Materials of Survival
Photographer Grahame Perry blends portraiture and pop art to convey the weight and exuberance of living long-term with HIV
by Brent Calderwood
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n honor of National HIV/AIDS Long-Term Survivor Day on June 5, the Bay Area gallery SF Camerawork is featuring an exhibition titled “Long-Term Survivor Project,” showcasing the work of London-born photographer Grahame Perry, along with New York artists Hunter Reynolds and Frank Yamrus (June 4 through July 15).
In contrast to similar gallery and museum shows that have told stories mainly of loss, “Long-Term Survivor Project” explores, according to SF Camerawork, “the current state of health, diagnosis, and treatment of HIV” through the stories of those living in the present while still making meaning of the past.
Among the most compelling images from the show are those from Perry’s series “Materials of Survival,” which seems to synthesize a lifetime’s worth of experience—not only the explicit experience of living with HIV since the mid-1980s, but also his training in representational photography (he received an A.S. in Photography from City College of San Francisco in 2013), digital imaging (he spent thirty years working in computer science prior to his career in the arts), and even psychology (he holds a B.A. in that subject from the University of California, Berkeley).
Drawing on this diverse background, the photomontages in “Materials of Survival” feature pills, vials, prescription labels, and other objects to represent the gravitas, overwhelm, and optimism of living with HIV before and after the advent of antiretroviral cocktails. Ranging from somber cyanotype self-portraits to abstract psychedelic digital collages of medications and medical paraphernalia, Perry’s work is a deft blend of the mournful and the exuberant.
This has been a watershed year for Perry. In addition to being featured at SF Camerawork, he has an upcoming solo show of HIV-based work at the San Francisco men’s health/art space Magnet in November, which will include new pieces as well as pieces from “Materials of Survival” and the series that came before that, “Am I Blue?”
I recently sat down with Perry to discuss his work, and in the process gained new insights, both artistic
and psychological, about what it has meant to be HIV-positive for the long haul, and what it means today.
Brent Calderwood: One of your most recognizable pieces is Am I Blue?, which was part of the Kinsey Institute Art Show last year in Bloomington, Indiana, and actually became the name for the series you created prior to “Materials for Survival.” Can you tell me more about that image?
Grahame Perry: Am I Blue? has two main components—my self-portrait and a series of out-of-focus pill bottles. The experience of HIV, represented by the many bottles, has affected how life is viewed, especially for those of us who have been HIV-positive for decades. When I think about it and when I’ve discussed this with other long-term survivors, it can be overwhelming how much emotional and physical energy it has taken.
I have thought of myself as a photographer, but that series pushed me into areas where “artist” seems more applicable.
Prior to your series “Am I Blue?” and now “Materials of Survival,” did HIV/AIDS appear in your work or inform your process?
I came to photography in the last five years…it was a surprise to be taken over by this passion. Within a year of starting to make photographs, I made the first image of my series [“Materials of Survival”]. That piece, Obsession, is very graphic and uses pills and text. Slowly I began to explore what other images I could make to express my experiences as a long-term survivor. [But] the bulk of my photography has not focused on HIV—I was exploring the urban environment of San Francisco, which has been my home for many years.
Looking at your individual and group shows, your work has moved from traditional photography—night photography of San Francisco, for instance—to work that could be described as pop art, including using techniques borrowed from advertising and graphic design. Is that a fair description?
Well, I started out with photography but am drawn to processes that push the boundaries of what I can achieve in photography. There are some images which are film-based, some digital. Sometimes I’ll use iPhone images to form a key element, and other times I’ll use appropriated images and mix them with my own images.
I do use digital software to assemble and combine photographic, graphic, and text elements. The ability to be able to control how elements are layered and how you can modify your ideas is very appealing to how I work.
Pop art and contemporary art are important to my work. I think that you can see that in my images. I think that there is an inherent critique of capitalist consumerism in some pop art. Holding up simple goods and making them more has been useful in some of my art.
Speaking of critiquing consumerism, your piece Big Pharm in particular represents that, but the image could also be seen as a literal representation of the name of your series, “Materials of Survival.” Do you agree?
Yes, this could be the poster [for the series] since it’s the simplest depiction of pills. It’s again a pop art usage of objects to show their surface and imply a deeper meaning. They are both basic and beautiful. How many of us see ordinary objects up close so that we can examine them? Large, they become sculptural, beautiful but also sinister.
They are important, this once or twice taking of pills every day. Just stopping them—it’s the 1980s again. Obviously there is a critique too in this image: Why are they so very expensive? Many people don’t get access to them. They didn’t just become available—many fought for access, many didn’t make it. I hope that this doesn’t get forgotten.
