The enigmatic, uncompromising photographer Peter Hujar now stands alongside Diane Arbus as one of the masters of the New York scene, with his largest exhibition to date currently on view at the Morgan Library & Museum. Danny Fields, Iggy Pop, Penny Arcade, and others remember Hujar, who died of AIDS in 1987.
All images courtesy of the Peter Hujar Archive
“I make uncomplicated, direct photographs, of complicated and difficult subjects. I photograph those who push themselves to any extreme and people who cling to the freedom to be themselves,” wrote photographer Peter Hujar, the uncompromising New York City artist who in his lifetime remained largely an enigma to the mainstream.
A student of Lisette Model, Richard Avedon and Marvin Israel, contemporary of Diane Arbus, and inspiration to Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin; Peter Hujar was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1934. Hujar experienced a turbulent childhood—his struggling/abusive parents abandoned him, forcing a young Hujar to retreat to a family farm in Ewing Township, New Jersey owned by his Ukrainian grandparents. When he was 11, Peter’s grandmother died, and he went to live with his mother in New York City on East 32nd Street, until tensions boiled over. She threw a bottle at Peter’s head.
At age 16, Hujar was living on his own in Manhattan. After graduating from the School of Industrial Art, Hujar eventually found work in his twenties as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar (1968-69), GQ (1970-71), and alternative papers and magazines like The Village Voice, Rock Scene, Soho Weekly News, Newspaper, Scenes, and Avant Garde. Forgoing steady commercial work, Hujar committed his gaze to the burgeoning bohemian culture of downtown New York of the 70’s and 80’s. By that description, one might expect the blurry, amateur aesthetics that define many of the era’s well-known New York City photographs, but Hujar was a master technician. His prints are characterized by their beautiful, crisp focus, complex mid-tones, often printed to the black border of the negative–evoking a striking, dark ethereality in square format.
Hujar’s resume reads like a black book of 1970’s New York City cool: Susan Sontag, Lance Loud, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, The Stooges, Fran Lebowitz, Divine, Cookie Mueller, William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Jim Carroll, Diana Vreeland, Allen Ginsberg, Angels of Light, Brigid Berlin, John Waters, Charles Ludlam, Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and more.
“I met Peter Hujar at a party given by Jack Prince in 1961. Jack Prince produced a ballet called Name of the Dancer, choreographed by Glen Tetly. It was my first job ever as a press agent. Peter Hujar did the promotional photographs. Peter, when I first met him, was the lover of Paul Thek, one of the great artists of the 20th century—he gets more famous everyday. I died from how beautiful they were; of course they’d turn out to be talented, but people don’t do a Miss America Talent Category Segment when you meet them at a party. Together, they were godlike. It was the first same-sex couple I met that I thought was so glamorous, that it was OK to be gay. Wow, if I could be a bird–or a fly in that ointment [laughs]. That’s how I met Peter and then he was always the go-to. I’d always be wanting to arouse his interest,” said Danny Fields, the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-n
“Danny always introduced me to quality people. Like photographers Gerard Malanga and Peter Hujar, who took probably some of the best pictures of me,” recalled Iggy Pop in an interview for Danny Says.
Iggy can indeed be seen, snapped first in Hujar’s East Village apartment/studio, likely taken during one of Iggy’s early trips to New York City in 1969. Reuniting sometime in 1971, Hujar photographed the Mach II Stooges with Iggy Pop, the Asheton brothers, Bill Cheatham and Tommy Zettner. A third session features Iggy, the Ashetons with Jimmy Recca and James Williamson.
In 2013, New York’s Morgan Library became the home of the Peter Hujar Collection, which includes 100 photographs, correspondence, tear sheets, job-books, snapshots and more than 5,700 contact sheets – serving as a record of nearly every black & white exposure Hujar made.
A traveling exhibition entitled Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, made its American debut last month at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York (on view until May 20).
Speed of Life represents 140 photographs drawn from the Morgan Museum and nine other collections—the largest Hujar retrospective to date. Speed of Life opened in Fundación MAPFRE, Barcelona with future engagements at the Hauge Museum of Photography and the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.
Joel Smith, the Richard Menschel Curator of Photography at the Morgan Library & Museum, told Blouin Artinfo International, “With Speed of Life, I’ve tried to combine the traditional job of a retrospective—narrating an artist’s story from a critical distance—with the feel of a gallery show, in which the art remains unsettled and keeps you on your toes. Young Hujar’s photographs (including his earliest known exhibition print, from 1955) appear mostly early on, and work from his last years mostly at the end, but there’s a free mixture throughout. Hujar avoided presenting his work chronologically or thematically, and for his last show, in 1986, he created a continuous frieze of 70 images, two pictures high, running around Gracie Mansion Gallery. He spent days making sure no genre ever appeared twice in a row (never two portraits, or two nudes, or two animals, etc.). Why? My read is that he wanted his art to be felt as an uninterrupted whole, but he didn’t want any of his subjects to be seen as variations on one another. It’s such a portraitist’s credo: you are who you are, and it’s what belongs to you alone that I want to bring out, no matter who or what the world has made of you.”
