Peter Hujar. At the Speed of Life offers 160 photographs by the American photographer Peter Hujar, from 1950 up to his death in New York in 1987. His portraits exerted a key transformative influence over the photography of the second half of the 20th century. It can be visited until April 30, at the Garriga i Nogués Hall in Barcelona.
“I can only express myself through photography.” These are the words of Peter Hujar (New Jersey, 1934-New York, 1987), an artist of reserved nature, combative manners, curious and well connected, who moved in the circles of the avant-garde art, dance and music worlds and of
alternative drag performances. His life and work were intimately linked to the Downtown art scene of New York City, where he portrayed the underground sociocultural scene he formed part of. He photographed artists and writers he knew and respected, such as Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag or William S. Burroughs, as well as other anonymous Downtown characters.
Interested in photography since childhood, Hujar graduated in 1953 from the School of Industrial Art and worked as an assistant in various photographic studios, where he earned a modest salary. Inspired by a workshop given by Richard Avedon and Marvin Israel, in 1967 he embarked on a brief career as a freelance photographer for fashion magazines. Four years later he decided that this work was not for him and he opted definitively for a life of creative freedom, far removed from the commercial circuits.
New York in black and white
Apart from two stays in Italy (1958‑1959 and 1962‑1963), Hujar spent his whole adult life in Manhattan. Installed in a loft at Twelfth Street and Second Avenue, Hujar focused on the work he wanted, shooting those he termed the “all-in people”: creators and actors who were solely guided by their instincts and spurned any conventional notion of success. He published a monograph, Portraits in Life and Death (1976) and put on eight solo exhibitions, which did not bring in significant economic benefits. Unlike such famous contemporaries as Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, he remained out of the limelight and rarely considered offering explanations of his work or reinventing himself.
An important part of the New York that interested Hujar could only be found at nightfall. Darkness was already present in Hujar’s earliest photographs because the subculture he inhabited had not yet emerged from the shadows. But the shadows were to go on to later become a distinctive feature of his style and, finally, turn into a symbol of the disintegration of the city and the loss and terror that ravaged their community in the age of AIDS.
Peter Hujar opted for a life of creative freedom, far removed from the commercial circuits
Intimacy and calm
Heir to the tradition of photographic portraiture, which dates back to 19th century France with Nadar and continued in the 20th century with the work of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Hujar produced portraits that set him apart from the work of his predecessors thanks to his prolonged, familiar, patient photographic style which generated an intimate atmosphere with the subject. “What I do is not very different from what Julia Margaret Cameron did. Or Matthew Brady (…). I compose the picture in the camera (…). I make the copy. It has to be beautiful,” he explained. As a mature artist, his career developed in parallel to the gay culture in the period between the Stonewall Riots (1969) and the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s. Specifically, in 1981, Hujar had a brief relationship with the painter David Wojnarowicz that evolved into a protective friendship which would change the lives of both artists. A year after his last, eclectic exhibition, held in the Gracie Mansion Gallery in New York’s East Village, Hujar was diagnosed with AIDS. He died on Thanksgiving Day in November 1987. He was 47 years old.
From the country to the heart of Manhattan
Organized by: Fundación MAPFRE, the
Morgan Library & Museum of New York.
The exhibition and its tour schedule
were made possible thanks to the TERRA
Foundation for American Art.
A PORTRAIT IN WHICH LIFE
AND DEATH ARE INTERTWINED
The essence of the wisdom of a photographed
image lies in saying: “There is the surface. Now
think – or rather feel, intuit – what is beyond it,
what the reality must be like if it looks that way.”
In a strict sense, photographs can never explain
anything, but are simply an invitation to fantasy
This was how Susan Sontag expressed it in 1973, in the first of a series of essays on photography that define her most enduring legacy, as well as her public recognition as an intellectual. When Peter Hujar photographed Sontag in her apartment in 1975, the New York Review of Books had already published four more essays. And in December 1976 (a few months before her reflections were compiled in the book On Photography), Sontag wrote a brief introduction to Hujar’s book Portraits in Life and Death.
Twenty-nine New York creators of the period, all to a greater or lesser extent known to Hujar and, in most cases, neighbors of the same district, occupy the first part of the book; this circle of artists and intellectuals included Sontag, as well as William S. Burroughs, John Waters, Robert Wilson and Fran Lebowitz. This was followed by a series of photographs that Hujar himself
took in 1963 (the same year that Sontag and he had become friends), depicting the shrouded and mummified remains of the catacombs of Palermo.
In this context, it is understandable that Sontag devoted her introduction to the links between photography and death. (The wording she had employed in 1973 was already famous: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” What very few readers knew was that Sontag had written that introduction off the top of her head, reclining on a hospital pillow the night before her first exploratory surgical intervention to treat a cancer.
After learning of the circumstances of her participation in the book, and in Hujar’s life, it proves difficult to eradicate them when viewing her portrait. The reclined pose and the square format, both characteristic of Hujar’s work, combine to produce a static effect which suggests the photographic equivalent of a mortuary sculpture: a portrait in which life and death are intertwined. “Precisely by slicing out one moment and freezing it, all pictures testify to time’s relentless melt,” Sontag wrote. In his indelible representation of his friend, Hujar nonetheless goes for an aesthetic form of immortality that respects the medium chosen by both her and by himself. Whatever the doubts Sontag harbored regarding the superficiality of photographic “wisdom”, her portrait is clearly that of an intellectual. (Geoff Dyer has pointed out that “even her clothes radiated intelligence.”) The relaxed meeting between two friends, two artists, projects two facets of the word “contemplation”: that of the writer (the averted gaze, her mind totally inward-looking, her inclined body denoting a self-imposed distance in the face of current
circumstances) and that of the photographer with his attention focused on what is happening before his eyes, staying alert to the possibilities presented by each accidental gesture, state of mind or the lighting.
* Joel Smith, organizer of the exhibition Peter Hujar: At the Speed of Life, is the “Richard L. Menschel” Curator and Director of the Department of Photography at the Morgan Library & Museum.