The emergence of AIDS led to a fundamental shift in the way gay photographers conceived of time in their work. Utilizing queer temporality as a critical tool, I will approach the work of Tony Just, Bill Jacobson, Robert Mapplethorpe, AA Bronson, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Ray Navarro within the context of HIV/AIDS. Elizabeth Freeman’s writing elucidates how time has been constructed around the family in the industrial age; to rupture time is to rupture the very society that stigmatized or disregarded those dying of AIDS. The aforementioned artists respond to the AIDS crisis by treating time as nonlinear and unstable—the past is felt in the present, time becomes tangible and even touchable, and presence is extended beyond the moment of death. I demarcate these photographs into two categories: images of mourning and images of ghosts. While the former may seem like a conventional ritual, the photographs create a complex temporal dialogue. Likewise, spectral figures transcend not only corporeality, but time itself. The work of queer theorists, in particular José Esteban Muñoz, Christopher Castiglia, and Christopher Reed, aid in one’s understanding of the causes and effects of temporal dissonance. Muñoz views straight time as inherently damaging to queers; by resisting it, they can escape the harmful present and strive for a better future. Analyzing the major focuses in contemporary queer theory, Castiglia and Reed argue that feeling “out of time” is a posttraumatic response to the AIDS crisis. Ultimately, it is undeniable that the emergence of HIV/AIDS had a dramatic impact on the art world. The virus not only eradicated many of the greatest cultural producers of the late twentieth century, but deeply ruptured the psyches of American artists.
While some contend that AIDS led to a paradigm shift in contemporary art, art historians often overlook its impact when considering work from the late twentieth century. Jonathan D. Katz finds that today’s art world is “a child of AIDS,” but discussion of HIV/AIDS is often resigned to political artwork, censorship, and the deaths of significant artists. While some art of the late 20th century is quite conspicuous in its reference to AIDS, a majority only implies it; regardless, it is analytically erroneous to disregard the historical conditions in which the work was created. Speaking out against art history’s omission of HIV/AIDS and refusal to use it as a critical lens, Katz writes, “To challenge that silence, we must attend not to the macro effects of AIDS, but to the micro ones, most centrally to the way it subtly redrew the parameters of art critical discourse, and thus also redrew artists’ own strategic thinking, as they sought to represent their response to AIDS." My own challenge to this silence examines the ways in which photographers utilized queer time to respond to the AIDS crisis. Being “out of time” becomes a method of resisting the here and now and challenging dominant ideologies.
In what she defines as chrononormativity, Freeman argues that modern conceptualizations of time have been organized around the well-being of the state and the family: “Chrononormativity is a mode of implantation, a technique by which institutional forces come to seem like somatic facts. Schedules, calendars, time zones, and even wristwatches inculcate what the sociologist Evitar Zerubavel calls ‘hidden rhythms,’ forms of temporal experience that seem natural to those whom they privilege. Manipulations of time convert historically specific regimes of asymmetrical power into seemingly ordinary bodily tempos and routines, which in turn organize the value and meaning of time." As the United States shifted from an agricultural to industrial society, so did time itself. Industrial time revolved around the daily shifts of workers, while weekends were created for the bourgeoning working class, giving families time to spend together. It is imperative that one adheres to a set pattern of events that includes working regularly, getting married, buying a house, having children, and dying of old age. In chronobiopolitics, individual bodies are bound together and made to feel collective; these “properly temporalized bodies” are linked to narratives of progress—to be aligned with time is to have a life worth living. It is evident, however, that many of individuals do not follow such a trajectory. What happens to those who exist outside of institutionalized conceptions of time?
Queers do not fit within the state’s idealized citizenship, leaving them in both political and temporal exile. The aforementioned timeline privileges heteronormativity—queers cannot reproduce, were unable to marry prior to the national legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, and may be unable to find a job due to their sexuality or gender identity. Queer lives are thus deemed lesser, left unbound under chronobiopolitics. This became more evident after the advent of AIDS. Jack Halberstam finds that, “Queer time perhaps emerges most spectacularly, at the end of the twentieth century, from within those gay communities whose horizons of possibility have been severely diminished by the AIDS epidemic." Gay men were not only out of time, but explicitly associated with disease, death, and the crumbling of society itself.
