AIDS has remained what the photographer calls “a strange disease” that through the years has touched people’s lives in “bizarre” ways. As an artist, Kurt Weston has used his work to express his vision of the “disease,” of the pandemic.
In that sense, Dark Angel may best capture Weston’s first intimate experience with HIV and AIDS. The photograph is one of his first to be inspired by Angels in America, the play he went to see when it came to Chicago.
The concept of angels and the symbolism of funeral rituals concur in the artist’s work, revisiting old ideas about life, death, and the vast Beyond. In Western monotheistic religions, angels are pictured as God’s messengers, living among humans and in the transitional space between Heaven and Earth. They can be guardian angels helping humans throughout their physical life, or they can be angels of death, messengers of the coming Death.
Kurt Weston’s Dark Angel is an angel of Death. He is also an angel of AIDS, which, at the time, was a death sentence. The image shows an implied representation of the angel’s wings, which are the shadows from where he’s peering out. Weston’s angel appears out of the shadows with his wings spread wide.
Although the photograph is a mixture of poor light and shadows, the angel’s face is illuminated because, even if AIDS forecasted a terrifying death, to the artist, there’s also something transformative about the disease. Throughout the years, AIDS has transformed many people’s concepts about death and dying and how people celebrate their lives and honor their dead. [Hence, the funeral scene in the 2003 HIV mini-series, Angels in America.]
Before the arrival of the AIDS epidemic, many envisioned funerals as horrifying events where people would mourn and sob over an open casket. As the epidemic started to decimate the gay community and people started losing so many friends to the disease, funerals became more celebrations of life.
Weston’s Dark Angel symbolizes an angelic figure composed of a play of the elements often used in the artist’s work—darkness and light—to manifest the subtle interaction between what’s real and what is not. This interaction further transposes between the dark angel and the white cat that doesn’t seem afraid of the angel but rather is somewhat interested in his stake. The artist explains that the cat was “a happy mistake,” while talking about the technical part involved in creating the image.
The photographer used a view camera, a large camera that requires a piece of film, called sheet film, inserted in a film holder. He had the subject standing as he appears in the photograph, holding on to his stake.
The room was completely dark as the artist started walking around with a handheld flash, popping the flash off at different angles to create other shadows, thus painting (with light and shadows) the Dark Angel’s wings.
Unbeknownst to Weston, while he was moving around and working on his photograph, his cat, Che (from Che Guevara), walked inside the room and was accidentally illuminated when the flash came off. It wasn’t until during the developing process that the photographer discovered the cat, which wasn’t supposed to be in the picture, staring straight at the angel’s stake.
Although Kurt Weston created the Dark Angel photograph in total darkness, he also injected light into the image to illuminate the angel’s face. The light symbolizes hope and life’s triumph peering through the immense darkness of the (then) terrifying pandemic.