Kurt Weston: Portraits through time
I came across Kurt Weston’s photographic work in 2005. I’ve had the chance to interview him over the years, including for a biography, Journeys Through Darkness, which follows his journeys through the darkness of HIV and AIDS, and of losing most of his eyesight to the virus, and learned a lot from his inspiring story of survival, as well as from his art.
Kurt Weston is an award-winning, legally blind photographer featured nationally and internationally, perhaps best known for his black-and-white portrait photography and for his Blind Vision series of black-and-white self-portraits that show people the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual. Black and white, he explains, offers his art “a concentration of expression,” and he likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits. “I like to use the black-and-white photography for portraiture,” he adds, “because I find that the use of black and white in portraiture is very poignant, and it breaks down the images to the very essence of the subject. It brings out the inner character of the individual… the ghost [in] the machine.”
Kurt Weston’s show, REMEMBER: An AIDS Retrospective, which opened on World AIDS Day 2018 at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA), featured black-and-white portraits made during the eighties including at Chicago Pride. “To me, the portraits of the Chicago Pride festival are, again, portraits,” he explains of his decision to choose black-and-white photography to capture an event famous for its rich colors. “I was primarily looking at the individuals, so my photographs are primarily portraits of people engaging in the Pride festival.”
“White Wedding” is one of the photographs from this particular body of work and one of the artist’s favorite shots. There was a mock wedding, he explains, and the subject, dressed as the bride, was working the crowd. The outfit was completely outrageous; the hair, covered in hairspray, was sticking out. They had Billy Idol on speakers, playing “White Wedding,” hence the title of this image. “It’s an invitation for a photographer to document these [events] and I just think that’s great because it’s all about expressing and celebrating an alternative or countercultural lifestyle.”
There’s a certain interaction that has to take place between photographer and subject for a photograph to capture the essence of its subject, or, as Weston calls it, “a partnership in the making of art.” He adds, “I want to document [my subjects] at a certain time in their life, and in the life of our planet, but I don’t think of myself as a documentary photographer. When I photograph somebody, I want to make a document, but also to emphasize aspects of their personality—who they are or who they see themselves as being within the context of the greater society, and bring all that out in the photograph.”
Another one of Weston’s portraits, “When the Shame Ends,” was most recently featured in What Unites Us and What Divides Us 2020 online international show hosted by DC’s Touchstone Gallery. The image captures the longevity and universality of Weston’s work in several ways. As seen through the lens of time- of HIV/AIDS and the current COVID-19 pandemic—the image explores what it means to be human, especially when faced with an extreme situation such as a pandemic, and takes on the role of “embrace,” as a way of communicating support, compassion, and understanding.
At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, “there was a lot of fear for someone who was not HIV positive to hug someone who was positive,” Weston recalls. “I experienced that myself.” Nobody knew how the virus was being transmitted. Even when information became available, there was still a lot of misinformation because of the ineffectiveness of the Reagan Administration.
But some individuals were not afraid. Rather, they showed kindness and compassion toward those living with the virus and were what the photographer considers “the best of humanity.” And they helped strengthen Weston’s survival instinct.
There’s a kind of survival instinct, perhaps associated with an idea of “holding on” that’s often evoked in an embrace, and it also comes to life in Weston’s “When the Shame Ends.” The message and symbolism of this black-and-white portrait created at the height of the AIDS epidemic traverse time and pandemics. “When the Shame Ends” captures two young Asian men, both HIV positive, clinging to one another as if they have nobody and nothing else to hold on to when facing life-threatening circumstances. Such was AIDS, such is COVID; hence, the universality of this image.
“It’s a universal [desire] to want to show your compassion, to let your loved ones know that you’re supporting them,” Weston said. “It is unfortunate that, with COVID, so many people have lost loved ones without being able to say goodbye or give one final embrace, [from] fear of the disease.”
The truth is that it’s impossible not to be changed by these pandemics. The truth is that the minuscule viruses causing these pandemics reveal just how fragile the human condition is and remind us how finite life on this planet is. Individuals diagnosed with HIV or AIDS in a time when life-saving medications were not yet available are very much aware of that reality.
“When dealing with life-and-death circumstances, you start to realize what’s important to you and that certain things carry a lot more weight than others,” Weston said. “And at some point, you want to achieve something that will leave a mark on humanity. Art is a wonderful [but not the only] vehicle [through] which to do that.”
Weston has always created photographic art that speaks to the heart of the people seeing it and broadens their concept and meaning of life. Currently, he’s putting the finishing touches on his Neo Glam fashion photography series for a show opening this month at the Orange County airport. In addition, six of his images from the REMEMBER show are to appear in the New Amsterdam TV series, in an episode about a gay activist. He also wants to create new black-and-white work for an upcoming show called Further from Heaven.
Kurt Weston is not only an award-winning photographer. He also mentors and teaches others the art of photography. “To be a good artist,” he advises aspiring photographers and artists, “you have to love what you’re doing and be passionate about what you’re doing. You have to be authentic about what you are making as an artist. It has to be something that you have or feel a commitment to. That way, through your art, you can communicate what it is that you’re trying to say that will have a far reach into the society and the culture. Because art does not exist in a vacuum, to me, it’s all about communicating. And that’s why it’s very important to do it as a genuine, authentic person expressing a genuine, authentic idea and concept manifested in a meaningful manner so that it has the most impact.”