A key figure of the creative community in and around downtown New York from the 1960s until his death from AIDS-related illness in 1987, Peter Hujar photographed scenes that seem at once highly composed and intensely matter-of-fact. His works focus with unflinchingly crisp detail on the gritty and avant-garde subcultures he navigated throughout his adult life. Taken between 1963 and 1985, the small and resolutely square black and white photographic prints in ‘21 Pictures’, on view at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, reveal Hujar’s broad range of interests and abilities, their dark tones suggestive of subdued intimacy.
It feels reductive to refer to these prints as ‘black and white’. The array of silvers and greys in Parked Car, Brooklyn (1976) and Lower Manhattan from the Harbor (1976) are exemplary of the expansive spectrum in Hujar’s exposures. The tonalities and textures of the silver gelatin prints remain rich in these scenes dating back more than half a century.
Among several nude male portraits is one featuring Hujar’s one-time lover, the artist Paul Thek, riding a large taxidermy zebra in a parody of a martial equestrian statue (Paul Thek, Nude, Astride Zebra, 1965). Another, Bruce De Sainte Croix (1976), captures its subject nearly centred within the frame, staring at his unabashedly erect penis with seeming appreciation. Other close-up studies include a young John Waters, supine and dreamy-eyed, and an equally relaxed, if pensive, Susan Sontag. Divine is photographed starkly glamorous in all white at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while Madeline Kahn’s tense pose and dark shroud seem shamanistic in a photograph from 1981.
Candid portraits of cross-dressing artists such as Divine and Ethyl Eichelberger capture the subjects’ bodies in motion with a high degree of poise. Wrapped in an encompassing dress and headscarf, Divine appears like a large modernist sculpture moving through dark space, while Eichelberger self-consciously emulates the sentimentality of Victorian portrait photography by posing as a grieving woman in Ethyl Eichelberger as Auntie Bellum (1983). Hujar’s formalist approach simultaneously amplifies and allays the social contraventions of his sitters. His images directly confront troubling and transgressive subjects such as death, uninhibited sexuality and non-normative gender expression.
Elegiac depictions of mortality recur throughout the exhibition. The vanitas of Broken Dishes, Newark (1985), for instance, shows a bleak tableau of chipped and piled plates next to overturned cups, while Palermo Catacombs #2 (1963) captures a single skull resting in the gauzy trappings of its owner’s final costume, the crepuscular light of the underground tombs making both figure and ground appear flat and abstract.
Time, meanwhile, has turned many cultural taboos from Hujar’s era into cultural norms. His contemporary Robert Mapplethorpe has become celebrated for the transgressive subjects of some of his photographs as well as for the polish with which they are depicted. If the sight of a bullwhip up Mapplethorpe’s ass still startles, neither the displayed sexuality of Mapplethorpe’s or Hujar’s nudes nor the gender deviance of Hujar’s drag performers provokes the kind of charge they once did. Both photographers produced images of subjects that were knowingly outré (nude men engaging in sexual acts) but also of figures already accepted by the cultural mainstream (Kahn and Diana Vreeland). Presented side-by-side in fine art contexts, these disparate subjects become equally appreciable for their formal, even classical beauty.
In Hujar’s pictures, it is the intimations of mortality that remain most striking: the leftover food and human remains, the fading vitality of celebrities and artists on their deathbeds. Seen now, these photographs recall the waning of countercultural movements that seethed in Hujar’s time, at least until the 1980s, when AIDS ravaged the artistic community of New York, claiming the lives of the artist and most of his subjects. These photographs are poignant traces of the social and cultural difference that Hujar embodied, as well as signs of its passing.
First published in Issue 179