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Jewish Journal

Albert Winn’s photography captures the intertwining influences of Judaism and illness

by Nick Street

June 5, 2008 | 2:41 pm

Akedah, 1995  Photo by Albert J. Winn<br />

Akedah, 1995 Photo by Albert J. Winn

When the cold-and-flu season rolls around, Albert Winn's longtime boyfriend usually gets sidelined by a bug for a week or two, but Winn says he seldom gets a sniffle.

"Virus?" Winn said with a chuckle as he mused on his robustness. "You don't know from virus."

Sixty-year-old Winn has been living with HIV since at least the late 1980s.

"I was diagnosed in 1989, but a previous boyfriend had died, and I knew plenty of guys who had become sick," he said.

In 1989, many gay men were burying lovers and tending to sick friends.

That grim landscape inspired many gay artists and activists to turn morosely inward or angrily outward -- to create art heavy with loss or to shake a fist at the larger social and political order that stood by idly as thousands died.

But as a gay Jew with AIDS who was about to launch his career as a photographer, Winn saw that fateful turn in his life not as a predicament but as an opportunity to document and explore the interplay between the distinct yet overlapping elements that defined him as a person.

Which is not to say that Winn's 20-year AIDS odyssey has been anything less than arduous.

Like many people who received a diagnosis in the early years of the epidemic, Winn suspects he had been living with HIV for some time before telltale illnesses prompted him to get tested.

"It hit me pretty strongly," he said. "I was perfectly OK in the doctor's office, then I got into my car and started crying."

At the time, Winn was living in West Hollywood with Scott Portnoff, his flu-prone boyfriend, and working toward his master of fine arts in photography at California Institute of the Arts.

"I told Scott, 'I'm not going to let this get me down,'" Winn recalled.

Winn's resolve was soon tested. He began to develop wasting syndrome -- a condition in which the body can't produce enough energy to replace the muscle and fat it loses as it fights disease -- and his doctors told him there was nothing they could do to stop his decline.

Coming out to his family as gay had been a long, difficult process for Winn. The sudden onset of AIDS served to clarify the preciousness of time for him, and he decided he was going to explain his new situation to everyone who was dear to him as soon as possible.

He got on a plane and flew to Florida so that he could tell his parents about his illness face-to-face.

"At the time, AIDS was a death sentence, and they needed to see that I was alive," Winn said. "A funny thing happens when you become ill. Even though you're the person who's sick, you have to be a caregiver in a way. You can't just dump information on people."

Such insight -- that people who are gravely ill are not "the dying" but are still to be counted among "the living" -- was pivotal for Winn. It informed not only his approach to his illness but also his angle on the work he was producing as a photographer.

"I had already been doing a lot of self-portraits," he said. "Then it clicked -- this is now my topic. Not just self-portraits, but autobiography."

His thesis project at CalArts began to take shape as "My Life Until Now," a collage of images and text anchored by autobiographical photography that reveals Winn and his life in thick detail.

If his HIV diagnosis spurred the development of his artist's eye, Winn's sparring with Nicholas Nixon, a mentor to Winn who had been one of the first photographers to document the AIDS crisis, helped to clarify his vision.

Nixon's photographs depicted the ravages of AIDS in clinical and often gruesome imagery. When Nixon's work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the show was picketed by gay activists who saw the pictures as dehumanizing.

"I had a similar reaction to the project," Winn said. "I was concerned about how gay people and people with AIDS were represented. You've got to remember that you're looking at a person."

Portraying his personhood meant, for Winn, including signifiers of his Jewish and gay identities as well as emblems of his struggle with AIDS. Thus, images in "My Life Until Now" often feature moments in his relationship with Scott and the everyday, intertwining influences of Judaism and illness.

One of the most affecting pictures in the project is "Akedah," in which the viewer sees Winn's bare torso, his arm wrapped with tefillin, and an adhesive bandage in the crook of his left elbow.

"I began to practice putting on tefillin," said Winn, who was raised in a Conservative family but had never considered himself religious. "There was something primal about binding prayers to your arm, next to your heart -- to get them as close to your skin as you can."

The act of binding prayers to his body also helped Winn contain the difficult feelings triggered by the daily ritual of having his blood drawn while he was in a clinical study of experimental AIDS therapies at UCLA.

"Over time, instead of getting used to it, it got worse," Winn said. "So I wondered, 'How do I make sense out of something that's driving me insane?'"

The physical similarity between the act of putting on teffilin and "a Jewish guy having a rubber thing wrapped around his arm" was obvious to Winn. But the deeper resonance was between the life-and-death urgency of his situation and the ancient story of the binding of Isaac.

"I realized I was making a sacrifice for science, but it was also saving my life," Winn said.

The picture, which Winn took shortly after having his blood drawn during the UCLA study, became one of the most iconic images in "My Life Until Now." It has since become part of the permanent collections in the Library of Congress and the Jewish Museum in New York.

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