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Discourse 23.3 (2001) 75-105
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Through the Image:
Nicholas Nixon's "People with AIDS"
1. Nixon's AIDS Project and Its Critical Reception
In 1988, New York's Museum of Modern Art exhibited a retrospective of Nicholas Nixon's photography: a presentation of five serial projects, each organized around a central unifying theme. In an effort to capture the projects' original "precision and subtlety," the MOMA exhibition catalog painstakingly reproduced, down to their exact size, photographs from "People, 1978-1982," "Old People," "At Home," "The Brown Sisters," and "People with AIDS: Excerpt from Work in Progress." 1 These last photographs—a series of portraits of Tom Moran documenting his physical deterioration from AIDS-related illness from August 1987 until a few days before his death in February 1988—were the beginnings of a project that took its final form as a book entitled People with AIDS (1991). The book included fifteen separate series of large-format photographs, each centering on a different person with AIDS (all but one of whom had died before the project was completed), and each prefaced with an explanatory essay written by Nixon's wife, Bebe Nixon. 2
Although all the projects included in the 1988 MOMA retrospective share similar formal and affective qualities, particularly "Old People" and "People with AIDS," which manifest an especially intense and obsessive scrutiny of bodily detail, it is the PWA project alone that has been subsequently, and widely, criticized for the way [End Page 75] it represents its subjects: for what it says, and even more important, for what it doesn't say about the person living with AIDS; for its lack of any social and/or political context; and as evidence of the self-involved and callous attitude of the photographer who produced it. 3 It seems likely that the considerable critical attention focused on Nixon's PWA series was due to both the political and ideological space that AIDS continues to occupy in fin-de-siècle culture and the fact that AIDS and homosexuality benefit from unusually strong politicized constituencies well versed in the power and cultural importance of images.
In any case, negative reaction to Nixon's AIDS project was immediate. In "Portraits of People with AIDS," Douglas Crimp discussed the protest ACT UP mounted during the "Pictures of People" show at MOMA. Part of that protest involved distributing fliers that sought to remind exhibition-goers that "the PWA is a human being whose health has deteriorated not simply due to a virus, but due to government inaction, the inaccessibility of affordable health care, and institutionalized neglect in the forms of heterosexism, racism, and sexism" (118). Crimp criticized the photographs' politically irresponsible lack of social context, and their perpetuation of popularly held assumptions about people with AIDS. "What we see first and foremost in Nixon's photographs," he wrote, "is their reiteration of what we have already been told or shown about people with AIDS: that they are ravaged, disfigured, and debilitated by the syndrome; they are generally alone, desperate, but resigned to their 'inevitable' deaths" (118). The rigid equation that Nixon's PWA project proposed, AIDS = death, transformed his photographic subjects from distinct and distinguishable social beings into interchangeable examples of that equation. In Nixon's photographs of PWAs, human bodies seem to function merely as screens on which the "truth" of AIDS (death) is made to materialize.
Such criticisms made clear that these photographs are subject to overdetermination by already existing societal prejudices, do not work against such prejudices, and thus serve to maintain and nourish AIDS-related stereotypes. Critiques that celebrated Nixon's AIDS photographs, however, often presented an almost diametrically opposed view, describing the project as empathetic and even "corrective" in nature. In a 1989 review of Nixon's PWA photography for the art journal Artforum, Charles Hagen asserted:
Nixon never treats the AIDS patients he photographs as cases or specimens to be examined dispassionately, at a distance. His final photograph of Tom Moran [fig. 1] 4 is a close-up (so that in print he appears life-size); Moran...