“Maybe I can’t find you, Peter,” darkly exclaims David Wojnarowicz, walking through a cemetery in his essay “Living Close To The Knives” (100). While detailing his harrowing and nerve-wracking attempt to find the grave of photographer Peter Hujar, who Wojnarowicz later describes as “my friend…my brother my father my emotional link to the world,” Wojnarowicz’s desire to locate Hujar is a relatable one.
Even though Hujar’s emotional black-and-white photographs can be found in group exhibitions, other artists’ retrospectives and even, book covers such as Hanya Yanagihara’s tragic and traumatic A Little Life, Hujar and the full breadth of his life and work remain elusive. For a long time, since his death in 1987, the under-appreciated photographer has been a figure known only through his portraits of the New York arts community in which he participated.
This, however, may change with the current retrospective Peter Hujar: Speed of Life on view at the Morgan Library & Museum. The exhibition brings together a staggering range of Hujar’s photographic work–140 pieces in total, crammed into a small gallery space. Unlike every other Peter Hujar exhibition I’ve seen such as Paul Kasmin Gallery’s Lost Downtown, Speed of Life juxtaposes his fragile and tender portraits of Downtown denizens, including Susan Sontag, Cookie Mueller, Ethyl Eichelberger, Greer Lankton, dancer Sheryl Sutton, and David Wojnarowicz himself, with photographs of animals, babies, the Hudson River piers, rural landscapes and cityscapes. This allows for the full scope of Hujar’s work to be appreciated, rather than just filtered through 1970s and 1980s East Village nostalgia.
It should be said, though, that there are some reasons Hujar’s work has been glossed over in favor of more renowned Downtown documentarians like Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe. First, Hujar wasn’t exactly an easy artist to work with. Notoriously “difficult,” he was known for hanging up on dealers around the city (can you blame him?). Secondly, at the time, it seemed that Hujar’s work played second fiddle to Robert Mapplethorpe’s. As Joel Smith, the curator of photography at the Morgan Library & Museum tells the New York Times’ Rena Silverman: “Part of the reason he was eclipsed was because of the great success of Mapplethorpe, who filled a niche and very spectacularly filled the image of a bad-boy photographer privy to those kinds of secrets of dark, nighttime gay lifestyle…it was easy for the mainstream culture to think of him as ‘the other one,’ or ‘the minor one.’”
This, of course, is unfair. Whereas Mapplethorpe seemed to revel in the “badness” of subcultures such as BDSM like a rebellious angsty kid, which has only become worse in retrospect given the scores of young gay male photographers still jacking his style, Hujar took sensitive portraits of the outcasts. Whether members of The Cockettes, literary superstars like Fran Lebowitz or men lounging on the Hudson River piers, Hujar imbues these subjects with humanity, rather than reveling in voyeurism.
In some respects, Peter Hujar: Speed of Life is challenging, which is fitting for Hujar’s persona. For someone, like me, who absolutely adores Hujar’s subjects–most of whom are Filthy Dreams role models, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment when some of my favorite photographs were not included. I could always have done with more of Ethyl Eichelberger’s characters or David Wojnarowicz smoking portraits. But, in retrospect, the tension of always wanting more is part of dealing with the vastness of Hujar’s work.
Similarly, the show’s hanging style is uncompromising at best. Hujar preferred a seemingly random collection of his photographs to be hung tightly in rows, with the frames butted up against one another. The Morgan follows this unwavering aesthetic, which makes the exhibition undeniably overhung and overwhelming. The show itself is worthy of a much larger exhibition space (I nominate the space containing the Medieval art show across the hall).
The benefit of adhering to Hujar’s hanging style, though, is that similarities between his different bodies of work can be observed. Throughout his career, Hujar printed his own work and because of this, the photographs have a consistent, as David Lynch would say, “mood.” The images, lining the walls, have a coherent luminous yet melancholy quality that reverberates through disparate subjects. Take, for example, a portrait of the Beat Generation gentleman junkie William S. Burroughs whose direct gaze into the camera mimics the blunt curiosity of a cat staring from a perch in a shop.
