“Wisdom that might have been”

Ray Cook is an openly gay HIV+ photographer, who was already open about his sexuality when it was still illegal. He began taking pictures when HIV started affecting his circle of friends and himself in the late 80s and had actually never thought of becoming a photographer before that. He usually works with medium and large format cameras. 


Many of your works have an old stage feel to them, they seem quite timeless, it is really unique, something we don’t see very often, is this intentional or just came about?

When I first started making pictures I worked entirely intuitively. Later I studied art and became a little more conscious of what I was trying to do. I think I initially drew from what was around me, things that were part of landscape of the subcultures I hung out in. Drag shows were a nightly thing in the clubs I frequented and film clips were important too. So it felt natural to set up a backdrop and make tableaux. When friends were over, we’d drink and play dress ups for fun. I never really had an urge to document anything.

The old feel comes about because I’m attracted to old photographs, there’s something you can’t argue with about an old photograph. Because whatever they depict had to have happened, they seem to confer the weight of history to what you’re trying to say. The older the photograph, the longer the truth it contains has endured, the greater it’s gravitas. I would scratch negatives or generally treat them roughly to make them look old. Silver gelatin is an old process now, so they’re genuinely historical.


How has HIV affected your work and how has your work affected the way you view HIV?

I had been making pictures just for fun for a couple of years in the mid 80s but as the decade progressed, friends and people I knew were diagnosed or began to get sick. AIDS was an oppressive, very ominous, darkening cloud over our heads. I was diagnosed in 89 and at this time it was considered universally fatal, many of my friends were positive too. There was a social backlash against gays that coincided with the emergence of HIV—bigots and bashings etc. We felt abandoned, alienated and angry. Making pictures became a way I could think about what was happening to us. I could freeze ideas and ponder them, poke them with a stick. It gave me a pressure valve for all the crazy shit that was bubbling away in my head. Exhibiting was a way to connect with other people who understood. Since then I’ve followed the queer HIV trail, shifting from making pictures to think about death, to making pictures to think about survival, (though loss is an ever present theme). As HIV/AIDS fades in the popular consciousness, I’ve become interested in the gulf between older and younger gay generations. I think being gay and 20 in 1980 and being gay and 20 now is vastly different, at least in so called developed West. I don’t think we understand each other enough.


What are your main influences and which artists inspire you?

When I started out, I saw the work of Joel Peter Witkin and it was a pretty transformative thing. I realized through him that you could make elaborate fictions with photography not just take pictures of pretty girls and boys in nice clothes. I thought his pictures were ferocious, I sought solidarity in them, I loved them, still do. I love old pictures whose authors and subjects are long forgotten. I love looking into the eyes of someone who is long dead, photography is the great necromancer; it makes the dead live again. Photography can be an incredibly intimate medium.

I like anonymous pictures because some of the magic is lost when the aura of an artist’s name overtakes the affect of a picture. Even though I love it when I sell a picture I think the art market is ugly because it turns the precious experience of art into something grubby. It’s like there are some things that are above commodification. I know that’s incredibly wanky, I’m an old liberal douche.

I love old pictures of sailors, circus folk, boxers, kids smoking, tattooed men and ladies, ships, statues, wounded soldiers from the American civil war. I love Mike Disfarmer and Roger Ballen photographs. I love American traditional music. I love early tattoos, especially nautical ones.

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If you could choose to live in a different decade, which one would you choose regarding both experiences and art?

A tough one, I love the art and design of late 19th and early 20th Century but I hate tuberculosis and ineffective palliative care. I love the 20s and 30s but they ended in world war. I think today’s capitalism makes a lot of crap because the unregulated market is always trying to get away with giving you less for more—it’s business. We end up with advertising as our highest form of culture. A culture of deflection in which human misery and inequality is drowned out by stupid reality television and pointless Kardashian, celebrity bollocks. This might be a time of miraculous technology but I’m not sure it will be remembered as a great cultural flowering. Dating Naked and Sex Box America aren’t Shakespeare.

My grumpy old man side thinks lot of things went stagnant in the last few decades, there doesn’t seem to be any revolutionary progress in any medium. I don’t think it’s because of a lack of creativity, I think it’s because the greedy, squawking market drowns out good things to hawk it’s tawdry shit. There are great things being made but they’re harder to find so less people make the effort, or know how. Challenging, controversial or difficult things forced to yield to easy, disposable, commercial cultural gimcracks.