HIV-positive people could be seen as consumers of necessity of these pharmaceuticals. We have become customers for life—we need these products to live. Big Pharm addresses this complex relationship.
You’ve described yourself as a long-term survivor. Was there a time before that term and self-concept where you didn’t know what being positive meant for your longevity—and how does that show up in your work?
I came of age just a few years before AIDS started to appear and so I, like many, assumed that I had
been exposed to “it” from the early days. This belief continued as more became know about HIV. The difference between suspecting and knowing was huge, as I try to show in my piece Day One–Everything Changed. For about a decade after testing positive, I struggled with just surviving and with believing that I had a future. I spent a lot of time acquiring knowledge about the virus, experimental treatments, and drug development. There are several works that deal with some of that—like AIDS Typewriter and Obsession.
I think that it wasn’t until I saw that the treatments that I was on were reversing the decline of my immune system, and then the release of the protease inhibitors, that I began to believe in my having a long-term future. The hope of a long life which was ripped away by the HIV diagnosis took a while to slowly return.
I feel the need to put some of this journey down in the work I’m creating, as witnesses to what went on. It’s easy to forget, and I’m not sure that the stories of survival have been told. Some of us who’ve gone through this are still picking through the rubble and trying to make sense of it.
There was certainly an attempt to try to get back to normal, after effective treatments came out. I’m not sure if any of us who went through this experience ever had a “normal.” Dealing with AIDS and HIV was our normal. We’ve been living in a parallel world. I do feel like I’m going through this journey through my art. I think that it’s given me insights and strengths.
In terms of insights, it seems like your work is exploring what the idea of being a long-term survivor actually means….
I recently read The AIDS Generation by Perry Halkitis [Oxford University Press, 2013], and it interviews a group of long-term survivors. Halkitis talks about the need to make sense of what we’ve gone through and of showing the significance of one’s life. I think that this is part of the reasons that I make the work. I think that the survivors of this epidemic are heroes, often silent and uncelebrated. We’ve gone through this and are living our lives with a resilience.
Being an older, HIV-positive man, there are still many things that are not understood. We are experiencing and we’re also being told that certain things might be happening to our bodies because of the long-term use of drugs, the long-term effects of being positive, or accelerated aging. No one’s really sure. We have become masters at accepting the unknown, being on some sort of vanguard, living on the edges of dilemmas. I think that you need to have a resilience and an inner strength to do that…I think that this is a subtext of my work.
I’m constantly aware that all this time that I have had was not given to so many, that it is a gift, I don’t think I can tell you why. I try to understand that I’ll never know, but I respect that I have opportunities many others didn’t have. With that, I’m enjoying living this new reality as an artist. This seems totally amazing given what I’ve gone through. This gratitude and the memories of others no longer here, it’s what drives me to create these images and in part, tell this story.
You’ve mentioned several specific images. One of my favorites combines a somewhat obscured photo of you taking a pill foregrounded by a photo taken in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco. The title is Tx–R.I.P. Sorry if I’m showing my ignorance here—what does the title mean?
It’s actually best to read it as “Take as Prescribed [pause] Rest in Peace”—which is what the initials mean—because of the unsettling balance which I think goes well with what the visual image communicates. This is a double exposure created in the film camera.
It was originally called Eat/Mourn. Eating occurred to me since my partner, who is Taiwanese, uses the verb “eat” rather than “take.” I like that since it’s less distancing and reflects that we are digesting these drugs like we do food, and we use them to survive.
The image also reflects the reality that those of us who are still here had access to these drugs and that they worked for us. It’s what separated us from those who didn’t survive. This image deals with the tenuousness of that separation. But there is also the relationship that many of us might feel with those who died—loved ones or compatriots.
Thanks for your time, this was a pleasure. Any projects you’re currently working on?
I have a really powerful piece on display in June as part of the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco. It’s called Every AIDS Obituary and uses the thousands of obituaries that appeared in the Bay Area Reporter between 1982 and 2005. It’s quite large and moving. I’m excited to show this photographic montage. It will also be part of the solo show in November.
I’ve also just finished assembling a book [Materials of Survival, 2015] of the series to be available at the Camerawork and Magnet shows. The book includes some prose that describes each image. I’ve been pleased how well the prose and the images elevate each other. The book reflects how I’m envisioning the solo show at Magnet that’s coming in November.
More about Grahame Perry can be found on his website, www.grahameperryphotography.com.
Brent Calderwood is Literary Editor of A&U and author of The God of Longing (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). His website is www.brentcalderwood.com.