“Much of the New York that mattered to Hujar,” read one of this exhibition’s wall texts, “was to be found only after sundown.” Following such cues, one might have expected to find a nocturnal kaleidoscope rivaling Brassaï’s Paris or anticipating Nan Goldin’s scenes of New York subculture. Yet the bulk of Peter Hujar’s photography as exhibited in the show—the largest retrospective to date of his work, with more than 150 of his images—took place in the light of day or in well-lit interiors. Until the mid-1970s, when nighttime parking lots and loading docks assumed heightened presence in his work, Hujar generally shot the derelict spaces to which he was drawn in the daytime. Even the terms frequently appended to his name (“downtown photographer,” “East Village artist,” “street photographer”) belie the breadth of his images, which span genres ranging from landscapes to portraits to nudes to still lifes.
Hujar (1934–1987) called attention to this variety in the way he exhibited his photographs, preferring to group them in such a way that no single genre would take precedence in a given cluster. Curator Joel Smith opted for installing this show (which was co-organized with the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, where it opens in January) along the same lines. But while the groupings were not necessarily by genre, they were often formal or thematic. A cluster of five photographs portrayed subjects—a dog, a Stromboli volcano, performer Sheryl Sutton, choreographer and dancer Dana Reitz’s legs, writer and AIDS activist Robert Levithan in bed—all pitched at the same angle. Elsewhere, six photographs from different places and times showed individuals or objects veiled behind mesh or some other sort of covering. Such clusters helped to tease out common compositional penchants between Hujar’s otherwise disparate imagery. The avoidance of genre groupings, however, proved less felicitous in several instances that read as willfully ironic, the juxtapositions overwhelming the individual images, with cows in a field flanking a nude actor backstage, or a snake on a chair sitting opposite a self-portrait.
It is Hujar’s portraits—both of himself and others—for which he remains best known. These images offer a window not merely onto their subjects’ respective personalities, but onto Hujar’s varied affinities, from society’s upper echelons to New York’s more abject denizens. Whether showing the Marchesa Fioravanti wearing a great fur collar or a recumbent Candy Darling on her deathbed, his portraits reveal a keen sympathy for his sitters. Hujar once remarked that he liked to photograph “people who go to the extreme.” Yet his (mostly) close-up, bust-length pictures evince a sense of calm, and convey a nuanced pathos. He routinely shot his subjects in a reclining or supine state, lending them a certain ease or even spontaneity. We see a relaxed Susan Sontag lying on her back, Hujar’s lover the artist David Wojnarowicz resting in bed, or, seemingly spontaneous in his blithe repose, a young man on the Christopher Street pier.
Hujar’s 1970 photograph of a group of men and women marching joyously through the New York Streets—made famous in a 1970s poster for the Gay Liberation Front, which was formed in the wake of the Stonewall Riots—is a particularly striking image. In the 1980s, as AIDS came to ravage the gay community—and the photographer’s circle of intimates and eventually himself—Hujar’s exuberant imagery gave way to more acerbic depictions. His series of a ruined apartment interior in Newark conjures up a morbid but mesmerizing squalor, and recalls, in a sense, his 1963 photographs of old monks’ cadavers in the catacombs of Palermo. So vital and dynamic in his self-portraits, Hujar’s own body—photographed by Wojnarowicz just before death—would come to form a beautiful ruin in its own right.