Moving at the “Speed of Life” with Legendary Photographer Peter Hujar

Photo: (l.): Peter Hujar, Self-Portrait Jumping (1), 1974; from Peter Hujar: Speed of Life (Aperture, 2017.  (r): Peter Hujar, New York: Sixth Avenue (1), 1976. Both photos; The Morgan Library & Museum, The Peter Hujar Collection. Purchased on the Charina Endowment Fund,(l):  2013.108:1.37, (r); 2013.108:1.58.

The Man. The Myth. The Mystery. Photographer Peter Hujar (1934-1987) was a fixture in the downtown New York scene during the 1970s and ‘80s, creating a seminal body of work that was quietly captivating. He was a fixture in the East Village, where he lived and worked, when it was a magnet for bohemian artists, writers, performers, musicians, and iconoclasts. Back in the days, the neighborhood was rough and raw, in a perpetual state of poverty that bred the avant-garde.

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Perhaps the most telling word in the neighborhood was the word “village”—it was truly a community of friends, families, comrades who were constantly in the mix. Much of New York had been abandoned throughout the decade, leaving the bold and the daring with the run of the place. There was overlap and interplay between the arts as personalities mingled freely in an ongoing dialogue of the times.

Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowcz Reclining (2), 1981; The Morgan Library & Museum, The Peter Hujar Collection. Purchased on the Charina Endowment Fund, 2013.108:1.28.

Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowcz Reclining (2), 1981; The Morgan Library & Museum, The Peter Hujar Collection. Purchased on the Charina Endowment Fund, 2013.108:1.28.

Hujar began his career in the 1950s as a commercial photographer but soon left the market behind, preferring to focus his energies on the creation of art. In an era when the cost of living was cheap, Hujar was able to set up a studio in his Twelfth Street loft and go from there. Best known for his portraits of some of the most iconic figures of the times, from Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs, and Gary Indiana to Candy Darling, Rene Ricard, and David Wojnarowicz, Hujar also created nudes, landscapes, cityscapes, photographs of animals, and documentary scenes.

But Hujar was not one for self-promotion. It didn’t suit him at all. Where others like Warhol invented branding strategies way ahead of Madison Avenue, Hujar simply kept to himself, doing his work. “One thing I won’t answer is anything about why I do what I do,” Peter Hujar told David Wojnarowicz in 1983.

HUJARThis aversion to explaining himself envelops Hujar and his work in an air of mystery, in simply a series of facts and artifacts through which we know his work and his name. Now Aperture introduces Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, the first major photographic survey of his famous and lesser-known photographs. With essays by Joel Smith, Steve Turtell, Philip Gefter, and Martha Scott, the book brings the life of Hujar together in between two covers.

Featuring 160 photographs from Hujar’s archive, the book presents a stunning collection of disparate works that, when taken together, tell a powerful history of a time, while invoking a curious sensibility of autobiography. Hujar’s gift for the classic formal techniques of photography is underscored by his taste for the unexpected, the unconventional, and the compelling beauty of that which is not always the traditional subject of art. There’s a quiet tension between the attractive and the grotesque, continually compelling us to look. A Hujar photograph is striking in more ways than one, perhaps above all for his ability to lay life bare without a sense of judgment. It simply is: alluring, disconcerting, or simply just uncomfortable, but he always seems to make you want more.

Before he decided to cease explaining himself, he took a stab at verbalizing his motivations in an untitled typed paragraph from 1976 in which he wrote, “PETER HUJAR makes uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects.” He further illuminated this in an entry for an unidentified directory of photographers in the late 1970s, revealing, “My work comes out of my life. The people I photograph are not freaks or curiosities. I like people who dare.”

And this is what comes across—a deep affinity and empathy for the subject, as though the two speak as one. Perhaps it is in the creation of the photograph that Hujar gives voice to that which words fail to convey, creating a timeless series of moments that equal parts ephemeral and eternal.

All photos: From Peter Hujar: Speed of Life (Aperture, 2017). © The Peter Hujar Archive, LLC. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.