Brian Weil, Untitled self-portrait (sex), ca. 1980–82, gelatin silver print, 31 3/4 x 33 1/4".

Brian Weil, Untitled self-portrait (sex), ca. 1980–82, gelatin silver print, 31 3/4 x 33 1/4".

Brian Weil

Brian Weil, Untitled self-portrait (sex), ca. 1980–82, gelatin silver print, 31 3/4 x 33 1/4".

Coordinating “deviant” sexual assignations in the pre-Internet era was no easy matter; doing so required magazine subscriptions, stealth, postage, and patience. This was how it was in 1980, when photographer Brian Weil began placing ads in fetish periodicals seeking participants for a project titled “Sex,” 1980–82. The result was a haunting series of some two dozen photographs of alt-erotic revelry: We see a couple fucking atop a pair of taxidermied deer, a man (or a woman?) getting fisted from behind, another man receiving aquatic fellatio from a carp—and so on. In a rare self-portrait, Weil stands alone, naked and aroused, his head hooded by a bondage mask, as if to demonstrate that his relationship to this subject matter was only partly journalistic (Untitled self-portrait [sex], ca. 1980–82).

Fittingly, this image of the artist greeted viewers at the entryway of his retrospective at the Institute for Contemporary Art, the first major survey of his work since the artist died of an overdose in 1996, at the age of forty-one. Curated by Stamatina Gregory, the show encompassed nearly sixty works from 1980 to the end of Weil’s career, including the incomplete Susan project, 1996, a collection of video interviews with a transsexual woman during the course of her gender reassignment. Without losing sight of the chronology, Gregory deftly guided visitors between exposure and opacity, and from crepuscular dimness to the glaring light of tragedy, beginning with the “Sex” series and ending with the more broadly circulated images related to the AIDS crisis that Weil took between 1985 and 1992.

Weil’s credentials often lead with his political commitments (more on that below), but his approach to photography was steeped in postmodernist critiques of representation—a far cry from the aesthetics of the Magnum Group. Though his interests aligned with the documentary practice of figures such as Susan Meiselas and Larry Clark, Weil refused to play by the rules of realism, instead foregrounding the artifice of the photographic process. He shot much of his work on Super 8 film, selecting and enlarging individual stills to produce high-contrast images with a distinctly grainy texture. Manual abrasion of the negative further served to emphasize the image’s fragile materiality, as did Weil’s insistence on pinning his prints directly to the gallery wall, eschewing frames.

Following “Sex,” Weil trained his lens on a variety of underworldly locales. Between 1982 and 1984, he traveled to Florida, where he shot crime scenes for the homicide unit of the Miami Police Department; these jobs yielded “Miami Crime,” a collection of images that ruminate on photography’s pact with death, figuring the corpse’s slump as a kind of dumbstruck quietude, even ecstasy. From 1985 to 1987, Weil turned his attention to the secluded world of New York’s Hasidic Jews, traveling between Brooklyn and the Catskills of upstate New York as an unlikely portraitist to the ultra-Orthodox. For his final body of work, published in 1992 with the title Every 17 Seconds, Weil again tackled death and life, tracking the global sprawl of HIV from the hospitals of Manhattan to the sex clubs of Bangkok and beyond.

Swept up in the wake of the AIDS epidemic, Weil began working with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1985, later joining ACT UP, through which he founded two of New York’s earliest and most successful needle-exchange programs, then an illegal service. In 1992, he publicly renounced his photography practice, putting his energy into advocacy instead (though, on the side, Weil would continue to make work, particularly video). One could easily mistake the artist’s shifting priorities for politically motivated iconoclasm, but this would be missing the point. “When you start with a molecule and end up placing that in a culture, it’s an incredibly complex thing,” Weil wrote in 1991. Too complex for pictures? Hardly. From orgasm to rigor mortis, humans dwell in the in-between; our precariousness is echoed in the liquidity of the photographic image, its inky lacunae. Complexity is the fundament of Weil’s art, not its state of exception. Simplification is death.

Daniel Marcus