New Exhibition Revisits Triumphs and Losses During Early Days of AIDS Epidemic

Mother and son

AIDS Self-Portraits: Positive Art on view at San Francisco Main Library October 28–February 29, 2024 

SAN FRANCISCO, October 12, 2023 – San Francisco Public Library presents AIDS Self-Portraits: Positive Art featuring photographs by Jeannie O'Connor taken at four Centers for AIDS services in San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond from 1989–95. On view October 28–February 29, 2024, in the San Francisco History Center and the Hormel LGBTQIA+ Center, both located at the Main Library, the exhibition serves as an important reminder of the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on our community and the City’s trailblazing response to the crisis that continues to inform health policy today.  

“The self-portraits in this exhibition represent the double bind of visibility and invisibility during the early AIDS crisis. These early 1990s portraits render themselves visible—as socially viable human beings—in order to receive the treatment they needed, from medical to emotional support,” said San Francisco History Center Photography Curator Christina Moretta. 

O'Connor is a renowned artist who has created portraits of people living with AIDS since the late 1980s. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, and her portraits have been featured in numerous publications and are part of the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA+ Center's archives. The exhibition at San Francisco Main Library showcases a selection of O’Connor’s most powerful and moving portraits, which were created while she was a guest artist for Sharon Siskin’s Positive Art classes, a groundbreaking community-based public art collaboration in the Bay Area that was founded in 1988.  

O’Connor set up a make-shift studio and brought in a view camera with Polaroid film. A long shutter release allowed each sitter to control the timing of the shutter, making them an active participant in the art creation. The final prints were passed around and enjoyed by the subjects and their families, and they became joyful symbols of their survival and resilience as well as a portrait of a disease that does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender or age.   

“Little did I know, when I was invited to take portraits at Rest Stop, that I would land at ground zero in the AIDS Crises in the Bay Area,” says O’Connor. “For 6 years, I recorded the faces of young men and women whose newly found freedom of sexual expression was cut short by an unknown and deadly virus. Looking back at this body of work, I’m struck by how far we have come and how far we have yet to go to eradicate this disease. I’m glad my work honors these brave souls and serves as a reminder that HIV/AIDS is still very much with us.” 

"Jeannie's portraits are a testament to the resilience and strength of the human spirit, and we are honored to share them with our community," states Hormel LGBTQIA+ Center program manager Cristina Mitra.  

The exhibition is free and open to the public during regular library hours. Visitors are encouraged to take advantage of this unique opportunity to view these powerful portraits and learn more about the history of HIV/AIDS in the Bay Area. The Library hosts an Artist Talk and Reception with Jeannie on Saturday, November 4 at 4 p.m. Visitors will have the opportunity to hear from the artist herself about her experiences and the stories behind the portraits as well as receive a limited-edition exhibition catalog. For more information about the exhibition and related events, visit 

A selection of portraits from the Jeannie O’Connor AIDS Self-Portraits Collection can be viewed online, through a National Endowment to the Humanities digitization grant “The San Francisco Bay Area’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic: Digitizing, Reuniting, and Providing Universal Access to Historical AIDS Record.” 


AIDS Self-Portraits: Positive Art 
On view October 28, 2023 – February 29, 2024 
Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, Hormel LGBTQIA+ Center, 3rd Floor and History Cener, 6th Floor 
Free and open to the public during regular business hours. More information at  

Artist Talk, November 4, 2023, 4 p.m., Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, San Francisco History Center, 6th Floor. Free and open to the public.  

About San Francisco Public Library:
San Francisco Public Library is dedicated to free and equal access to information, knowledge, independent learning and the joys of reading for our diverse community. The library system is made up of 27 neighborhood branches, the San Francisco Main Library at Civic Center and four bookmobiles.

October 12, 2023