MAT ER IALS of SU R V I VA L Photographer Grahame Perry blends portraiture and pop art to convey the weight and exuberance of living long-term with HIV by Brent Calderwood
cuss his work, and in the process gained new insights, both artistic and psychological, about what it has meant to be HIV-positive for the long haul, and what it means today. Brent Calderwood: One of your most recognizable pieces is Am I Blue?, which was part of the Kinsey Institute Art Show last year in Bloomington, Indiana, and actually became the name for the series you created prior to “Materials for Survival.” Can you
tell me more about that image? Grahame Perry: Am I Blue? has two main components—my self-portrait and a series of out-of-focus pill bottles. The experience of HIV, represented by the many bottles, has affected how life is viewed, especially for those of us who have been HIV-positive for decades. When I think about it and when I’ve discussed this with other long-term survivors, it can be overwhelming how much emotional and physical energy it has taken. I have thought of myself as a photographer, but that series pushed me into areas where “artist” seems more applicable. Prior to your series “Am I Blue?” and now “Materials of Survival,” did HIV/AIDS appear in your work or inform your process? I came to photography in the last five years…it was a surprise to be taken over by this passion. Within a year of starting to make photographs, I made the first image of my series [“Materials of Survival”]. That piece, Obsession, is very graphic and uses pills and text. Slowly I began to explore what other images I could make to express my experiences as a long-term survivor. [But] the bulk of my photography has not focused on HIV—I was exploring the urban environment of San Francisco, which has been my home for many years.
Big Pharm, 2013, archival pigment print in edition of 25, 12 by 30 inches
Looking at your individual and group shows, your work has moved from traditional photography—night photography of San Francisco, for instance—to work that could be described as pop art, including using techniques borrowed from advertising and graphic design. Is that a fair description? Well, I started out with photography but am drawn to processes that push the boundaries of what I can achieve in photography. There are some images which are film-based, some digital. Sometimes I’ll use iPhone images to form a key element, and other times I’ll use appropriated images and mix them with my own images. I do use digital software to assemble and combine photographic, graphic, and text elements. The ability to be able to conA&U • JUNE 2015
all images © Grahame Perry Photography 2013–2015
n honor of National HIV/AIDS LongTerm Survivor Day on June 5, the Bay Area gallery SF Camerawork is featuring an exhibition titled “Long-Term Survivor Project,” showcasing the work of London-born photographer Grahame Perry, along with New York artists Hunter Reynolds and Frank Yamrus (June 4 through July 15). In contrast to similar gallery and museum shows that have told stories mainly of loss, “Long-Term Survivor Project” explores, according to SF Camerawork, “the current state of health, diagnosis, and treatment of HIV” through the stories of those living in the present while still making meaning of the past. Among the most compelling images from the show are those from Perry’s series “Materials of Survival,” which seems to synthesize a lifetime’s worth of experience—not only the explicit experience of living with HIV since the mid-1980s, but also his training in representational photography (he received an A.S. in Photography from City College of San Francisco in 2013), digital imaging (he spent thirty years working in computer science prior to his career in the arts), and even psychology (he holds a B.A. in that subject from the University of California, Berkeley). Drawing on this diverse background, the photomontages in “Materials of Survival” feature pills, vials, prescription labels, and other objects to represent the gravitas, overwhelm, and optimism of living with HIV before and after the advent of antiretroviral cocktails. Ranging from somber cyanotype self-portraits to abstract psychedelic digital collages of medications and medical paraphernalia, Perry’s work is a deft blend of the mournful and the exuberant. This has been a watershed year for Perry. In addition to being featured at SF Camerawork, he has an upcoming solo show of HIV-based work at the San Francisco men’s health/art space Magnet in November, which will include new pieces as well as pieces from “Materials of Survival” and the series that came before that, “Am I Blue?” I recently sat down with Perry to dis-