Peter Hujar (1934-87) worked in photography's classic genres: the nude and the portrait. His portraits evoke the same spirit and starkness as August Sander and Diane Arbus before him: clear, austere, and penetrating. He worked predominantly in black and white and with a medium format camera, and for most of his portraits he preferred the controlled environment of his studio or other indoor spaces, quietly working one-on-one with his sitter. Hujar was driven to capture the essence of his subject, finding the vulnerability shared between the photographer and the sitter, and a simultaneous acceptance of it.
Hujar's early work as a fashion photographer furnished a deft skill in working with models and an intuitive understanding of the power of the pose, resulting in perfectly composed pictures. He chose sitters who were uninhibited in front of the camera, ranging from casual acquaintances to close friends and intimate lovers. Together they describe the personalities and charisma of the downtown scene of the late 70s and early 80s, a coterie of artists, performers, drag queens, misfits, writers and musicians. Lost Downtown is a playbill of the characters that inhabited the same few blocks of the Lower East Side as Hujar. Portraits in the exhibition include David Wojnarowicz, Paul Thek, John Waters, Edwin Denby, Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, and William Burroughs. As Stephen Koch writes, "It's a vanished world, and Peter Hujar was right there in it. The Lower East Side between 1972 and 1985 – filled with artists, wannabe artists and hangers-on – was a community of the misbegotten gathered from every town in America and relocated in the mean streets between Broadway and the Bowery. That Downtown is forever gone. Time, gentrification, disease and death took their toll. But before it vanished, its extravagant cast sat for Peter Hujar's camera – and is now alive again in front of our eyes."
To mark the occasion of the exhibition, Steidl is publishing Lost Downtown, with contributions by Vince Aletti and Stephen Koch, Director of the Peter Hujar Archive.
Image: John Waters (I), 1975. Vintage gelatin silver print. 20 x 16 in; 50.8 x 40.6 cm, ©The Peter Hujar Archive, LLC.
Peter Hujar (1934 – 1987) was born in New Jersey and moved to Manhattan as a teenager. He studied at the High School of Art and Design, and shortly thereafter worked as a photographer's assistant. Throughout the 1960s he served as an apprentice for a number of commercial photographers and did a large amount of fashion work for Harpers Bazaar. A single monograph, the arresting "Portraits in Life and Death" with an introduction by Susan Sontag, was the only book of his work published during his lifetime. Hujar died of AIDS at the age of 53.
Hujar's photographs are included in numerous public collections, including the Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. The retrospective "Peter Hujar: Speed of Life," opens in February 2017 at Mapfre, Barcelona and in January 2018 at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York.