Photography--Photo-Text Collages

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Wojnarowicz had long been combining text and photographic images in his painting work, but his strictly photo-text work began after 1988. One of the first examples of Wojnarowicz using his own text as a primary component in his work was a multimedia piece he contributed to Still Trauma at the Milford Gallery in 1988, which was called Untitled (Hujar Dead). In this work, silkscreened photographs of Peter Hujar on his deathbed are layered on top of a frame of abstracted supermarket posters and currency. On top of the photographs, a searing text captures his rage and frustration with the government and medical community’s handling of the AIDS crisis. It was this work that led to his contract with Random House to produce Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration.[1]

Later, he produced a series of work comprised of simple pairings of a single photographic image and a specifically chosen text written by him. Some of this work was included in his PPOW exhibition In the Garden. The centerpiece of the show was a series of paintings he had created while in Normal, IL for Tongues of Flame, which featured photorealistic flowers layered with small text that drew the viewer in. Surrounding this work was a series photographic pieces in which he paired one of his with photographs with montaged text. In What is this little guy’s job in the world, 1990, a photograph of his own hand holding a tiny frog is paired with text that he first composed as a spontaneous monologue while being filmed by Marion Scemama. The monologue included the words: “What is this little guy’s job in the work. If this little guy dies, does the world know?...Does an almost imperceptible link in the chain snap?” [2]

One of the last series, which Wojnarowicz planned but did not complete, was a trio of large photographs paired with text. The first of these, When I Put My Hands On Your Body, paired an image he took in Illinois of a Native American burial ground, which showed partly exhumed skeletons, with a loving and melancholic text: “When I put my hands on your body on your flesh I feel the history of that body…If I could attach our blood vessels in order to anchor you to the earth to this present time to me I would.” The second completed work featured a photograph of bandaged hands with text that meditates on mortality: “Sometimes I come to hate people because they can’t see where I am…I can no longer find what I’m looking for outside myself…I am disappearing but not fast enough.” For the third piece, he had selected an image of a burning temple, but had not decided on the text. [3]

According to artist Kiki Smith, Wojnarowicz’s work with photography and text is her favorite: “I really think his strength lies in his writing and in the combination of the writing with the photographic images.” [4]

Media and techniques

Test prints in Fales archives demonstrate that Wojnarowicz was experimenting in the darkroom in order to achieve the effect he wanted with text collages. Works like What is this little guy's job… were created (most likely) by having a transparent cel of text created by a commercial printer, and then placing it over an exposure in the dark room. [5] The print would have to be carefully developed in order to minimize the edges of the cel. Wojnarowicz could then create a new copy negative by photographing the best print.

For works like When I Put My Hands On Your Body, text was professionally silkscreened onto a large print after the fact. Gary Schneider produced the large prints, and worked carefully with Wojnarowicz to consider questions of scale and balance with the text.

Conservation and display

Selected works


  1. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York, Bloomsbury, 2012): 551.
  2. Video of Wojnarowicz reciting almost the exact same lines can be found at Fales 10A, Videotape 092.00015
  3. Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York, Bloomsbury, 2012): 551.
  4. ”Kiki Smith,” in David Wojnarowicz: A definitive history of five or six years on the Lower East Side, Sylvère Lotringer and Giancarlo Ambrosino, Eds. (New York: Semiotexte, 2006): 87.
  5. Examples of these test prints can be found throughout the oversize prints in Fales, Series IX, Subseries C