Adrain Chesser lined up 44 appointments with friends—he had something to tell them. Each friend sat in front of a backdrop of crimson and gold curtains that once hung in the Florida house where Chesser grew up. Once each friend settled in, he said, "I have something to tell you." He told them he had HIV, and he started taking their pictures.
The people in the photographs are trying to take it in. Some look stoic. Some look down. Some are about to cry, some already have. One can't contain her horror, grabbing her heart with one hand and a cigarette with the other. Some open their eyes wide on a new world.
"There's this blue-eyed guy—you can just tell that the words right immediately before this were 'Oh, shit,'" said Anne Wilkes Tucker, the leading American photography curator. "There are people who are looking at him like, 'No, no, no, you didn't say that, I'm not hearing you.' God, it must have been difficult for him to say that over and over again."
I Have Something to Tell You, part of which is on display at Photo Center NW, was first exhibited at Blue Sky in Portland in 2004. The following year, it went to Houston. Tucker acquired the whole series—54 pictures total—for the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. She admired the intelligence and universal power of the pictures: "Even if you just saw those portraits and you didn't have any of the backstory... They're not self-indulgent."
During the telling, almost every friend had to look away from Chesser at some point, he forlornly remembers. But, he adds, they all looked back. This was where the magic of the art was, the art of the art. As in all of Chesser's photographic work, I Have Something to Tell You was not just a situation set up to create artworks. It was a ceremony to heal him from a different disease: shame.
"Any time I had to tell anyone about the diagnosis, I found that I would physically seize up," he says now. "I started to realize it was tied to my fear as a child that people would find out I was queer and abandon me.
"I wanted to transform it. I was doing seven portraits a day. I was having to swear people to secrecy, because it was a very close-knit community. I would take them upstairs afterward, give them a drink, they could be together. About halfway through, I had the realization that it was working. I was healing. No one was abandoning me, and no one was saying, 'Stop, don't take my picture.'"
The bio on his website reads:
I was born on May 19, 1965 in Okeechobee, Florida. I was groomed to be a Pentecostal preacher, studying the bible and taking piano and organ lessons. I spoke in tongues. I learned to cast out demons. I was gay. I left home at the first opportunity.
A friend gave me a camera and I fell in love with light and image. Another friend gave me an enlarger and supplies for a dark room. In a closet under a stairwell, I taught myself how to make a photograph.
I made cash for photographic supplies in many ways. I worked in restaurants as a dishwasher, busboy, waiter. I wrestled alligators at a Seminole Indian reservation. I was a Santa for charity. I have assisted gardeners, photographers, and drug dealers. I hustled sex for money.
Contrary to what you might expect from such a biography, Chesser is an inconspicuous, modest man with warm eyes and an unguarded way about him. Five years ago, he left Santa Fe, where he'd been running a candy store with his former life partner. Chesser decided to "dissolve that life" and fully pursue photography.
He'd already been returning periodically to Florida, to a Baptist campground he'd frequented as a Boy Scout. The campground is now—truth—a gay campground. Visiting there, he'd shoot documentary as well as staged photographs, capturing the freewheeling guys ("Just a bunch of good old boys but gay, willing to do anything photographically"), also setting up specific shots inspired by moments, both horrible and beautiful, from his childhood. The series is called Gay Campground. It was completed only recently, after a decade of working on it, culminating in a self-portrait in which he appears to be catching a flash of light in a hat he's holding. As a geeky, nonathletic kid, he'd once surprised everyone by catching a ball and making an out during a baseball game—using nothing but his hat as a mitt. "When I took that picture, it was like, 'Oh, okay, I'm done'" with Gay Campground—and the urgent filtering of an entire childhood.
But back to five years ago, to an equally enormous moment (artistically and personally) in Chesser's life: During a Native American ceremony at Short Mountain Radical Faerie Sanctuary in Tennessee, Chesser met Timothy White Eagle, who became his life partner and photographic collaborator. Both men grew up in the country; White Eagle, a White Mountain Apache, was adopted by a white family and raised in the town of Montesano, Washington, in Grays Harbor County. Now they live together in an old, gorgeous, rambling house in the Central District; White Eagle has lived in Seattle for years (from 1996 to 2001 he owned Coffee Messiah on Capitol Hill, where Ursula Android, Jackie Hell, and sometimes White Eagle, who then went by Tim Turner, would perform in 2:30 a.m. cabarets). Together they work under the name Mercury Vapor Studios, after the lights their fathers installed in their backyards when they were kids so they could go out and play at night—and where they saw the dark edge of the forest dramatically delineated.
"It was a quantum leap when they started working together," said photography curator Tim Wride, now at the Norton Museum of Art in Florida and before that at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Wride was pictured in the first collaborative photograph Chesser and White Eagle made. He's naked in a hot springs at Breitenbush in Oregon, shielding his face with his hands. All the other men in the pool are naked, too, but the central figure is a transgender man standing up and out of the water, surrounded and supported by his peers despite not having the penis you expect.
"We create rituals with the intent of making a photograph," is how Chesser describes their way of working. "The photograph is the spell that goes out into the world as a prayer."
Not all the pictures envision an ideal like that first one. Jingle Dress is White Eagle in a trancelike dance, arms up, the powwow-inspired robe he's wearing weighted down by syringes. He had so many syringes because he'd had to stab them, full of HIV suppression drugs, into his stomach. In the photograph, the ground is littered with syringes that have fallen off in the course of the dance; he's dancing them off.
Chesser hasn't shown much in Seattle until now. Lately, he's been collaborating with White Eagle, the photographer Steven Miller, and others. Some of those collaborations are currently on view at Idea Odyssey, in addition to the works at Photo Center NW.
It's not hard to believe him when he says that exhibiting art is his least interesting ritual. To make their pictures, the artists bring together 10 or so people for a few days at a chosen location, usually wildernessy. Each "camp" has a theme—one was focused on hunting and feminism, another was called The Death of False Optimism—and they pre-create garments, sets, situations. For some pictures, the staging is based on, say, a Caravaggio painting; other times it's improvised ("It's dawn, grab whatever you have and let's go to the edge of the canyon"). Still, boxes of cat litter, or tarps, or power lines—down-to-earth traces—are all kept in the frame. "This is not a mythic other land that doesn't exist," White Eagle says. The prayers are real.