The Transformative Power of the Image

By William Simmons
January 13, 2014
Laurie Simmons, Walking Camera (Jimmy the Camera), variation (in honor of Jimmy de Sana), 1987/2000. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 94, New York.

After coming upon Laurie Simmons’s Walking Camera (Jimmy the Camera), variation (in honor of Jimmy de Sana) (1987/2000) on the Harvard Art Museums’ online collections search in my sophomore year, I was wholly entranced. The image represents Simmons’s tribute to her longtime friend and fellow photographer Jimmy De Sana, who had been diagnosed with AIDS two years earlier. Simmons had placed De Sana in a costume from The Wiz and invited him to dance in her studio as she recorded the spontaneous performance with her camera. What results is a wonderfully poignant capstone of a 17-year friendship and an aesthetic partnership that began with a chance meeting on the A train to Far Rockaway.

With encouragement from my professor and teaching fellows, I made an appointment to view Walking Camera in a study room at the Harvard Art Museums facility in Somerville. This opportunity was nothing short of extraordinary. My mistaken assumption was that there was no difference between the digital reproduction and the art object itself. It quickly became clear to me, however, that the photographic process necessitates close observation. With the photograph at my fingertips, I noticed for the first time the walking camera’s leg that Simmons captures in motion; its shimmering and ghostlike, yet entirely embodied, presence cannot be adequately understood in reproduction. The same is true for the camera’s viewfinder, which, in its vibrating multiplicity, provides a visual path into the scene, thereby enabling the viewer to step into Simmons’s photographic landscape.

After experiencing the photograph in person, I realized that the image is incubated in the mind and in the darkroom. I would soon find out that both Simmons’s and De Sana’s photography is connected by their grounding in technical skill, a revelation that ultimately required me to reconsider the very nature of photography. It became my goal to learn more about De Sana, and as I did, I became increasingly interested in the specificities of his craft that characterize his astoundingly productive oeuvre.

This newfound passion inspired my senior honors thesis. I consulted De Sana’s archive of photographs, writings, and ephemera that he left to Simmons upon his death in 1990. I was immersed in the extraordinary story of his career, whose output ranges in scope from punk portraiture to a book of S&M photography to otherworldly interior scenes and photomontages. This research gave me an entirely different vision of queer artistic practice and photographic history.

I was most surprised to learn that De Sana’s contribution to our current understanding of art history has long been neglected in accounts of the development of conceptual photography. For this reason my studies have centered on expanding the appreciation of his work among critics, curators, and laypeople alike. This summer I took part in the planning of Jimmy DeSana: Party Picks at Salon 94 Bowery—the first solo show of his work in New York in years—which introduced his inspirational career to a new generation of young artists, historians, and critics. During this time I also researched materials from the DeSana Estate and conducted interviews with his friends and colleagues. De Sana’s story will doubtless inform my future work in art history and curating, as it represents more than a research project; indeed, it has become a vocation, a lifelong dedication to photography as an inimitable vehicle for the discussion of crucial identity issues.

Looking back on my journey that began by being afforded the chance to see, it is clear that learning through direct engagement with original objects can inform a more inclusive and nuanced discussion of the past. By bringing to my attention an underappreciated figure whose work has reshaped normative artistic lineages, the Harvard Art Museums cemented my interest in the intersection of art history, gender, and sexuality—a path that I never would have considered otherwise.

William Simmons (Harvard Class 0f 2014) is concentrating in the History of Art and Architecture, with a secondary in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies. 

  • of Jimmy de Sana, Untitled, 1979, from Artifacts at the End of a Decade, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum. Courtesy of Jimmy DeSana Trust and Salon 94, New York.