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Remembering a mentor, Peter Hujar, at P.S. 1 in Long Island City

Peter Hujar (1934-1987) was a prolific fine art photographer who had an underground reputation in the downtown New York scene. The prints for which Hujar is becoming known today were shot and printed by his own hand from the 1960s through the mid-1980s. Although only one book of Hujar’s photographs was published during his lifetime, the now out of print “Portraits of Life and Death” by Da Capo Press in 1976, his work and sensibility had a powerful influence on younger artists coming up in the 1970s. Notable among them were Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe. After Hujar’s death from complications of AIDS, his reputation began to grow, but exhibitions were rare. Many of the 70 or so prints now on view at P.S. 1 have not been shown before.

Each one measures about 15 inches square. Hujar worked with a medium format camera and printed exclusively in black and white. The medium format camera yields a negative substantially larger than 35mm film, while maintaining all the practical handheld mobility of the smaller apparatus. Both were devised in Europe during the early to mid-20th century and helped define the visual culture of journalism as well as the fine art photography of that era. Both, in their way, were perfect for the studio as for well as roaming the wide world. Hujar may have favored the medium format because its freedom helped him crisscross between environments, of all types, not just of a technical kind.

Like his better-known peer Diane Arbus, Hujar studied photography with the redoubtable Richard Avedon. The square format is distinctly different from 35mm and 4x5. We can confidently say that Hujar chose to work with this format, rather than merely cropping larger rectangular negatives. Drawing on every choice open to still photographers of his era, Hujar integrated technique, style, and philosophy in his work.

Hujar’s photographs have the allure of film noir cinematography. The prints are rich and heavy, darker than normal. A driftwood cross erected on the beach looms under an apocalyptic sky. An orchard full of old fruit trees scratches at the clouds with gnarled branches. Three prints of the Hudson River show its tidal moods changing the surface from mercury to hiccupy to ink that smothers sunlight. Where portraits are concerned, nobody’s smiling. Elaborately costumed or nude, contorted, standing, or supine, Hujar’s sitters were pushed to the limits of exhaustion during extraordinarily long shoots. Dogs, on the other hand, gaze with such concentration that they appear supernaturally energized. Skippy the snake gets his own portrait, then curls around a human for hers. Three aging circus elephants tenderly bunch their heads together and raise a chained foot.

Interiors are among some of Hujar’s most memorable images. Such advanced states of decay are rarely seen except in forensic photography. Hujar revels in their ruins and finds the telling detail—a vinyl LP resting against the back of an armchair singed along the top; a plastic rubber plant splayed across the moldering floor; a well spent high heel far gone; a bare, burned cupboard. These things leave the inhabitants’ final exit a question hanging in the air. He took pictures of the question.

Just two of Hujar’s prints of the Palermo Catacombs hang amidst these extraordinary photographs. This series, shot in 1963, was the main subject of “Portraits of Life and Death,” and set him on course for the years to come. The Palermo Catacombs are completely unlike the Paris Catacombs’ neatly stacked bones and skulls. In Palermo, the deceased retain their individuality. Men and women, dressed for all time, repose in glass coffins placed on shelves, sometimes with the head turned toward the side, to greet future visitors. Meanwhile, friars in hooded robes with heads bowed stand, each tied to his own niche. Capuchin monks in the 16th century discovered a way to embalm the dead, a practice followed by wealthy Sicilians until 1920. Hujar was clearly astounded. Like Dante with a Hasselblad, he brought their stories back to the living.

Hujar’s way of photographing a subject anchors it. Everything is grounded, if not actually ground down, to the raw nub of being. He kept his work close to the chest during his lifetime for reasons that will never be fully known. In the end, the fullness of the work speaks for itself. Echoing the work of such European photographers as Nadar, Atget, and Brassai, he also formed a bridge between MOMA’s approach to photography as a fine art medium and Avedon’s embrace of the social sphere. Hujar was likely aware of this yet unwilling to take on the public role of a cultural pioneer, except as mentor. The politics of beauty were taken up by Goldin; themes of classicism and decadence by Mapplethorpe.

Much has changed since the completion of this reticent artist’s oeuvre in 1985. The exhibition at P.S. 1 is well-timed to introduce Hujar to a diverse audience coming to terms with a new era.

Deborah Garwood, a visual artist and writer based in New York, thanks Jim Fouratt and Stephen Mueller for providing background information on Peter Hujar.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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