Bearing Witness Anew
The International Center of Photography acquires Thomas McGovern’s AIDS archive
by Hank Trout
I didn’t know any of the men or women in Thomas McGovern’s “Bearing Witness (to AIDS)” photographs, but I recognize each and every one of them.
“Bearing Witness (to AIDS)” is a collection of photographs that Tom took over a ten-year period, 1987–97, documenting some of the worst of the Plague Years, with poignant, extremely compassionate portraits of men and women with HIV, as well as evocative photographs of demonstrations, vigils, funerals, and other events prompted by the AIDS crisis. Together they form an invaluable archive, both a heart-wrenching testament to the pain and grief and strength and anger of the AIDS Generation, and a soaring artistic achievement in photography.
The “Bearing Witness” archive has recently been acquired by the International Center of Photography in New York City. The ICP is the world’s leading institution dedicated to photography and visual culture, “where photographers and artists, students, and scholars can create and interpret the world of the image, exploring photography and visual culture as mediums of empowerment, and catalysts for wide-reaching social change.” The ICP’s acquisition of the entire collection recognizes the archive’s historical and artistic value.
“We’re honored to be entrusted as a repository for Thomas McGovern’s important work regarding those affected by AIDS,” said Mark Lubell, Executive Director, ICP. “This treasure trove of images and documentation from the front line of the ongoing struggle is an excellent addition to our collection.”
The “Bearing Witness” project began in 1986 in New York City, when Tom learned that a gay couple with whom he had become very close as housemates in the late 1970s had both died from AIDS. Deeply saddened by their deaths, and infuriated by the ugly widespread myths of gay men as predators, pedophiles, and diseased pariahs who deserved AIDS, Tom decided to focus on photographing people living with HIV/AIDS, to tell their stories with his camera. He wrote letters to the PWA Coalition, to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), and to other groups asking for volunteers to be photographed for the project. At the time, Tom’s wife Renate began working for one of the few doctors in New York focusing on AIDS; she too recruited subjects for Tom to photograph. “Every day she would tell me both wonderful stories of support and love, and horrible stories of rejection, abandonment and fear,” Tom told me. “I always gave participants prints as a thank you, and that in turn generated more photo shoots.”
“As I met and photographed more and more people with the disease,” Tom has written, “I became struck with their diversity and uniqueness.” Fifty-two-year-old African American Ron Dennis, one of the original cast members of A Chorus Line, photographed in 1996; nine-year-old Megan Fox, born with HIV to a mother who contracted the virus through a blood transfusion, photographed in 1995 after speaking to a high school group about living with AIDS; Manny Vasquez, an aspiring boxer and the subject of a newspaper article on being a prisoner with AIDS; Leon Washington, a staff member of GMHC, photographed in 1987, dead in 1991. These and dozens of other portraits make up the bulk of this chilling yet moving archive. There are also photos of patients submitting to experimental treatments; of activists marching in New York City and Washington, D.C.; of the bereaved, mourning at vigils. Tom has written that the project’s two elements, “portraiture and reportage, [are] symbiotic. And it is within this relationship that the crux of the project is evident—it is the sense of waiting and the passage of time.”
The archive acquired by ICP—some 200 to 250 photographs out of the thousands that Tom has shot—also includes letters and other ephemera that Tom collected over the years he worked on the project, as well as tape recordings of interviews that Tom conducted with the people he photographed, allowing them to tell their own stories. The ICP is currently digitizing those recordings and will make them available to researchers and the public along with the photographs. “I’m pleased to see the images—and my associated research and correspondence—added to the venerable ICP archives as a way to extend its legacy of bearing witness.”
A&U Senior Editor and photographer Sean Black has been a student and mentee of Tom’s. “My life would look totally different had I not met Tom McGovern.” Tom had done editorial work for the magazine and had also been featured in Gallery [A&U, August 1996] and introduced Sean to Managing Editor Chael Needle in 2009; Sean has been shooting for A&U since then. “Tom truly cares about the people he photographs,” Sean said. “His clarity and humanitarian vision, coupled with his keen ability to hone in on a split-second window akin to Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the ‘decisive moment’ are gifts.” Further, Sean said, “ICP is fortunate and wise to include Tom’s work from the AIDS pandemic in their archives so that others can study and reflect on our generation’s great losses.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Tom teaches photography at California State University, San Bernardino; in 2011 he founded Dotphotozine, an award-winning web-magazine showcasing the photography of current and former Cal State students. He has published other books, including Hard Boys + Bad Girls, photographs of aspiring professional wrestlers, and Vital Signs, studies of hand-painted signs and murals, which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 2014. Two photos from his current project “Swap Meet: This Is San Bernardino” have been purchased by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “I make photographs, teach, write, and hope to leave this world a better place,” Tom said.
The individual portraits in “Bearing Witness” are indeed exquisite and powerful, and they reflect the compassion that Tom feels for the people in the portraits. But there are two non-portrait photographs in the collection that I cannot get out of my mind.
The first is the photograph from 1991 of Al Bearden being examined by Dr. Jeffrey Wallach in New York City. Bearden lies abed on his back with his blanketed knees drawn up; all we actually see of him is his face, his head tilted and nestled in a white pillow; the doctor stands to his left, apparently checking Al’s pulse. The focal point of the photograph is Al’s open eyes, staring at the ceiling in resignation, eyes that appear to have given up. Above him, a handwritten sign on the wall advises, “Mr. Bearden Blind (L) eye.” The photograph evokes for me the hundreds of hours I spent in hospital rooms with dozens of friends, as well as the hours I’ve spent in hospital as a patient myself.
The other photo that affects me most—the one I cannot look at without crying—is the photograph of activist James Baggett carrying the coffin of fellow activist Jon Greenberg on July 12, 1993, the coffin heavy on his left shoulder, his right hand tightly, angrily gripping its handle. Baggett’s face, shot in profile, perfectly embodies everything I remember feeling during the Plague Years—the crushing pain and grief caused by innumerable deaths; the anger and frustration at losing so many so unnecessarily; the stoic determination to carry on, to fight back, to honor our dead and care for the living, to win. For me, more than any other in this archive, this photograph captures the quintessential face of the fight against AIDS—it will haunt and, I hope, inspire me for the rest of my life.
Thomas McGovern’s “Bearing Witness (to AIDS)” is an unflinching, indispensable and deeply moving record of the pain, grief, loss, and horror the AIDS Generation has endured. It is also an enduring, inspiring testament to that generation’s strength, stoicism, and heroism.
Photos from “Bearing Witness (to AIDS)” and Tom’s other documentary photography work, and more, can be found at www.thomasmcgovern.net. “Bearing Witness (to AIDS),” a hardcover monograph with sixty-five duotone photographs from the archive, Visual AIDS/A.R.T. Press, New York, 1999, 10×10, $35, is available at www.visualaids.org/projects/detail/thomas-mcgovern.
Information on the International Center of Photography and their extensive archives of historically notable, artistically important photographs spanning the history of photography can be found at https://www.icp.org.
Hank Trout writes A&U’s For the Long Run column. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.