Another unmistakable aspect of the exhibition, particularly with the glut of photographs, is Hujar’s talent at capturing the fragility of life at the precipice. While the show is titled Speed of Life, I found it almost impossible not to approach both the photographs and the photographer without thinking of the loss of Hujar, his community and even, the New York in which he inhabited, mostly due to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Even his landscapes seem to showcase a different city. The Christopher Street pier, deserted and full of erotic possibility in Christopher Street Pier (2), is a world away from the well-manicured lawns and clean white tables of today.
Ironically, I was first introduced to Peter through his death–from Wojnarowicz’s account of his final days and death from complications from AIDS in Close To The Knives–before I knew about his life. This is somehow appropriate given Hujar’s photography, which both in its formal qualities and historical context, always seems to waver at the edge of the abyss between life and death. His work contains a palpable precariousness, which Susan Sontag also spotted in her essay for his only published book Portraits of Life and Death in 1976. She explains, “Photography…converts the whole world into a cemetery. Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also–wittingly or unwittingly–the recording-angels of death…Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death.”
Some photographs record mortality more obviously than others. For instance, Candy Darling on her Deathbed portrays the iconic Superstar, surrounded by flowers, posed in a hospital bed. Rather than a depiction of physical decay, the photograph documents Candy looking like a glamorous vintage Hollywood star in full makeup and perfect hair. It’s as if she was a diva sent to the hospital to recover from exhaustion, not a Downtown diva battling leukemia on her deathbed.
In other photographs, this sense of mortality comes from the external yet unavoidable knowledge that these people are now gone. As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.
But, while a photograph participates in mortality, it also preserves a moment in time and acts as both a reminder and a remnant of the past. In David L. Eng and David Kazanjian’s Loss: The Politics of Mourning, the duo pose the question: We might say as soon as the question ‘What is lost?’ is posed, it invariably slips into the question ‘What remains?’ That is, loss is inseparable from what remains, for what is lost is known only by what remains of it, by how these remains are produced, read and sustained” (2).
Similarly, to engage with Hujar’s photographs is to tangle with both loss and its remains. In “Living Close To The Knives,” David Wojnarowicz describes Hujar’s struggle to walk in his last weeks. He writes, “he’d lost most of the feeling in his legs and when he could get himself to his feet, he would fall endlessly forward, arms spinning like windmills until one of us would grab him and guide him. It became a routine. He’d first refuse help as a condition to accepting it; at times, it seemed as if every various of reaction and response had to pass through his brain and out his lips before he could accept things or acknowledge limitations.” (89).
In contrast to this affecting and, at least for me, unforgettable image of a man tenaciously hanging on to his dignity even with his physical diminishment, one of the first images viewers see when they walk into the Morgan’s exhibition space is Hujar’s self-portrait Peter Jumping, A Self-Portrait. Here, Hujar vivaciously leaps into the picture plane, with his arm up as if saluting. Healthy and vibrant, it’s a startling comparison with Wojnarowicz’s account of Hujar’s deterioration only a little over a decade later. However, as Eng and Kazanjian note, the photograph, as a remainder of loss, protects and preserves this once bounding Hujar.
Like Peter Jumping, A Self-Portrait, many of Hujar’s photographs deftly record both presence and absence, a significant duality especially when read in conjunction with the loss of lives and community in Hujar’s pictures. This is best seen in Hujar’s work Blanket on a Chair. The blanket and chair were both used as props for a series of photographs with David Wojnarowicz, as seen on the Village Voice cover for the story “Heartsick: Fear and Loving in the Gay Community.” That photograph reveals the tall, gangly artist draped over the chair–his head down and arms wrapped around the back.
At first glance, Blanket on a Chair looks as if a person might still be wrapped under the blanket’s folds, crumpled with a sculptural physicality. But upon closer inspection, the blanket and chair are empty. The body is gone and yet, a ghostly presence lingers, whether the body heat trapped in the blanket or quickly fading on the seat of the chair. In both this specific photograph and his work in general as seen in Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, Hujar portrays a palpable sense that someone was there. He doggedly produces a tangible remembrance of loss and its remains–a postcard from the edge.