Photography--Chromogenic Prints and Gelatin Silver Prints

From David Wojnarowicz Knowledge Base
Jump to: navigation, search

Wojnarowicz’s first photographic series was Arthur Rimbaud in New York, 1978-79, which imagined the poet as a contemporary flâneur in New York City. Wojnarowicz started this series in the summer of 1978. Brian Butterick and John Hall served as models, posing around New York wearing a photostatted mask of Arthur Rimbaud’s face taken from the cover of Rimbaud's Illuminations. The resulting work was first exhibited as a series in 1990, when he reprinted the work for the exhibition In The Garden at P·P·O·W. When the exhibition went up, he explained to David Hirsch at The New York Native that:

I felt, at that time, that I wanted it to be the last thing I did before I ended up back on the streets or died or disappeared. Over the years, I've periodically found myself in situations that felt desperate and, in those moments, I'd feel that I needed to make certain things... I had Rimbaud come through a vague biographical outline of what my past had been -- the places I had hung out in as a kid, the places I starved in or haunted on some level.[1]

Apart from Arthur Rimbaud in New York, Wojnarowicz did not exhibit fully photographic work until after Peter Hujar had passed away. Hujar's death itself was the subject of a powerful series. Moments after Hujar died, Wojnarowicz asked gathered friends to leave the room, and he shot Super-8mm film and exactly 23 photographs of Hujar’s body (he labeled the envelope of contact sheets “23 photos of Peter, 23 genes in a chromosome, Room 1423”[2] He printed these works as individual prints, incorporated them into a powerful photo-text-painting collage titled Untitled (Hujar Dead), 1988-89, and exhibited his head, hands, and feet together in a triptych titled "Untitled (Peter Hujar)", 1989.

In 1988, Wojnarowicz moved into Hujar’s loft. With new access to a dark room, and the encouragement of Gary Schneider and John Erdman (friends and long time photo printers for Hujar), Wojnarowicz began to go back over years of negatives and experiment in the dark room. His photographic subjects included anything that struck him as an impactful image, and included friends, animals, nature, architecture, landscapes and people from his travels, and symbols of industrial power. One of his best known photographs is Untitled (Buffalos), 1988-89. Shot at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., this image appears to catch a herd of buffaloes mid-fall as they tumble from a cliff; it was taken of a diorama meant to illustrate a Native American method for hunting buffalo by driving them towards unfamiliar terrain. The photo was used by the band U2 as the cover for their release of the single "One" as a benefit for AIDS.[3]

In addition to printing individual images, Wojnarowicz would install multiple prints together, either by combining multiple prints on a single large sheet, or by creating multi-part works on a single wall. In works like these, a series of images would be used to make a specific argument. As he frequently noted, Wojnarowicz thought of an individual photographic image as a word that could be combined with others in a process akin to writing: “I generally will place many photographs together or print them one inside the other in order to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness.” [4] For example, in Silence Through Economics, 1988-89, five images mounted on museum board are, clockwise: an image of a newborn baby in the hospital, an image of a loaf of bread being sewn together, an image of a man’s lips being sewn together, bandaged hands holding coins, and a solider patrolling a park. In these images, the natural and unsullied (the park, the newborn) clashes with disciplinary regimes (military, medical), and these images are connected with violence, money, food, and silence.

Media and techniques

Early on, Wojnarowicz had some of his own printing experience (he printed some of the 1978 Arthur Rimbaud in New York series himself, for instance), but also printed at commercial labs. He had occasional access to darkroom facilities throughout the early-mid 1980s—Tommy Turner had a darkroom he would use. But when Wojnarowicz moved into Hujar’s loft at 2nd Avenue and 12th Street following his death in November 1987, he had access to a dark room for the time. The darkroom had been remodeled while Hujar was sick, so when Wojnarowicz moved in it was barely used. [5] Hujar had also left behind stacks of Portriga Rapid paper, which produced a rich tonal range. Wojnarowicz prized this paper for the photographic quality as well as the connection to Hujar. [6] Because the darkroom only had equipment for developing prints up to 16 x 20 inches, Wojnarowicz printed everything larger with friend Schneider and Erdman. Wojnarowicz offered Schneider little direction, and never provided match prints (as most artists seeking enlargements would do). Some 20x24 prints by Wojnarowicz exist, but he would have had made them by carefully rocking the paper in the smaller 16x20 to ensure even application of developer. Color prints—including two Cibachrome prints he produced while working on Tongues of Flame in Normal, IL--he would have had to develop at a color lab.

Despite his consistent use of photography, Wojnarowicz frequently insisted he was not a photographer. He wrote about the irony of being described as a “visiting photographer” in an invited lecture by noting, “I don’t even know how to operate a camera on anything other than an automatic.” [7] He used many cameras, and often would borrow from friends. Hujar had tried to teach him how to use his Leica, but Wojnarowicz didn’t like working with the f-stops and manual settings. [8] Tom Rauffenbart recalls his favorite was a simple Pentax SLR set up for semiautomatic exposures, equipped with close up lens. [9]

Wojnarowicz printed many negatives, and explored the potential configurations for multi-photograph works in his studio. [10] Once he had a final arrangement, Wojnarowicz precisely cropped the prints, arranged them in grid-like patterns, and mounted them on museum board to be framed together.

Conservation and display

Selected works


  1. As quoted in Carr, Cynthia. Fire In the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz. New York: Bloomsbury. 2012
  2. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York, Bloomsbury, 2012): 377.
  3. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York, Bloomsbury, 2012): 405.
  4. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York, Bloomsbury, 2012): 403-404.
  5. See interview with Gary Schneider on this site.
  6. Ibid.
  7. David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage, 1991): 138-139.
  8. Carr, 563.
  9. Tom Rauffenbart. piece in Brush Fires, get page number.
  10. Fales holds 5000 prints and slides in the Wojnarowicz Papers, some of which were never exhibited or combined into other works. See Series IX, Subseries C