The Lost Faces of AIDS
Photographer Jim Wigler’s Lost Portraits of the AIDS Generation Still Haunt
by Hank Trout
In 1986, as the AIDS epidemic claimed life after life and the shame and stigma surrounding the disease spread as rapidly as the virus itself, San Francisco photographer Jim Wigler knew he had to do something.
“So many people in Gay AA were sharing about their experiences with AIDS,” Jim told me, “and public reaction to the disease was so hostile that I decided to do something to humanize the people coming down with symptoms.” That hostility extended even to medical professionals who were supposed to be helping patients. Jim remembers that many doctors wouldn’t even touch a patient suffering from AIDS. He knew he had to act, he had to fight back, with the only weapon he could wield: his camera.
Because Jim had been a well-known photographer in San Francisco for years, publishing work in Drummer, Malebox, and other magazines, and had mounted exhibits in the City several times, he decided to work his contacts for subjects to photograph. “I talked to my friend, Tom Nolan, who was then on the Board of Supervisors in San Mateo, California. I told him about my idea to make portraits of people with AIDS, big awesome beautiful portraits which would bring out the humanity in each person.” Nolan enthusiastically supported the project. With Nolan’s help, and through his contacts in Gay AA and elsewhere, Jim rounded up sixty HIV-positive people who allowed themselves to be photographed—Jim believes they were among the first people in the country to contract the virus; they were certainly among the first who were willing to be photographed and identified as AIDS patients. Again with Mr. Nolan’s help, Jim secured the financing to frame all of the portraits. The result was “The Faces of AIDS,” an exhibition of sixty 16-by-20-inch close-up portraits of men and women with AIDS, which debuted at the San Mateo County Fair in 1986. “The reaction to the exhibit was perfect. Although one of the pieces got spit on by one irate woman, most of the photos were revelatory to the onlookers.”
The exhibit traveled to Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, where Canon William Barcus III not only embraced and supported the exhibit, he also posed for one of the exhibit’s portraits. Noted San Francisco columnist Herb Caen wrote about the 1986 exhibit, “Jim Wigler, whose somber exhibit…closes Sunday at Grace Cathedral, has created something of a worldwide sensation. The disturbing photos will be shown in Stockholm next summer, under the auspices of the International Red Cross; then at the House of Commons in London and, after that, probably the National Cathedral in Washington.”
Jim continued adding portraits to the project, photographing men and women with AIDS until he had a total of 101 black-and-white portraits. In October 1987, with the AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, Jim’s “Faces of AIDS” exhibit hung at the American Red Cross. The exhibit continued to travel around the world with the Quilt. Unfortunately, traveling with thousands of panels of the Quilt and 101 large-scale framed photographs became terribly burdensome. Jim told me, sadly, “Over the years and after some neglect, the portraits seem to have disappeared—no one knows where the portraits are right now. I’ve tried to track them down, but no luck.”
Thus, the sense of loss surrounding these portraits is compounded. Not only, Jim believes, are all of his subjects long dead, lost to the AIDS epidemic, the framed portraits themselves are “lost” to us. Fortunately, Jim still has the original negatives of all of the portraits. Their impact has not diminished since their initial showing in 1986.
“Somber” and “disturbing” these portraits certainly are. All of the portraits are very close-up shots, with the subjects’ heads and faces filling nearly every inch of the photos, revealing every line and every wrinkle and, in some cases, every lesion on the subject’s face. Young and old, male and female, white folks and people of color, all are represented in this series of portraits. Many of the subjects of these portraits—Canon Barcus, Patrick Reilly, Edgardo Rodriguez, among them—chose solemn, thoughtful expressions for the camera, one supposes, to fit the solemnity of their situation. Still others chose to be remembered with their biggest, brightest smiles in place—John Lorenzini, Carson Tong, Frederic White and others all flashed 100-watt smiles at Jim’s camera and us, as if in defiance of the disease ravishing their bodies, smiling through the pain. Yet, those smiles cannot hide the anguish in the subjects’ eyes as the disease eats away at their immune systems.
I am particularly drawn to a few of the portraits, especially the photos of Frederic White and Canon William Barcus. White’s portrait stands out for me because he seems to be one of the older subjects that Jim photographed; there seems to be a lot of living and great wisdom in the lines around his eyes, great love in that radiant smile—and yet his eyes also reveal a deep sadness, almost as if White realized that the scab on his forehead (perhaps a KS lesion?) would dominate the photograph. Canon Barcus’s portrait speaks to me, in the bottomless sadness in his eyes, of the grief and loss that all of us who lived through the Plague Years know too well.
But perhaps the most powerful of these images—and certainly the most painful for me to look at—is the haunting photo of disco superstar Sylvester. I cannot claim to have known Sylvester intimately, but we were acquainted well enough to speak when we ran into each other on Castro Street. And one of my earliest and fondest memories of San Francisco is of Sylvester commanding the stage at the Castro Street Fair, holding thousands of us in the palm of his hands, lifting us to the heights of disco frenzy, wringing us dry as few performers could. No one who ever felt the warmth of Sylvester’s broad, sparkly smile will ever forget it. It is difficult for me, and painful, to try to reconcile this sad, somber photo of Sylvester—the last portrait he ever posed for—with the exuberant, wildly creative, gifted, inspiring disco queen who dominated every stage he graced right up to the end of his days. This photo, even more than the others in this series, reminds me of the inexpressible losses we all suffered because of the epidemic.
“Loss” seems to permeate not only all of these portraits themselves but their history as well. Although he has no idea where the original prints are now, and cannot find anyone who does know, Jim hopes these portraits will find life again. He hopes to use the negatives that he still has to create a book of the portraits as visual reminders of the human lives we lost, with commentary from doctors and nurses and other caregivers who worked with patients during the worst years of the epidemic, from artists and activists and politicians and other policymakers and writers who survived the epidemic. Jim believes that it is time to rediscover the lost faces of AIDS.
Hank Trout, an A&U Editor at Large, writes the For the Long Run column for the magazine.