Existing outside of these systems is not always negative, however. Freeman explicates its advantages: “Sexual dissidents became figures for and bearers of new corporeal sensations, including those of a certain counterpoint between now and then, and of occasional disruptions to the sped-up and hyperregulated time of industry." Castiglia and Reed make a similar argument, stating that homosexuality is defined by both “unproductive” sex acts as well as “unproductive” expenditures of time. There is a history of queer figures representing a resistance to time, such as dandies of the nineteenth century who were known for wasting time as flâneurs, who stroll through the city with no particular purpose. Alternative temporalities often coexist with queerness. In Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida outlines hauntology, a temporal disjunction in which traces of the past become specters who have returned to the present. Hauntology considers the past in the form of a specter that is “neither living nor dead, present nor absent” and “does not belong to ontology, to the discourse on the Being of beings, or to the essence of life or death." Freeman finds the aforementioned concept pertinent to queer theory, as it shows that “time can produce new social relations and even new forms of justice that counter the chrononormative and chronobiopolitical." Such a temporal desynchronization is both hazardous and daunting for queer individuals, but it is also a form of resistance they can deploy against the very institutions that oppress them.
Though photography has largely constructed the family as a narrative of production and progress, it can create ruptures in normative time. Notably, photography rose to prominence around the same time that many Western nations became industrialized. Concurrently, photographic imagery shifted from post-mortem daguerreotypes to images of a happy family, placing it within the supposed national trajectory of progress. The medium, however, also has the ability to queer time. Castiglia and Reed’s description of memory draws many parallels with the way in which photography operates. Analyzing the queer properties of memory, they write, “Memories do their work by refusing the discrete borders of sequential ‘moments’ and by collapsing the past and the future into present.” By freezing a single frame in time, photography extracts moments from their original sequentiality. This moment, the present at the time of the shutter closing, then becomes the past that will be experienced in the future by a viewer. Photography creates a cross-temporal dialogue that allows moments to exist outside of linear time, to haunt the future.
Many photographers utilized ghostly imagery in their response to the AIDS epidemic. In these photographs, ontological presence is extended beyond the corporal self; specters of the past are capable of temporal rupture, inhabiting the present and future. Ghosts have historical significance, “appearing in gothic novels as tactile experiences not only of dead people but also of repressed events and social formations." Perhaps it is a ghost of AIDS itself that haunts these photographs. One might also considers the ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) —they engage in a cross-temporal dialogue with Ebenezer Scrooge, rupturing and changing the present. Derrida calls for one not to simply be a witness or observer, but to “speak to the specter, to speak with it, therefore especially to make or to let a spirit speak." It becomes crucial, borrowing Derrida’s phrasing, to let the ghosts speak in the work of Just, Jacobson, and Mapplethorpe; by doing so, the viewer gains an understanding of the photograph’s relation to both time and AIDS.
In a series of untitled photographs from 1994, Just cleaned and photographed run-down public restrooms in New York City. Notably, these spaces were targeted and shut down following the AIDS public health crisis. One particular photograph of a toilet bowl is visually intriguing in its abstraction. Because the image is stripped of other signifiers that would reveal its referent, the viewer’s mind is allowed to wander. The form, especially considering the history of the space, is reminiscent of an anus. One can see small reflections of light in the water’s surface, illustrating the luminosity of the porcelain. The space is quite beautiful and clean, contrary to its associations with public sex in the 1970s. Just, through his ritualized cleaning, redefines preconceived notions of a pre-AIDS generation of gay men.