We don’t confront rebellion, different perspectives or change like we used to, we suffocate it—assimilate it into the marketplace. The market doesn’t punish dissent, it cuts of the sharp corners and commodifies it.

The hyper capitalism of the neoliberal era is awful, it’s our greatest evil, the root of all our problems and it defines our era. I know idealise the past and I hate a lot about today and I’m fearful for the future but I love modern dentistry, medicine, computers, mp3 players, espresso machines. Even if I don’t trust them, I love Facebook and Instagram. I’m a dreadfully flawed and contradictory socialist.


Your series “Oblivion” is about sexual preference and being different, how do you see gay culture being affected over the years?

In 1980 when I first came out gays were despised. You took a real risk if you disclosed. In Queensland, the state I lived in, there was a 16 year prison sentence for consensual sex between adult males in private until 1990. When I left school I don’t think I’d ever heard a positive comment about homosexuality. This meant that coming out was a sort of secession, a resignation to outsider status, an abdication from the ranks of ‘good’ society. Lots of men didn’t come out and were content to live double lives having wives and doing other guys in public lavatories, it was very easy to do. People who came out, those who openly declared themselves to be gay needed a type of fortitude that isn’t so necessary today. Happily young gays today face less prejudice and have more positive role models. I think that young millennial gay culture is very different to mine. It’s sad that AIDS claimed so many men of my generation; they could have made a positive contribution to the greater collective. Contemporary gay culture is one that has lost “wisdom that might have been”. Lines of cultural transmission were damaged, for better or worse I’m not sure.

Over the years I think the main changes to gay culture relate to its greater legitimacy.  We’ve been breaking up. Stigma, outlaw status and the common foe once bound us together. As it’s easier to be gay, the glue weakens and we drift apart. If sexuality ceases to be a primary determinant of identity, if it becomes incidental to how we see ourselves and how we’re perceived, I wonder if sexual categories wont fade into history?  It makes me a little anxious when I hear gay activism that pushes the notion that we’re just the same as straights, (even if we are). I think there’s significant difference between arguing for the right to be different and arguing for the right to be the same.


In Oblivion I was trying to think about the generations of gay men that came before me. Pre Stonewall gays made their way through society in ways that were very different from my generation. They embraced camp and codes—the open secret and it worked for them in their time. Gay men could be live surprisingly open lives back then but you couldn’t get caught out or you were completely screwed. My generation equated visibility with power. I’m not sure how that works now under neoliberalism where you’re only visible if you’re useful to the market.

We sought that visibility by pushing the idea that we had economic clout. Our culture was all commercial culture, life played out in bars, clubs and baths in the precincts that we gentrified. This laid the groundwork for a highly commercially focused gay millennial identity. I hope making Oblivion helped me cultivate empathy for my ancestors but also greater empathy for the people that make up young, new, evolving gay/queer culture.


What are you working on at the moment and what is the inspiration behind it?

I’m thinking a bit more broadly at present, probably because gay culture has mainstreamed.  I’m interested how the economy shapes subjectivity, how the culture we consume influences the people we are. I think there’s something regulatory about culture, it directs ideas, it prioritises, manipulates opinion, confers legitimacy and sets the borders of what is normal and what is aberrant. When our culture is underpinned by the logic of neoliberalism, it reduces everything to money and that is profoundly alienating for people who can’t compete in the marketplace. My inner pessimist sees the commercialisation of absolutely everything as a system that’s designed to perpetuate and justify inequality. If you unleash the energies of greed, those with an advantage will subjugate the rest of us.

I’m looking at what it means to have one’s generational values superseded by new ones in new contexts. I’m thinking about what it means to be a survivor, (through pure chance). I suppose I’m trying to look back while I look forward; one foot anchored to the past as I try to peer over the fence into the future. Also I’ve always disclosed in my pictures, I’ve broadcast my sexuality, my HIV status etc for anyone who’d listen. I’m not so sure I’m comfortable with that anymore. I can’t see why artists must be bound to tell the truth when the rest of mainstream culture relies on lying? I’m like secrets; I like selective revelation and obstinate ambiguity.

So far I’m working on making a sort of allegory using the idea of an abandoned studio/circus, a sort of clown town ghost town. I’d like to think of my next new work as a sort of cemetery for old ideas. I’m moving town and jobs right now so that will have an impact on what comes out of the studio. Hope it works.