Though long overdue, the current increased interest in Hujar’s work continues apace. His photography graces the front of Antony and the Johnsons’ I Am a Bird Now, author Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (2015 finalist for the National Book Award), and menswear designer Patrick Everill’s ads (originally shot in 1981, the year Everill was born). In Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit discussed the weight of Hujar’s photography: “In Hujar’s saturated black-and-white prints of animals, outcasts, eccentrics, and ruinous places, the world was rough in every sense. Its surfaces were porous, decrepit, sensuous, full of age and what seemed an ability to absorb…light, meaning, emotion…” In October 2015, a Hujar print of “Candy Darling on her Deathbed” fetched $50,000.
“He would’ve had a bigger career if he’d been able to swallow shit.”
Hujar only saw the publication of one book in his lifetime Portraits of Life and Death in 1976 by Da Capo Press. The foreword by Susan Sontag (who, at the time, was writing essays that would comprise On Photography) reads: “Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also—wittingly or unwittingly—the recording angels of death…In…this selection of Peter Hujar’s work, fleshed and moist-eyed friends and acquaintances stand, sit, slouch, mostly lie—and are made to appear to meditate on mortality… Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death.”
Performance artist, writer, poet and experimental theatre-maker Penny Arcade remembers, “Peter Hujar created his work with the highest personal integrity; the market mentality never entered into his head. He started photographing me when I was 19, till my late 30’s. He was a serious man who looked beyond the lens. He printed four photos and tore up three. He had disregard, ridicule and distaste for careerism…and the critics who he ignored punished Hujar even in death. You needed to see Robert Mapplethorpe standing two inches from a Hujar photograph, examining the printing, to understand Peter Hujar’s excellence–Robert, who never printed a photograph himself. Peter Hujar, the master printer. Peter was already a famous photographer for 15 years in New York before Robert picked up a camera and the only photographer besides Arbus the downtown art scene venerated. To say that Robert Mapplethorpe did not emulate Peter Hujar in style and content is absurd.”
Photographer, Nan Goldin, a close friend and collaborator, wrote in the 1994 catalogue Peter Hujar: A Retrospective, “He was a magician, he hypnotized his subjects. He never forced exposure, he seduced people to want to reveal all to him… He taught so much to me and everyone who knew him… We went through periods of trying to work in each other’s style. I think it changed both of us.”
Goldin also told SFGate, “He would’ve had a bigger career if he’d been able to swallow shit.“
Writer, Fran Lebowitz, who recently gave a lecture and discussion on Hujar at the Morgan Museum & Library, recalled in 1989, “It’s amazing he didn’t kill anyone… He was such a profoundly alienated person, the most I’ve ever known, a prisoner.”
Hujar struggled to make the $200 a month rent for his 12th Street loft on lower Second Avenue that was formerly occupied by Jackie Curtis. Slugger Ann, Hujar’s landlord and Jackie’s aunt, was gracious in the unpaid months until a sale or grant came Peter’s way. Above all, Hujar was committed to authenticity over commerciality and often joked he would have to die for his work to achieve the current renaissance flourishing today.
“The last time I saw Paul Thek was on Fire Island. I was alone at a house in Cherry Grove, and it was really late in the season. And this guy, who didn’t look like a Gay—just like a guy who’s been hiking a long time–really cool looking–called out ‘Danny, Danny’ and it was Paul Thek. It had been years. We chatted for a bit and then he said ‘Well, I’m just gonna keep moving along.’ And then both Paul and Peter died of AIDS,” said Danny Fields with an angered sigh.
Peter Hujar died on Thanksgiving Day in 1987 of AIDS-related pneumonia.
Wisely, he had willed his photographic archive to Stephen Koch, writer, Columbia University professor and dynamo interview subject in Ric Burns’s Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film. Koch told Art F City, “I believe that what I’m doing, for any artist, has to be done. It’s true of literature as well. If you do not have somebody fighting for you, you’re in trouble. And most artists leave it to their widow, or their lover. Nice people, and the artist loved them, but usually incompetent. One of the prime fantasies is that you’re going to be discovered after you die. The truth is, it doesn’t work unless someone makes sure you’re discovered. If you’re Vincent, you’ve got to have your Theo.”
“Peter was already a famous photographer for 15 years in New York before Robert [Mapplethorpe] picked up a camera and the only photographer besides Arbus the downtown art scene venerated. To say that Robert Mapplethorpe did not emulate Peter Hujar in style and content is absurd.”
Since Hujar’s untimely death, his work has been shown in exhibitions around the world, including at the Whitney Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Art Basel.
Curator Joel Smith writes, in the catalog of Speed of Life, “His subject is those who live—whether out of animal simplicity or fatalist irony or supreme indifference—at the speed of life, in present tense, undistracted by hope, anxiety, or nostalgia.”
Gazing upon Hujar’s work, especially his portraiture of iconoclastic pioneers, one gets the sense (or must hope) that this is the world we are moving into rather than looking back at; one that looks to daring individualists, activists, and artists to define the future and true liberation that Hujar and his coterie had strived towards.
Peter Hujar Archive: HERE
Morgan Library “Speed of Life” Exhibition: HERE
Order Peter Hujar: Speed of Life Catalog: HERE