Jimmy DeSana, who died at 40 of AIDs, was one of a generation of artist-photographers—among them Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and DeSana’s close friend Laurie Simmons—who came of age in the 1970s in New York, Buffalo and Boston. He is best known for his surrealistic, S/M-tinged, staged photos, but he was also a familiar presence on NYC’s downtown art-and-music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, making portraits of its leading lights for publications such as the Soho Weekly News, the East Village Eye and the New York Rocker. Both aspects of DeSana’s oeuvre could be seen in this large exhibition of photographs, some newly printed for the show.
Born in Detroit in 1950, DeSana grew up in Atlanta. He began to take pictures while still in his teens, photographing friends and acquaintances unclothed and striking silly, sexy poses in suburban homes and gardens. After moving to New York in 1973, DeSana continued to make the human body his primary subject. On view here were several black-and-white images from his book Submission (1979), such as a picture of a woman in bondage gear huddled inside an open refrigerator, and one of a man in a black leather mask sitting on a toilet. Also from that series were photos that evinced DeSana’s increasing interest in depicting the figure as both animate presence and sculptural object, as in an image of a nude man lying on his back and balancing a TV on his feet.
The 1980s brought a move into color. In lurid Cibachrome works, at once absurdist and unsettling, bodies—garishly lit with gel-covered tungsten lights—interact with other bodies or with everyday objects. Two people wearing crash helmets and stuffed back-to-back into the same jersey shirt pose under a streaming shower; one man bends forward, supporting the other figure, who is curled in a fetal ball, on his back. A woman, naked save for a pair of high-heeled pumps, floats facedown in a swimming pool near a couple of gaily striped beach balls. A man walks on all fours, hands and feet jammed into orange traffic cones.
From the same decade were a headshot of a very young, grinning Debbie Harry sporting sunglasses and a portrait of an imposing Kenneth Anger, nude and tattooed. The show also featured a short video, shot in grainy black and white, of a 1978 benefit concert for X magazine, with performances by the punk bands James Chance and the Contortions, Theoretical Girls and others. The video reprises a lot of DeSana’s formal concerns, reducing the performers’ spotlit faces and limbs to a collection of pale, amorphous shapes swimming in darkness.
Rooted in the New Wave aesthetic he helped create, many of DeSana’s pictures, both commercial and not, look very much of their time. The best of them, however, are timeless, like the strangely urgent picture here of a boy standing under a tree, his grimacing face and bare torso flooded with crimson light, or the black-and-white shot from 1983 of a lithe young man wearing the bottom half of a fat suit. Fully exploiting a photograph’s potential to be both fact and fiction, these works delve into the vagaries of the human heart and the human psyche, taking us with them.