Just’s photography forges a connection to what Muñoz calls the “ghosts of public sex.” These are ghosts of a vanished sexual freedom and of a previous generation of gay men, both of which were ravaged by AIDS. Analyzing this series, Muñoz writes, “I see the ghosted materiality of the work as having a primary relation to emotions, queer memories, and structures of feeling that haunt gay men on both sides of a generational divide that is formed by and through the catastrophe of AIDS.” The epidemic disconnected the most recent generation of gay men from those who came before, either through death or a force that Castiglia and Reed call “unremembering.” They find that we have undergone “a process of temporal isolation, distancing ourselves from the supposedly excessive generational past in exchange for promises of ‘acceptance’ in mainstream institutions.” Just’s work, however, reforges these connections. His process is interesting in its physicality—it is as if he is able to reach across time and connect bodily. Perhaps it is time itself that becomes a material, tactile experience. As Derrida has outlined, spectral presence has the ability to transcend linear time and engage in cross-temporal dialogue.
Through blurred, almost unreadable imagery, Jacobson transforms the subject of Interim Portrait #373 (1992) into an apparition seemingly not of this world. The man seems to be in the process of fading away, disappearing into the white void. His eyes are dark and look as if they are sunken-in, giving the subject a skull-like appearance. Between the light tonality and undefined lines, the photograph feels incredibly fragile. One begins to fear that if they stare at it for too long, the image will disappear. The figure, however, faces the viewer, challenging them with his own gaze. He opens his mouth as if to speak and, given the quality of the image, one might expect his voice to be no more than a whisper. Despite fading away, the ghostly subject retains a degree of tangibility by engaging the viewer.
Both fragile and confrontational, the ghostly presence in Interim Portrait #373 refuses to be lost to history. Derrida’s notion of allowing specter to speak functions on a literal and metaphorical level in this work, as the man attempts to communicate with the viewer. In this way, he emerges from the picture plane and enters the present. Jacobson says of his Interim Portrait series, “I hope to create floating, fragile objects that evoke ghosts and spirits of a rapidly disappearing segment of the population.” The subject becomes a metonym for people with AIDS during the 1980s, who were invisible and inaudible to those in power. For instance, former president Ronald Reagan did not publically utter a word about AIDS until six years into the epidemic, after 25,644 deaths. The image persists beyond this moment, however, and reiterates the struggles that the LGBTQ community faced during the AIDS epidemic. For Carla Freccero, queer spectrality takes the form of “the affective force of the past in the present, of a desire issuing from another time and placing a demand on the present.” Just as in A Christmas Carol, ghosts can actively shape the present and future. The specter is not neutral, but can be a force of powerful rupture.
Proliferating iconography of death, Mapplethorpe’s 1989 Self-Portrait depicts the artist at the end of his battle with AIDS. The void envelops Mapplethorpe, with only a small portion of his body visible. His head is slightly out of focus, spatially, or perhaps temporally, distant from his hand. The skull at the top of the cane signifies the artist’s mortality; strikingly, the tension between this motif and Mapplethorpe causes the viewer to superimpose the image of the skull on top of his likeness. Eyebrows furrowed, the artist stares at the viewer unwaveringly. The image seems to be an acceptance of his fate—soon, he will wither and become like the skull, ultimately stripped of identity. At the same time, however, the photograph itself is as a method of remembrance, acting as a tangible record of the artist that carries his memories across time.
In Self-Portrait, Mapplethorpe finds an alternative form of futurity through ghosts and haunting. The two readable elements in this photograph, a skull and the artist’s likeness, set up a dialectic that is key to the image: death versus presence. One may assume the two terminate together, but spectrality shows this to be false. Death is quantifiable and defined to a single moment, while presence is much more complex and can extend beyond the moment of death. By looking at this photograph, generations of future viewers will look at and remember Mapplethorpe. Photography allows moments to surpass their temporal linearity and exist beyond the present; it is the medium of visual time travel. If, as Lee Edelman argues, there is “no future” for homosexuals, perhaps there is an alternative future found in imagery. Artists such as Mapplethorpe do not ensure futurity through children, but do so through their work. By creating, queers can ensure that they will be remembered long after their death.
