. Thus, the tattoos collapse the real and the constructed, the internal and the external onto the surface of his skin.
Albert J. Winn's work will be included in the group show "Spectrum of Sexuality" at Hebrew Union College, New York, opening September 5th, 2012.
Richard Sawdon Smith's solo show "The Anatomical Man - Richard Sawdon Smith" is currently on view at Rise Gallery in Berlin until September 1, 2012.
Photo: Richard Sawdon Smith (with Albert J. Winn), Blood Brothers (Triptych), 2006. C-type print, 16"x20, 16"x12", 16"x20"