Portraits in Life and Death by Hujar, Peter
The writer Susan Sontag once wrote, 'Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death.'
in New York City
Peter Hujar, Paul Thek, and David Wojnarowicz
Design something to sell to the government
Design something to put on an altar
Design something to put over a child's bed
Design something to put over your head when you make love
Most of its black-and-white Life portraits, shot in Hujar's East Village studio, were of artists, writers and performers, many of them in New York. A few, like Ms. Sontag, had an established allure; others, like John Waters, Robert Wilson and Fran Lebowitz, were cult figures with rising visibility; still others were little known outside the downtown demimonde. He depicted many of them reclining on his bed or propped on pillows looking languid, sleepy, postcoital. The results are often sensuous and witty; they are also still and austere.
In the 1970s and 80s, Peter Hujar photographed New York and its underground elite - and was there when Aids began to take its toll. Musician Antony Hegarty pays tribute to an unsung master
Antony Hegarty The Guardian, Saturday 1 December 2007
Candy Darling on Her Death Bed by Peter Hujar. Photograph: © The Peter Hujar Archive, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
Twenty years after his Aids-related death, the work of underground New York photographer Peter Hujar has made it to the UK for a show at the ICA. It's a turn of events I could once have only dreamed of.
When I arrived in New York as a student in 1990, the streets and bars of Manhattan's East and West Villages were populated by as many ghosts as there were denizens. It was like a night sky missing half its brightest stars. Between 1982 and 1994, Ridiculous Theatrical Company director Charles Ludlam, new wave singer Klaus Nomi, drag performer and playwright Ethyl Eichelberger, underground film-maker Jack Smith, Cockettes founder Hibiscus, painter David Wojnarowicz, gay activist Vito Russo, cabaret singer John Sex, cult actress Cookie Mueller and Hujar himself all died of Aids-related illnesses, along with thousands of others. Shortly after performance artist Leigh Bowery died at the end of 1994 in London, the first effective anti-viral medications became available and that seemingly unstoppable wave of death subsided - but many of New York's most important artists and thinkers of two generations were already gone.
At the time there was a fear that their stories would never be told. As a student in 1991 I interviewed local drag queen Hattie Hathaway, gathering scraps of oral history, and after I left school, I worked as an overnight waitress on Avenue A and got to know all the street queens and junkies. I remember one of them marvelling once how Jack Smith's belongings were locked up in garbage bags in someone's basement. Walking down East 10th Street one evening in 1992, I was amazed to find in the garbage a piece of artwork by David Wojnarowicz. I suspected that some landlord had tossed it into the roadside while clearing another freshly "vacated" apartment.
Now at last the work of some of these lost visionaries is beginning to emerge in biographical films, exhibitions and screenings. Accordingly, Hujar, without doubt one of the 20th century's greatest, if unsung, photographers, is finally getting more recognition.
In 1976, Hujar curated the only major presentation of his photographs he was to oversee in his lifetime, which he entitled Portraits In Life And Death. Comprised of two sections, the first part of the exhibition contained portraits of artists and friends from the downtown New York scene, mostly pensive and reclining. Then followed a series of portraits of petrified corpses Hujar had photographed during a trip to the catacombs in Palermo, Sicily. His black-and-white images were presented in a square format, and printed masterfully in rich, deep tones. Hujar's classical sense of composition was formal and exacting. The overall effect of the series was stunning and eerie. Every portrait whispered of transitory presence, mystery and oblivion.
Between the early 70s and mid-80s, Hujar photographed his friends and members of his extended community in NYC, from Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag to downtown artists and drag performers, such as Lola Pasholinksi and Agosto Machado. He took pictures of outsiders from an insider's perspective. The experience of extreme alienation and private soulfulness is what Hujar seems to have shared with his subjects, and elevated in his portraits of them. He photographed the world he inhabited: his lovers and sex partners in various states of undress and arousal, the men cruising the trucks and piers he frequented, the collapsing piers themselves, the empty lots, the dimly lit streets. Hujar's preoccupation with mortality informed all his work. His portraits stare right into the souls of his subjects, and often they gaze back with a stoic knowledge of their mortal predicament.
In one of his most iconic portraits, and the one I was lucky enough to procure as the cover for my last [Antony And The Johnsons] album, I Am A Bird Now, Candy Darling lies in her hospital bed, dying of leukaemia, her dark eyes gazing hypnotically at the camera from underneath white sheets. She looks transcendental in her beauty, suspended between male and female, light and shadow, life and death. When I visited the executor of Hujar's estate, I was shown images he had taken at Darling's funeral. The Warhol superstar was laid out in an open casket, her body waxen and besieged with flowers. Hujar obsessively circled this theme of death and the passage of time - in his picture of a cat's corpse as it curled into death, decomposing on the dark grey gravel; in the silhouette of a thin, neglected dog as it sat chained up in a kennel; even in a solitary bush as it grew, thick with fresh leaves, imbued with an elusive radiance.
Hujar was respected by his peers and revered by those who took inspiration from him (Nan Goldin among them). In the art world he was marginalised, known for being volatile and at times uncooperative. He lived without assets, sometimes without enough money to eat. He died in 1987. His lover, David Wojnarowicz, took photographs of his body as it lay on the hospital cot: Hujar's face, frozen in a stark and rapturous expression; his foot; his hand; his body lay there bathed in the neon light of the hospital corridor.