Even if you’ve never heard of Peter Hujar, chances are you’ve seen some of his photographs. His work chronicling gay life in New York City during the 1970s yielded such iconic shots as Warhol’s trans ingenue Candy Darling in her death bed, reclining images of bisexual feminist icon Susan Sontag and bi heroin poet William Burroughs, and images of gay men cruising the West Village piers and queers running free in the city streets.
Right now, the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan is displaying 164 of Hujar’s photos, a collection of snapshots and portraits including unexpectedly playful nudes, fabulously busted drag queens, East Village queers in downscale dwellings and friends and lovers lost in thoughtful revery.
According to Joel Smith, the curator behind the exhibition, in 2013, the museum became a repository for all of Hujar’s collection including over 100 of his photographs, his correspondence, tear sheets from publications in which his work appeared, his workbooks, snapshots of himself and those around him and 5,700 “contact sheets” filled with negatives revealing every single photograph he’d ever taken.
His black-and-white photos crackle with nuance and light. He was a technical master inspired by fellow “freak” photographers like Diane Arbus who, although largely unknown at his time, would later go on to inspire other photographers, like transgressive gay “pornographer” Robert Mapplethorpe.
Smith said of Hujar, “He was an artist for whom the portrait defined what art could be. Everything he photographed he wanted to bring across with clarity, empathy and respect for the life behind the mask.”
Here’s a gallery of Peter Hujar’s work:
Jujar worked from the early 1950s until his death of an HIV-related illness at age 53 in 1987. Of his own work, Hujar wrote, “I make direct, uncomplicated photographs of complicated and difficult subjects. I photograph those who push themselves to any extreme and people who cling to the freedom to be themselves.”