“A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.”–David Wojnarowicz
If any photographer, in addition to Wojnarowicz himself, could be said to preserve an alternate history, it would have been Los Angeles-based photographer Albert J. Winn, who sadly passed away this week.
A brave and insightful artist who largely drew on his own experiences as a gay Jewish man living with AIDS, Winn’s powerful and haunting photographs exist as a record not only of his personal life, but the lives of many others with similar stories and histories.
In his memory, I want to highlight some of my favorite of Winn’s photographic series. While he certainly produced many more stunning series, including his gorgeous photographs of the Radical Faeries, three of Winn’s series stand out for their engagement with memory, history and the preservation of bodies.
Diagnosed with AIDS in 1990, Winn began his ongoing photographic series “My Life Until Now” in order to combat the media’s representation of people with AIDS as dying victims rather than living people. Instead of the endless photographs of patients in hospital beds filling newspapers and magazines, Winn presented an image of himself, a person with AIDS, with his mother, at home, with a friend from his writing group and with his partner, Scott. Winn also did not avoid the medical realities of living with AIDS, photographing himself after the cocktail in 1999.
As he describes of “My Life Until Now,” “At first, the work was to be a record. Something I left behind.”
Not only did Winn address issues of HIV/AIDS in his series “My Life Until Now,” but he continued to represent even its physical disappearance after the development of the cocktail, which allowed for long-term survival as well as a newfound imperceptibility of the illness on the body, with my favorite of his series “Band-Aids.” Placing band-aids on his body where there had once been an indicator of illness such as a lesion or a scar, Winn represented what had now been rendered invisible.
Investigating issues of loss, memory and history in his photographs as well as his own body, Winn’s series “Summer Joins the Past” depicts the empty spaces of summer camps, imbuing a nostalgic childhood imaginary with a ghostly presence. Speaking on his interest in empty spaces, Winn explains, “As a long-term survivor of AIDS, the empty spaces have a special resonance for me. Devoid of the vitality for which they were created, they are not only the reminder of the loss of an ideal but also of lives lived and lost. Larry Kramer, the AIDS activist and writer, speaking about the ravages of the plague, once described a feeling about New York. ‘The New York I love is gone now. When I walk down the streets there, all I see are dead people.’ I, too, have experienced something similar, but instead of dead people, I sense emptiness.”
For Winn, his photography was, as David Wojnarowicz describes in “Do Not Doubt The Dangerousness of the 12-Inch Politician,” “an act of validation of our lives, something of value being implied in the preservation of our bodies” (142). Preserving his life and experiences through photography, a history often silenced, Winn’s photographs will endure as a moving, mesmerizing and memorable alternative history.