Feature Article: Metamorphoses – Award-Winning Photographer Kurt Weston

A #tbt interview with award-winning photographer and AIDS activist Kurt Weston for an article originally published in A&U Magazine in October 2014.

In Metamorphoses, Weston talks about using his fashion photography work as a “trans-portal” between a pre-AIDS past and a post-AIDS future

A generation unaware of a time without AIDS may find it difficult to imagine what life was like before the cataclysm of AIDS. At the same time, it may find it easier to envision the possibility of a post-AIDS world. Today we live in a now when boundaries between disciplines blur into one, when art, science, and technology blend together to help us embrace futuristic ideas that might possibly pave the way toward an AIDS cure, while keeping alive a past worth remembering. As it often happens, art stands at the core of this new blend of fields, sandwiched between technology and science, a visionary link between two sides of reality. And that’s fine because art is often referred to as a vehicle that transports us to a universe of our dreams, to a place that fuels our imagination.

Award-winning, fine art photographer Kurt Weston sees art as “something that takes you out of your zone and puts you into another kind of reality. Art helps you perceive new things in the world, and [makes you] think about the world in a completely different way,” he tells me over the phone, adding that what he’s seeing nowadays, at least in fashion magazines, doesn’t take him anywhere anymore.

A Chicago native living in California, Weston was a fashion photographer during the eighties and early nineties. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1991, he lost most of his eyesight to CMV retinitis, only a few years later. But, instead of giving up, he relearned how to photograph the world using special devices, and became an award-winning photographer.

I’ve always been intrigued by Weston’s black-and-white body of work that he may be best known for—his “Blind Vision” series of self-portraits, which deals with his loss of eyesight; “Silhouettes and Shadows” series, which is inspired by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and captures the pre-HAART years of the pandemic; and his “Hearts of a Silent Age” series that explores “the concept of longevity, and the process of aging.” These bodies of work are dark, edgy, emotionally draining, and, most recently, a reason for Weston to lighten, if only so slightly, his artistic approach to dealing with the concept of HIV and AIDS.

Hence, his […] “Fashion Aesthetic” series of fashion images, through which he brings back a certain type of aesthetic and feeling about the fashion and window design of the eighties, now seemingly lost to the pandemic, together with the creative minds behind this aesthetic. He finds it refreshing to work on his “Fashion Aesthetic” body of work. “I’ve found joy in creating images that are a little bit more on the lighter side,” he explains, “while still coming from the understanding that it’s paying a tribute to this creative genius that existed pre-AIDS in the artistic world.”

Living in Chicago in the mid-eighties, Weston would walk by amazing urban, cosmopolitan retail stores […] that had the most incredible people working in their window design department. “You couldn’t help but stop and be completely fascinated by these amazing creations of window displays that were being generated by amazing gay window designers,” he recalls. “And I noticed that after the AIDS epidemic killed most of the people…things changed. Everything just became sort of…blend[ed]. I think that a lot of these people—and an entire generation of creative and artistic minds, illustrators, photographers, and fashion designers—ended up dying of AIDS-related causes, and a lot of the imagination and intensity that these window designers had generated was lost. So, with this work, I wanted to revitalize that sort of drama that fashion generates…and kind of take it into something new and exciting.”

Some images from the “Fashion Aesthetic” series, like Pearl or Suede, are original fashion images capturing beautiful, dignified, and unassuming glamour. Rainbow is a runway shot. “You can’t tell from the photograph,” Weston explains, “but when I photographed that model, we used fans underneath the dress, to help balloon up the dress.”

In images like Ultra and Phase 267, Weston recreated the airbrush painting look created by Chicago artist, Ed Paschke. “That’s not to be confused with the way image airbrushing was being done back in the day of film,” Weston says, “[when] we would send away the photographs to retouchers, and they would airbrush the images like you do in Photoshop now, to get rid of blemishes.” Ed Paschke was different. He actually painted with an airbrush paint device over the photograph, and that’s the effect that Weston tries to recapture in some of his work.

Two other images are being featured in “The Art of Stem Cells,” a SciArt exhibit displayed at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA) in Santa Ana, California. Coming from the idea that in Leonardo da Vinci’s time, there was no difference between artist and scientist, SciArt is a new art movement, better defined as an entirely new culture that blends together and erases the boundaries between art, science, and technology. For “The Art of Stem Cells,” the curator paired up artists with researchers and scientists from the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center at UCI, in order to work together…hence, works like Weston’s Targeted Treatment (renamed Bull’s Eye for Weston’s website) and World View came to life.

Attending Kurt Weston’s photography show, REMEMBER: An AIDS Retrospective, on WAD 2018 at OCCCA. Photo ©Alina Oswald.

The researcher with whom the photographer ended up working was trying to create stem cells that would help regenerate the retina. The procedure would require the stem cell to be injected directly into the eye, to attach to, and thus, regenerate, the already existing, yet damaged retina. Weston’s Targeted Treatment offers a metaphorical take on this procedure, portraying a woman with a bull’s eye sign partially covering her face, and a dart sticking out of her eye.

World View has a multi-layered symbolism capturing the promise of a cure for the world, a promise made possible by the use of stem cells. The subject in the image holds a small planet Earth in front of her eye. To the photographer, the planet also represents the stem cell that’s going into his eye, regenerating his own CMV-damaged retina. “And because it could be a stem cell or a planet,” Weston says, “to me, it represents the optimism of what stem cell treatment could have for the entire world.”

Attending Kurt Weston’s photography show, REMEMBER: An AIDS Retrospective, on WAD 2018 at OCCCA. Photo ©Alina Oswald.

Some other images, like Zap! or Trans-portal, have a science fiction, futuristic, Star Trek kind of feel, resembling something we would see in the eighties’ window displays. To accomplish this look, Weston has changed the backgrounds and added artifacts.

“I like things that take you out of the normal context, and make you see things in a different way,” he says when I inquire about his fascination with science fiction. “To me, there is so much happening in the world today that is very much sci-fi. Even the stem cells show is very science fiction, when you think that the stem cells that are being created are transforming the future of mankind, [in terms of] how people will be healed.”

He continues by explaining that the future is happening right before our eyes and that things we first envision in our science fiction reality end up becoming reality. In many ways, science fiction is prophetic, and the younger generation today is very much in tune with it.

With his “Fashion Aesthetic” work, Weston is also trying to inspire a younger audience that finds this kind of work appealing, because he doesn’t believe that creativity is dead, but just needs to be woken up. “I think that people need to be a little less conservative and more evocative with what they choose to create; more daring, creative, and imaginative with their work, to bring back that energy that we had back in the mid-eighties. It is possible,” he says. “Just because some of the more creative geniuses were lost to the epidemic, it doesn’t mean that it’s the end of more exciting art. I think that we can still generate that kind of work, and it would be nice to see the younger generation be inspired to do that.”

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