The ‘secret fame’ of Peter Hujar
Ten things to know about the life and work of the photographer whose raw, honest images captured the avant-garde art and fashion scenes in downtown New York in the early 1980s
Peter Hujar (1934–1987) was raised by his Ukrainian immigrant grandparents in rural New Jersey, while his mother lived and worked as a waitress in Lower Manhattan. He never met his father, who disappeared before Hujar was born. After his grandmother died, his mother brought 11-year old Hujar to live in New York with her and her boyfriend.
Hujar was verbally and physically abused by them both until he moved out, while still a teenager. Throughout his life, he was attracted to others who had endured similarly unpleasant childhoods, most notably to the artist David Wojnarowicz.
Early on, Hujar was inspired by the photography he saw in fashion magazines, some of which — such as Harper’s Bazaar and GQ — he would later shoot for.
As a young artist in New York, where he would have explored the galleries of Greenwich Village and art institutions such as The Museum of Modern Art, he was greatly influenced by the candid street photography of Lisette Model, particularly her intimate portraits of the varied characters she found within gritty cityscapes.
One of several breakthroughs in Hujar’s career was his acceptance into the masterclass taught by photographer Richard Avedon and famed art director Marvin Israel in 1967. Hujar was a longtime admirer of Avedon’s work; Avedon would come to reciprocate the admiration after Hujar’s own career in photography blossomed.
While his photographic output covered everything from celebrity portraits to Italian catacombs to nocturnal cityscapes, Hujar is probably most known for his honest and astute portraits of New York City creatives in the 1970s and ’80s.
He despised what he considered overly-aestheticised compositions, and was more interested in documenting habitués of the adventurous downtown world in which he lived, not as novelties, but as people he admired for their bold embrace of their true identities. ‘My work comes out of my life. The people I photograph are not freaks or curiosities to me. I like people who dare,’ he once said. His shots of drag performer Ethyl Eichelberger and transgender artist Greer Lankton are just two examples of audacious subjects he was drawn to in his portraiture.
Hujar’s photographs of animals are generally considered an extension of his portraiture work, and even, by some readings, of his self-portraiture.
His 1969 photograph, Horse in West Virginia Mountains, marks the first time that Hujar seriously explored animals as artistic subject matter.
Sontag, one of the most influential commentators on photography of her generation, met Hujar in 1963, and the pair discovered a shared sensibility. In 1976, the year before she published On Photography, Sontag agreed to write the introduction to Hujar’s book, Portraits in Life and Death. ‘Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death,’ she wrote. ‘I am moved by the purity and delicacy of his intentions.’
In a publication accompanying the first posthumous exhibition of Hujar’s work, presented in 1990 by New York University's Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, writer Stephen Koch (also the executor of Hujar's estate) said the following about Hujar’s fame at the time of his death: ‘In a way, he was famous. But it was a very odd fame. I am tempted to call it a kind of secret fame. His reputation was simultaneously widespread and covered; at once powerful and almost invisible.’
Indeed, Hujar had been offered many opportunities to show work in prestigious galleries and museums throughout his life, but was so particular about whom he worked with and how his photographs were displayed that he rejected many of them. At the same time, Hujar was known throughout the 1970s and early 1980s by nearly everyone in New York's visual and avant-garde performing art circles. As Koch concludes, ‘In that glamorous but secret place he had made his own, he stepped — incognito, as it were — into his authentic eminence.’
While his work was eclipsed in his lifetime by that of Robert Mapplethorpe, Hujar seemed to favour working in relative obscurity. According to his friend Steve Turtell, Hujar once said, ‘I want to be discussed in hushed tones. When people talk about me, I want them to be whispering.’
The past 15 years have seen a steady rise in the value of Hujar’s work. Today there is an increasing appreciation of the fact that his prints provide an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the art, fashion, experimentation and collaboration that flourished in downtown New York in the early 1980s.
Reflecting this mounting interest, Peter Hujar: Speed of Life — the first major retrospective dedicated to Hujar’s work — was staged at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York from January through to May 2018. Featuring some 140 works, the exhibition coincided with a major acquisition by the Morgan that saw 100 photographs and thousands of contact sheets by Hujar added to its permanent collection.
The 1980s was a horrific decade for New York City’s artistic community, which saw so many of its members lost to the AIDS epidemic. Hujar’s life ended abruptly in 1987 at the age of 53. Diagnosed with AIDS in January of that year, he died in November, surrounded by his friends.