By DAVID JAGER October 18, 2023
Tall, dashing, terminally romantic and often down at heel, Peter Hujar represents an archetype of NY queer bohemian artistry at its peak. He is perhaps the greatest visual poet of the New York 70’s-its laureate- whose searching portraits and abject interiors epitomize the tawdry glamour of the era.
This current selection of prints at 125 Newbury consists of thirty works that cover the decades from 1966 to 1985 and is divided into two categories. There are the intimate portraits he took of friends and lovers, largely centered on male beauty and the human form, and the photos he took while cruising the decaying Christopher Street Piers on the far West side. Both offer glimpses into an underground world that was Hujar’s singular domain, and it remains a keyhole into a vanished dimension that has largely gone unrecorded and unsung.
Hujar’s stormy life perpetually threatened to overshadow his legacy- he was famously bristly and ambivalent about fame- but he was also one of the most talented photographers of his generation. Hujar failed to garner much critical acclaim in his lifetime, but his criminally neglected reputation is undergoing a broad restoration, one that should put him on an equal footing, if not above, his contemporaries Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin. As the enfant terrible of the trio- Hujar knew them both well- he appears to be an amalgam of the two, fusing Mapplethorpe’s darkroom virtuosity with Goldin’s gift for photographic intimacy.
Hujar’s photography is a direct extension of his life, one that in its surface details would seem hauntingly familiar to many itinerant artists and writers today. He struggled continuously to make ends meet with various types of commercial and editorial photography work- he despised commissions- but never let that discourage him from an incredibly active life going to openings, theatre, dance, film, dance clubs, the piers and the baths. The damaged working-class product of a single parent household- he never knew his actual father- he grew into a habitue of New York’s underground queer scene, venturing intrepidly into pockets and areas that daunted others. Hujar was an observant loner who was also insider, and this access into the life of his subjects is reflected in their very real generosity towards his camera.
The secret of Hujar’s appeal lies not only in the technical acumen he picked up in his long apprenticeship in different photographers’ studios (he was a master of photographic development to an extent that is often unacknowledged). His impact is intuitive and psychological, and springs from a unique alchemy he elicits in his subjects. Hujar’s subjects are fierce, guarded, achingly vulnerable and tender all at once. Hujar was relentlessly driven to dig beneath the carefully constructed façades of his subjects for something deeper. He saw into his subjects, and they often looked back into him.
The dichotomy of outdoor shots versus studio loft shots can be disorienting at first, but congruencies- echoes- appear once you walk through the show several times. His candid outdoor takes of the Christopher street’s ‘cruising utopia’ show his where his autobiographical frankness meets his formalist eye. “Crossed legs” shows a man in short shorts crossing his legs while sunbathing on the peer. It’s carefree proclamation of sexual truth, but could also be a compositional study worthy of Molholy-Nagy. This continues with his parade of pier denizens, drag queens, hustlers and other inhabitants of the seventies and eighties queer world. Christopher pier #5 shows a young man reclining on the pier ropes with a grin that directly recalls Caravaggio’s “Amor Victorius”. Never has documentation been so cinematic and painterly.
His studio shots have more polish. “Daniel Shook sucking his toe” shows the young man doing just that while looking at the camera with a look of doe-eyed and unabashed frankness. Others are simply studies in male beauty. All of it is beautiful, provocative and captures a world that was fleeting in it’s liberatory flourishing. AIDS was just around the corner, and it would claim Hujar shortly after.
Hujar truly touches upon greatness in his portraiture. His shot of a reclining David Wojnorowicz is an encapsulation of a person as a sum of their contradictions. A cagey hustler when they first met, Wojnorowicz became a lover, confidant, and fellow artist. In the portrait Wojnarowicz brings the sum of these complex threads into his signature piercing glance. There is his physical magnificence to be sure, but also a fierce fragility and a strong sense of the passing of time. Hujar is in fact a master of the photograph as memento mori. WM
David Jager is an arts and culture writer based in New York City. He contributed to Toronto's NOW magazine for over a decade, and continues to write for numerous other publications. He has also worked as a curator. David received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 2021. He also writes screenplays and rock musicals.view all articles from this author