Peter Hujar by Harald Smart
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Harald Smart is a writer and art history devotee born and raised in Edinburgh, currently based in East London. Recent freelance projects have seen him interview numerous prominent artists and designers, including Tim Walker and Andreas Kronthaler, for a diverse range of publications. He is also a fledgling poet, and a Senior Editor at the irreverent Buffalo Zine.
If I mention him in conversation, the recall on Peter Hujar’s name is usually around fifty-fifty. Many people do know his work, and that number is ever-increasing, but I often forget that the majority of others haven’t spent an unhealthy amount of time like me, obsessing over the downtown New York art haven he inhabited during the 1970s and 80s. Throughout his career, Hujar seemed to simultaneously crave and shun institutional recognition, part of an ongoing internal conflict that left mainstream ‘success’ perpetually out of his reach. Subversive, charismatic and vehemently true to himself, Hujar walked an unconventional path, chronicling the precarious lives around him with a brilliant eye, until his premature, AIDS-related death at the age of fifty-three.
Whilst at university, I read about Hujar’s relationship with his onetime lover and lasting companion, David Wojnarowicz, and it became a positive point of reference for me in the navigation of my own sexuality. Their lasting, mutually dependent, undefinable bond remains a beautiful example of alternative queer love, and a steadfast guiding light during dark times. When he died in 1987, it was Wojnarowicz who, in an overwhelming act of love, photographed Hujar’s body as it lay in the hospital bed, producing what remain some of the most emotive images made during the AIDS crisis. These, in turn, led me to the sensitive, searching photographs that Hujar took of Wojnarowicz, and my first introduction to his darkly magnetic world.
I remember being particularly struck by two of these portraits, both depicting Wojnarowicz in an uncharacteristically conservative white shirt, against a typically Hujarian sparse backdrop. In one, he blows an impressive smoke ring whilst fixing Hujar - and us - with a nonchalant gaze, eyes narrowed. In the other, he appears pensive as he focuses on the act of consuming an apple using a knife. The saintlike serenity of this image seems to show Wojnarowicz reborn, absolved not of his own sins, but of the pain and hardship both he and Hujar knew all too well as gay men in 20th century America. The image makes no reference to the hostile world swirling just beyond its frame, it is a vacuum of safety, and the characteristic stillness present in many of Hujar’s portraits emphasises this feeling. Whilst studying Wojnarowicz I was fascinated by the images of religious sanctification in his work, and how he used them to strengthen and historicise queer identities. Seeing him portrayed by Hujar for the first time, in virginal white, whilst slowly and knowingly devouring forbidden fruit, the parallel was stirring and self evident: the wayward Saint David, patron of the underground, captured by a Master of his day.
For Hujar and Wojnarowicz, kinship was spurred along by shared trauma: both had fled fractured, abusive homes - decades apart - to navigate, for a time, streets that were no more hospitable. Hujar moved to New York as a young teenager to live with his mother, after the relatives she had left him with in rural New Jersey passed away. He was fourteen years old when he received his first camera in 1947, and was encouraged to pursue photography alongside his classes at the School of Industrial Art by one of his teachers, the poet Daisy Aldan, whom he later stayed with for a time. Developing his style over the following years, he carved a path through New York’s midcentury maelstrom, eventually finding himself among Andy Warhol’s Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys in 1964. It is difficult to say whether or not this brush with Warhol’s art-as-industry production line repelled Hujar and set him on his anti-establishment course, but their approaches, both to art and to its promotion, were strikingly different. (The Pop Art behemoth eventually sat for him in 1975.)
Hujar’s name is also mentioned frequently alongside those of Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s clear to see why: stylistic connections are evident, with Hujar acting as something of an intermediary between Arbus’s unapologetic, frequently provocative photographs of marginalised faces and spaces; and Mapplethorpe’s distinctly queer, technically fastidious work. The format for many of Hujar’s portraits: scant, shadowy and frequently cropped-square, certainly provides a precedent for Mapplethorpe’s later portfolios. However, the reality of Hujar’s aesthetic tone is much more complex, and, whilst the comparisons to Mapplethorpe are helpful in providing context, they can also succeed in pulling focus. I’ve found that analyses of the two photographers often seem to cast them as adversaries on either side of an epic binary. Mapplethorpe: fixated on the flawless, the money-minded darling of gallerists and art dealers the length of Manhattan; Hujar: searching for the intimate, the implicit, mounting no more than a few shows in his lifetime. Whilst essentially valid, this conclusion feels devoid of nuance for two progressive artists who each searched for beauty in different places.
I’ve been delighted to read of attempts made in recent years to bring Hujar out of the shadow of these monolithic names, and to establish his legacy as a visionary in his own right. For me, his photographs straddle a dual-definition: that of both artwork and artefact. The Peter Hujar Archive, available to view extensively online, presents one of the most comprehensive and valuable documenting of queer experience in 20th century New York. His portraits and nudes oscillate in tone from humour to vulnerability, with sitters often praising Hujar for his ease behind the camera. The results are intimate and uncontrived, capturing a varied constellation of New York’s downtown creative scene, burning brightly out of necessity in the void-like, broken streets of the 1970s. Accompanying cityscapes provide mise en scene: depicting awe-inspiring skyscrapers, and the derelict corners beneath them, with equal dignity and intrigue.
Peeling back his city’s crocodile skin in sections, Hujar captured its flesh and the characters filling its clogged veins, with an eye that called forth traditionalism and sedition in equal measure. The scope of his lens was broad, too broad for some, seeing him accused of deviation from his - apparently preordained - artistic ‘path’. But the role of documenter came naturally to Hujar, and whether of farm animals, legendary artists, or beautiful young men cruising the city’s parks under streetlights in the wee hours, we are lucky to have the photographs he left us. Some have taken on lives of their own in recent years, including his seminal deathbed portrait of transgender Warhol ‘Superstar’ Candy Darling - used by Antony and the Johnsons on the cover of their Mercury Prize winning album, I Am a Bird Now - and an emotionally ambiguous image from his Orgasmic Man series, reproduced on the cover of Hanya Yanagihara’s controversial, widely distributed epic: A Little Life.
Hujar’s photographs offer a frank yet beautiful window into a world I’ll never know. Yet, many of the faces I see in his portraits are familiar. Granted, I may have seen some of them before in books or films or pictures made by other artists, but many simply resemble the faces I know in my own day-to-day, night-to-night life. Hujar captured queer experience in such a way that emphasises at once its vulnerability and its beautiful power, the same qualities I see and feel on a good night spent in one of London’s dwindling but ever-pulsing queer venues. Red-lipped smiles, moments of contemplation or pain, I recognise them in my own friends today as we congregate to make merry and share our stories of laughter, love and loss. They have been captured and preserved by Hujar, vital artefacts from his time, creating kinship across generations. Now, at a time when historical engagement frequently feels at peril, in queer contexts and beyond, it is vital that Hujar’s unique viewpoint is explored by as many as have the means, and that the stories behind his images are shared.
Peter Hujar: Speed of Life runs until May 20th 2018, at The Morgan Library & Museum
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.