PETER HUJAR: Speed Of Life

by Kim Steele

Lynn Davis: Portrait of Peter Hujar

If the camera lens is the portal to the soul of the photographer, then this one is fuzzy – intentionally.  Peter Hujar often bragged about being on the margins of society, in his life style and his image making. 

Hujar had a brief stint as a magazine photographer, the last assignment shooting the Gay Liberation Front (the Stonewall demonstrations) included in the exhibit.

Peter Hujar: Gay Liberation Front, 1969

Hujar left that world to pursue personal work the rest of his abruptly shortened life. He suffered from a difficult childhood and essentially taught himself the craft of photography.  If fact, the prints in the exhibit, organized by The Morgan Library in New York, were all printed by him.  As a master printer myself, they are gorgeously executed, and lovely to behold.

I had the unique opportunity to meet him in the mid-seventies in New York.  Hujar is infamous as a retiring artist and often sabotaged his opportunities with incendiary behavior.   I was curating an exhibition for my Seattle Gallery, The Artist Space, on The Nude.  I visited New York to gather material for the exhibit.  I was introduced to him by Robert Mapplethorpe, after which I visited his studio and obtained a print.  Hujar offered me an image of a very well endowed man blowing himself.

This caused quite stir in Seattle, in fact the exhibit ran the same time as the King Tut show at the Seattle Art Museum, and my exhibit garnered more press ink than that show!

His work is very eclectic both in subject choice and perspective.  But there is a piercing vision and unabashed directness, that informs his work.  Hujar bonded with David Wojnarowicz, twenty years his junior, a performance artist, early on, and they collaborated on many shoots.  In fact Wojnarowicz is experiencing a renewed interest in his work now at the Whitney Musem of American Art until August 28th.

Both were very active in the HIV-positive political movement.  Unfortunately both succumbed to the affliction.  But this ‘outsider’ mentality brought a gestalt to the work for both of them.  When viewing the exhibition, on first glance, he photographed many seemly-unrelated subjects from animals, to buildings to landscapes and most importantly, people.  Hujar intended this approach, because of his eclectic interests and probably his lack of formal training.  It bode him well.

Peter Hujar: Nude Self-Portrait Series #2 (Avedon Master Class), 1966




Hujar’s education was at a high school in Manhattan, then titled School of the Industrial Arts, where he learned the fundamentals of photography.   He commented that his varied work was bound together by “Beauty and Smell.”  He did attend a Master class by the infamous Richard Avedon.




Peter Hujar: Susan Sontag, 1975










Hujar ran into Diane Arbus who said, “I know who you are,” inferring that he was encroaching on her visual territory.  He befriended Susan Sontag, the thinker who wrote the seminal book, On Photography that influenced all shooters.  She claimed, “Photography was Death.”  Hujar was influenced by her thinking, and also took a very revealing portrait of her clothed, lying on a bed. Equally revealing, his portrait of Fran Lebowitz, unclothed but covered, in bed.

Peter Hujar: Fran Lebowitz at Home in Morristown, 197














From this writer’s perspective, the portraits are by far the most compelling images in the exhibit. They seep sexuality and intimacy. One can see his obsession with light, both natural and artificial, and how it shapes the faces of his subjects.

William Burroughs, 1975

William Burroughs’ image is riveting. He took many hours to capture the intent he sought.  Hujar was reported to have visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral every Easter to study the light playing on the façade.  His most famous portrait was of the dying Candy Darling, a downtown icon. She posed in many ways, in many outfits, but the result is stunning, very posed and contrived.  There was not the intention of catching a ‘candid’ image as did many of his contemporaries: Mapplethorpe and Nan Golden.  Candy Darling was “camping” up. The glamour Hujar found was in Candy’s final reach for sublime artifice; he later wrote that she was “playing every death scene from every movie.”

Peter Hujar: Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, 1973

‘As Mapplethorpe’s reputation grew in the art world, Hujar became dismissive of his work: “Well, it looks like art,” he would scoff.’ From Peter Hujar: Eros, C’Est La Vie, essay by
Philip Gefter, in Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, the catalog published by Aperture and Fundación MAPFRE that accompanies the exhibition. A very handsome catalog indeed. There was icy competition between these artists that were tilling the same ground, but uniquely.

In fact, it was Hujar’s arched approach combined with his ‘marginal’ subjects that probably restricted Hujar’s success in the art world. He described his images as, “uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects,” capturing moments, individuals, and subcultures passing at the ‘speed of life.’

Peter Hujar: Ethyl Eichelberger










Hujar’s fascination of the camp and drag culture, now very much in vogue, was then not as welcomed in the scene.  Hujar shot his dear friend and renowned drag queen, Ethyl Eichelberger, titled, ‘Ethyl Eichelberger’  which is very striking and masculine.  Another of his most famous images is of his collaborator, David Wojarowicz, in a pose and lighting reminiscent of Irving Penn.  Here we see Hujar’s ability to light with artificial sources just as skillfully, as he does with natural light. No an easy task.

Peter Hujar: David Wojnarowicz, 1975






Peter Hujar: Rabbit, Westown,1978














I do not respond to his animals, nor his landscapes. The thinking goes that he expressed this interest due to his childhood on a small New Jersey farm, but they seem distant and uncommitted. His buildings are very compelling, especially the shot of upper Sixth Avenue, which I have been drawn to as a photographer and avid architectural fan.  Those buildings around the fifties, Time & Life, Exxon, McGraw Hill, etc. have always rung with corporate power and modernism.  Hujar captured that feeling of supremacy by “the Man.” It is truly the portraits where Hujar’s skills and insights shine brightly, despite their coming from the underground East Village.  They are as prescient today as they were in the seventies and eighties.

Peter Hujar, New York–6th Avenue, 1976

In the long run, though, “Peter got exactly what he wanted,” his friend Steve Turtell said. “He once said to me, ‘I want to be discussed in hushed tones. When people talk about me, I want them to be whispering.’” (From Peter Hujar’s Downtown, essay by Philip Gefter, in Peter Hujar: Speed of Life)

It is truly a remarkable exhibition and well worth a second visit.


Photographs courtesy of Peter Hujar Archive and the Berkeley Art Museum.


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