During the AIDS crisis, photography acted as a form of mourning; these images, whether they depict a deceased individual or the artist’s memories of them, extend presence beyond mere corporeality. Mourning was an important ritual for the LGBTQ community to honor the dead. It can also transform rage and grief into a political force. Douglas Crimp discusses homophobic violence from both individuals and the state, writing, “Because this violence also desecrates the memories of our dead, we rise in anger to vindicate them. For many of us, mourning becomes militancy.” This can also function on a temporal level as a resistance to straight time. Mourning is defined by the deceased refusing to vacate one’s thoughts; through memory, the past ruptures the present, often leaving the mourner incapable of fully acknowledging the here and now. Castiglia and Reed say of this temporal disjunction, “Memory, similarly located between the possible and the actual, reaches back to the (socially, temporally, mortally) dead to offer them a supplemental possibility in the minds of those who remember.” Photography has a privileged position with mourning. At funerals, pictures of the deceased are displayed so that the attendees remember them not as they are, but as they were. This is especially pertinent for those afflicted with AIDS, allowing mourners to remember them not as withered, weak, sometimes marked versions of their former selves, but as the radical, creative, and sexual individuals they truly were.
Felix, June 5th, 1994 by Bronson is a frank, severe depiction of AIDS that amalgamates the subject’s life and death. Felix is accompanied by the things he enjoyed most in life, such as the remote to his left, a tape recorder, and a pack of cigarettes. Similarly, the bright colors and various patterns of the linens that surround him contrast his emaciated appearance. The dichotomy between life and death is broken by the coexistence of the aforementioned elements. At seven feet tall and fourteen feet wide, the photograph’s massive scale must also be considered. It not only monumentalizes the artist’s mourning, but also creates an unusual aesthetic experience in which the photograph’s grain becomes visible. One possible reading is that the tiny dots signify the HIV virus—they are not noticeable until close inspection and ultimately overtake Felix in their multiplicity. Bronson’s monumental image of mourning acknowledges the person Felix was in life while simultaneously refusing to forget the cause of his death.
Through the scale and subject matter of Felix, Bronson politicizes his mourning. The emotional quality of the scene is frozen in time through photography, allowing viewers in the future to experience Felix’s death as Bronson did. Of course, few have the same connection to the subject as the artist does, but the work’s affective qualities are difficult to ignore. The scale of the photograph causes the viewer to feel as if they are experiencing this moment firsthand. Felix is more so in the tradition of post-mortem photography than it is a funerary visitation, as post-mortem photographs were often taken in the home and made the deceased individual appear comfortable. Its similarity to this tradition ruptures the progression of family photography under chrononormativity, creating a shift from images of health to images of death. During the AIDS crisis, many photographers captured images their dead loved ones for similar reasons. These pictures not only capture sorrowful moments, but express rage towards the government for their lack or response to the epidemic. Felix is exceptional, however, for the dualities of life and death, personal and monumental, and past and present that exist simultaneously within the image.
In 1991, Gonzalez-Torres created a series of billboards in New York City depicting an empty bed. The bed is unmade and the two pillows have depressions in them as if a couple recently got out of it. The somewhat dramatic light plays off the creases and folds in the linens, creating undulations and deep shadows. When one spends time with the photograph, the sheets begin to signify waves while the pillows are reminiscent of a crater or impact site. It is easy to become lost in the minimalism of the scene. The tone of the image is very cool, the grayscale almost a light blue in some installations. Notably, it is displayed in a highly public area where one is used to seeing mundane advertisement. The space is given new meaning through Gonzalez-Torres’s installation, leaving the viewer to ponder over the dichotomy of private and public.
