New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 34 September 10 to 16, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

The End of an Era

Aids In New York: The First Five Years
John D. Roberts

Photo by Owen Franken . Source: nyhistory.org Owen Franken, "Gay Protesters on Gay Pride Day " July 1, 1985

The story here begins with the presentation of New York City as an oasis of sexual and artistic freedom in the years that followed the numerous civil rights victories of the late 1960's. Black power, feminist rebellion, and the massive outing of closeted homosexuals that followed the Stonewall riots in 1969 had cultivated a climate in which anything seemed possible. Social constraints that had governed civilized behavior in decades prior had been discredited and abandoned, slipping into obscurity.

“It was party time for everyone, heterosexuals as well as homosexuals,” viewers are told as they begin to approach the totally overwhelming mass of photos, posters, magazine and newspaper articles, clinician's notes, diaries, medical journals, and audio/video clips carefully arranged to take them to a time in their city's recent past – one decidedly ruled by death, excess, and a profound fear of the unknown.

The vivid presentation of carefree dance halls, public baths, and clothing optional social settings in the late 1970s arouses unease in us, forcing us to bear the burden of knowing what happens next.

Photo by Mario Suriani . Source: nyhistory.org Mario Suriani, "A group advocating AIDS research marches down Fifth Avenue during the 14th annual Lesbian and Gay Pride parade in New York " June 27, 1983

From here the story moves on to observe the frustration of medical professionals of the time trying as best they could - with little funding - to figure out why totally healthy individuals in their twenties were dying of diseases previously thought to be minor afflictions. The widespread variety of illnesses at first seemed to be unrelated. The death toll would continue to grow exponentially before the possibility of a common culprit was realized.

The works and artifacts collected here clearly indicate a lack of attention from mainstream news media publications in the first years, as most of the afflicted belonged to marginalized social groups. The '4 H's were considered most at risk: homosexuals, heroine-users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians.

Due to the mostly unpopular sects infected, reliable, unbiased information about the disease was almost impossible to come by - such coverage relegated to gay magazines, The Village Voice, and other niche publications. To the vast majority of America outside of New York City, the disease simply did not exist. However, as the disease moved beyond the five boroughs with the religious right continuing to exempt mainstream Americans from the risks – the disease had become a “gay plague.”

Photo by Frank Fournier . Source: nyhistory.org Frank Fournier, "Parents Protesting Board of Education" 1985

“The poor homosexuals – they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution,” Pat Buchannan proclaims on a wall near the center of the exhibition. The well rounded nature of this compilation is immensely successful in conveying epic nature of these circumstances. While the death toll alone is a tragedy, it must also be noted neither the death toll nor the the disease that brought it on exist on their own. They exist as one half of a symbiotic relationship with the social and political circumstances that surrounded them. The crisis was not just about the dead, but about the effect their death had on the living. The world had changed, and the evidence was in print.

Photo by Lee Snider . Source: nyhistory.org Lee Snider, "

First AIDS Memorial Service in New York City, Central Park Bandshell" June 13, 1983

The collection includes many propaganda posters - both home made and government issued – as well as covers and articles from Newsweek, Time, and Life magazines. Photos of people protesting the epidemic's coverage in the New York Post display the banner “The Post is a Rag.” Personal letters among the doctors, friends, and families of those who were dying are hung alongside these images. Looking at these handwritten items, we feel we are too close to the material, but also empathize with it most strongly.

The broad scope of documents in this collection is what ultimately produces one of its only weaknesses: the photos simply get lost in the mix, the interesting and evocative ones falling by the wayside.

This criticism aside, the collection is massive yet still incredibly intimate and ultimately successful. This cautionary tale still feels relevant, and the depiction of a terrified society desperately seeking reason where it did not exist profound.


Aids In New York: The First Five Years


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