Peter Hujar‘s timeless black and white portraits are also, paradoxically, a true and beautiful view of a specific, vanished time and place, late 70s/early 80s in downtown Manhattan. That way of living, when the currency in the neighborhoods below 14th Street was art, friends, fun, not big bucks, was destroyed by many things, rampant real estate development and the brutality of AIDS topping the list.
A current show, “Lost Downtown,” features two dozen of Hujar’s great photographs. Sitters (often reclining)–friends, lovers and other artists–include David Wojnarowicz, Candy Darling, Susan Sontag, William Burroughs and Paul Thek.
Not widely known before his death (way too young, in 1987) but admired by the cognoscenti, Hujar was less a self-promoter than most. His 1976 book, “Portraits in Life and Death,” with an introduction by Susan Sontag, is a classic, and rare. His reputation and visibility are now more on par with the quality of his work and a retrospective “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life,” debuting at Mapfre, Barcelona in February 2017, will open at the Morgan Library & Museum in January 2018.
“Lost Downtown” is on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery through Saturday, February 27.
I was starting to feel comfortable answering the inevitable “what do you do?” question with “I’m a photographer” when Camille asked me if I’d like to make a portrait of a friend of hers–Peter Hujar–whom she knew was an idol of mine. The prospect was thrilling, and frightening. (I’ve been talking a lot lately with contemporaries and younger photographers about shoots and stage fright and how it never really goes away, not if you’re fully engaged with your work.)
Camille went with me to make the introductions (and because she knew we’d hang out after the shoot). Peter, tall and handsome, welcomed us into his loft, with its high ceilings and long windows. I still remember that the matchbook cover was red, with a picture of JFK, the table cobalt blue and the ashtray mustardy yellow. And I’m sure I’d recall those details–being there that afternoon was so important–even if I hadn’t shot one roll of Ektachrome 200. (EPD wasn’t a beautiful film but that’s not why the images were much less sharp than I find acceptable. I was shooting wide open, hand-holding my Hasselblad and, not yet proficient with strobes, using available light.)