Untitled projects memory, intimacy, and loss—all of which are undeniably intertwined with HIV/AIDS—into public space. This series of installations was created in 1991, the same year Gonzalez-Torres’s partner died of AIDS complications. The empty bed signifies a final moment of intimacy, their forms still existing as small traces. Memory has a particular relationship to one’s physicality. Castiglia and Reed elucidate this connection, saying, “Memory is a struggle over corporeality; to forget is not simply to lose a thought or image, it is to lose the accumulation of sensation, and hence to lose the experiential life of the body itself. In this sense, memory takes on a simultaneously somatic and salvific capacity to retain life after the body that experiences has passed chronologically beyond the moment of memory.” By photographing this scene, Gonzalez-Torres captures not only the physical imprints, but also the emotional and sensational dimensions of his relationship. Furthermore, the artist forces the public to engage with the image. The general public wanted to disregard those dying of AIDS, but Untitled brings mourning outside of the personal and forces them to see how the disease ravages a community. Its ambiguity also leads viewers to think of their own losses, allowing for a much more intimate connection to Gonzalez-Torres. The photograph refuses the homonormative logic of “keeping what you do in the bedroom private.” During the AIDS crisis, sex could no longer be considered neutral or merely one’s own business—it deeply affected an entire community.
Navarro’s Equipped (1990) creates visual engagement through the seemingly unrelated photographs and plaques. The three black and white photographs depict a wheelchair, walker, and cane, noticeably all abandoned and overturned. Underneath the images are three captions that read “hot butt,” “studwalk,” and “third leg.” The seemingly fun and sexy nature of the text is destabilized by the morose photographs. Through the interplay of text and image, one can create associations between the captions and the objects that are depicted. A person’s “hot butt” is rendered irrelevant if they are bound to a wheelchair. Likewise, a “studwalk” would certainly not refer to slow and fragile movement of a walker. The cane becomes rather phallic with the caption “third leg,” yet the object still signifies old age and difficulty standing. These photographs may be read as simply ironic, but they take on new meaning when one considers the context of HIV/AIDS.
Collapsing past and present, Equipped illustrates how AIDS ravaged gay men and transformed them from an embodiment of virility and sexuality into one of sickliness and fragility. The captions signify the 1970s, a time of sexual freedom for many gay men. They were able to experiment and enjoy each other bodily without remorse. HIV/AIDS destroyed this culture of sexuality, however, and it was never truly felt again until the introduction of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in 2012, as some may argue. Gay neoconservatives have argued for a complete break with the supposedly hedonistic and immature gay men of the 1970s, leading many to forget what pre-AIDS life was like. Navarro’s set of photographs, however, remembers and mourns this sexual freedom while also acknowledging its devastating results. Equipped does not simply depict a cause and effect relationship, it allows one to see people with AIDS as both victims and innately sexual individuals. The piece does not succumb to the common pitfalls of AIDS representations that Crimp reviles against, images that dispel gay promiscuity or even gay sex altogether. Rather, Equipped considers both the past and present of people with AIDS, rupturing time in the way that only art and photography can.
For Castiglia and Reed, feeling “out of time” is symptomatic of a post-traumatic response to the AIDS crisis. Regarding queer scholars’ emphasis on temporality, they assert, “The traumatized experience a sense of time gone awry, of living in the past and present simultaneously, the past seeming more in front of one, temporally, than behind, while the future takes on the displaced form of the past.” The trauma one sustains can be so strong that it can fundamentally shift that individual’s understanding of time. While their concern is with a fixation on negative affects and the antisocial thesis of contemporary queer theory, this idea can also be applied to the artwork produced during and after the AIDS epidemic. This period of time was certainly traumatic for the LGBTQ community. As the 1980s progressed, so did the number of people dying of AIDS-related complications. Amid the reports and detached statistics, one cannot forget that those dying were friends, lovers, extended family members, activists, artists, and organizers. We not only lost them as people, we lost their contributions to the world, whether that be artwork, literature, performance, or just one’s presence. While adverse times brought individuals together, the LGBTQ community was shattered in a number of other ways. Many photographers began incorporating alternative temporalities in their work in the mid-1980s and after, perhaps indicative of a traumatic response. This offers an explanation as to how a generation of artists was affected by HIV/AIDS. While alternative conceptions of time may be a result of trauma, one can also harness them as a powerful means of resistance.
