Punk & Personhood: The Photography of Jimmy DeSana

WILLIAM SIMMONS ’14

Jimmy DeSana Untitled, 1979 Color photograph 43 x 35.8 cm (16 15/16 x 14 1/8 in.) Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Deknatel Purchase Fund and through the generosity of Robert D. Watson in memory of Mary Watson, M20525 © The Jimmy DeSana Trust Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Jimmy DeSana
Untitled, 1979
Color photograph
43 x 35.8 cm (16 15/16 x 14 1/8 in.)
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Deknatel Purchase Fund and through the generosity of Robert D. Watson in memory of Mary Watson, M20525
© The Jimmy DeSana Trust
Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College

Is this not a picture of each of us, of that instant of rest that we all crave as our lives take an ever-present toll on our minds and bodies?

Consider Jimmy DeSana’s untitled photograph from the series Artifacts at the End of a Decade (1981). A nameless police officer sits and exhales pink smoke in a wooded landscape. DeSana depicts him at a moment of respite, of reverie, which is emphasized by the ephemeral manipulations of color that provide an otherworldly quality to the officer’s daydream. It is as if we can see the interior of his body made external and beautifully materialized as he reflects upon the day. It is an intimate portrait; the photographer sees a short-lived event that one cannot and should not witness—the police officer taking a break while the terrifying world continues on around him. Is this not a picture of each of us, of that instant of rest that we all crave as our lives take an ever-present toll on our minds and bodies? We wish for time to stop for just a moment, a dream that the camera can provide in its illusory instantaneity.

Jimmy DeSana (1950-1990) was one of the key figures of the Lower East Side punk art/music scene in New York. His photography, in its conceptual and technical rigor, as well as its skillful manipulation of everyday ephemera, epitomizes a formative moment in the history of art. A frequent presence at CBGB and the Mudd Club, DeSana captured early portraits of musicians and artists such as Talking Heads, Debbie Harry, Yoko Ono, and Television that document a time that survives in the memory of many, but the critical attention of very few. Throughout his prolific career, DeSana produced an astoundingly diverse collection of artworks, including a book of S&M photography entitled Submission (1979) with William S. Burroughs, and an array of photographs and photomontages ranging from the surreal to the unabashedly realistic, all against the backdrop of a harshly conservative era. DeSana’s death from AIDS was a loss that continues to resonate in countless hearts.

I hope to do my small part in increasing recognition for an artist whose oeuvre was truly revolutionary. Using the Jimmy DeSana archive in New York City, in addition to interviews with his friends and colleagues, I will attempt to rebuild a time period that has not been given its due. I contend that DeSana’s artistic practice represents a challenge to currently accepted models of art historical discourse and monolithic formulations of identity politics that deny the multiplicity of lived experiences. Central to my project is the opportunity for education and outreach. With DeSana’s photography as a model, people of all artistic backgrounds can consider the importance of identity in constructing their own personal narratives. DeSana’s example allows us to reformulate essentialist visions of both the AIDS era and queer photography, and in doing so, art historians and laymen alike can engage in dialogues about crucial identity issues without neglecting the specific qualities of the photographic medium. As a result, queer aesthetic theory can be transformed from its current status as a purely deconstructive tool to an embodied, productive, and collaborative stimulus for an ever-expanding investigation into selfhood.

William Simmons would like to thank the Harvard Art Museums and the Jimmy DeSana Trust for permission to reproduce this image, as well as Laurie Simmons for her incredible support and encouragement. Additionally, he is very grateful to Professor Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Professor of History of Art and Architecture and of Visual and Environmental Studies, for advising this thesis. Funding for this venture has been graciously provided by the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, the Mellon Mays Fellowship, and the Department of History of Art and Architecture.  The writer can be reached at wsimmons@college.harvard.edu and at http://www.twitter.com/WJ_Simmons.