Queer temporality allows for individuals to resist the precariousness of present time. This is especially pertinent for gay men in the 1980s, who were reviled by the general population and forgotten about by the government. At a time when William F. Buckley suggested tattooing the infected and Senator Jesse Helms called for a quarantine, it was crucial that queers escape the present. Utilizing Ernst Bloch’s utopian philosophy, Muñoz finds power in queer temporality: “A turn to the no-longer-conscious enabled a critical hermeneutics attuned to comprehending the not-yet-here. This temporal calculus performed and utilized the past and the future as armaments to combat the devastating logic of the world of the here and now, a notion of nothing existing outside the sphere of the current moment, a version of reality that naturalizes cultural logics such as capitalism and heteronormativity.” When photographers utilize alternative temporalities in their work, they are able to exile themselves from the present, even if it is only for the fraction of a second the shutter opens. While this action may not deflect hate or hasten the production of HIV/AIDS medication, its symbolic logic is still significant. There are many forms of resistance—for some, it may be protesting at the New York Stock Exchange, but for others resistance may be as simple as finding a way to escape the traumas of the present.
HIV/AIDS led to a reconceptualization of contemporary art, which is perhaps most evident in the gay photographers who incorporated queer time in their work. The work of Just, Jacobson, Mapplethorpe, Bronson, Gonzalez-Torres, and Navarro considers these temporalities and finds ways to resist normative time. Ghosts and specters haunt their images, while photography of mourning refuses to let the deceased be confined to a singular moment. The memory of this trauma has not dissipated, however, as its ripples can be felt today. HIV/AIDS is still incredibly difficult to talk about, whether that be an open conversation about serostatus between sexual partners or analyses of queer art from the 1980s and 1990s. The AIDS crisis is often framed as purely historical, which discounts the numerous ways it continues to haunt our collective consciousness thirty years later. With a recent resurgence in HIV infections, we cannot afford to forget. Queer temporality can be a powerful tool for both engaging with the past and leaving the harmful present. Muñoz powerfully argues, “We must vacate the here and now for a then and there. Individual transports are insufficient. We need to engage in a collective temporal distortion. We need to step out of the rigid conceptualization that is a straight present.” By invoking the aforementioned artists, an epidemic I have never experienced firsthand, and a culture of sexual freedom I cannot even comprehend, I hope to take on my own temporal distortion. The boundaries of past, present, and future are not discrete—the moments where they overlap, collapse, and rupture reveal epistemological possibilities otherwise inconceivable.
 Jonathan D. Katz, “How AIDS Changed American Art,” in Art AIDS America, edited by Jonathan D. Katz and Rock Hushka (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015), 26-27.
 Ibid., 27.
 Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 3.
 Ibid., 4-5.
 Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 2.
 Freeman, Time Binds, 7.
 Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed, If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 19.
 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), 51.
 Freeman, Time Binds, 10.
 Ibid., 22.
 Castiglia and Reed, If Memory Serves, 14.
 Freeman, Time Binds, 98.
 Derrida, Specters of Marx, 11.
 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 41.
 Castiglia and Reed, If Memory Serves, 9.
 Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2010), 266.
 Douglas Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Pres, 2004), 36-37.
 Carla Freccero et al., “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ 13 (2007): 184.
 Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism, 136.
 Castiglia and Reed, If Memory Serves, 28.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 2.
 Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism, 104-106.
 Castiglia and Reed, If Memory Serves, 147.
 Crimp, Melancholia and Moralism, 35.
 Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 12.
 Sarah Childress, “CDC Reports Troubling Rise in HIV Infections Among Young People,” last modified November 27, 2012, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/cdc-reports-troubling-rise-in-hiv-infections-among-young-people.
 Muñoz, Cruising Utopia, 185.