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Hujar, Peter (1934-1987)  
 
page: 1  2  

Most of Hujar's art was not, however, overtly political. Indeed, much of it was intensely personal; many of his subjects were also his lovers. In a contribution to the Retrospective, Robert Levithan writes that "Peter was as complex and straightforward as his photographs. The boundaries between life and work were virtually nonexistent. . . . the act of picture taking was always intimate, tender—often erotic or overtly sexual. . . . When taking pictures he was both a wise old man and an innocent child playing."

In the same volume, Dieter Hall comments on the complexities and dichotomies in Hujar's work, saying, "Attraction and detachment, formal rigor and relaxed embrace of the moment. Pride and love, utterly unabashed sexuality and contemplative withdrawal, sustained mystery in unbroken directness, discipline and ironic undertones. No matter what he photographed, Peter retained, or perhaps one should say, heightened its absolute singularity. Every person, every animal, every single thing is unique, proud, alone."

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Another contributor, Jean-Christophe Ammann, observes that Hujar found a "moment of dignity" in his photographs. It was true for the mummies, for the rich and famous, for his lovers, for residents of psychiatric hospitals, for pets, and for farm animals.

Among Hujar's best-known photographs is "Candy Darling on her Deathbed" (1974). The twenty-eight-year-old drag artist who was about to succumb to bone cancer appears at the center of the image, glamorously made up, seductively posing, and surrounded by flowers. It is only as one studies the arresting portrait that one notices the presence of the inescapable accoutrements of a hospital room—the typical functional but unattractive wall-mounted light fixture, the corner of the mobile table on which patients are served their meals, the plastic identification band on her arm.

Kozloff writes of this photograph, "In the psychological delicacy with which he recognized the dying Candy Darling's seductive charade, Hujar took leave of all his photographic mentors, outside as well as inside the studio. Like much of his work, it is a heart-breaking picture, suffused with a moral beauty that goes beyond its already exquisite physical beauty."

Hujar continued taking photographs until he was on his own deathbed. When he lay dying of AIDS, artist David Wojnarowicz, his companion during his last years, brought him a camera so that the bed-ridden Hujar could take pictures of him. "The dying man tries to capture life literally through the lens of a camera," notes Lori B. Harrison of this image. "The irony is that the man in the photograph, who appears so alive externally, will also die of an AIDS-related illness. The sense of 'you are next' that Hujar and Wojnarowicz try to convey is operative in much AIDS art."

Hujar, who had been diagnosed with AIDS in January 1987, died later that year, on Thanksgiving Day, November 26.

Hujar was widely admired by other photographers as well as friends and lovers, many of them connected in one way or another to the world of the arts.

Although he inspired affection and loyalty in his acquaintances, many were aware of the enigma of his being able to move through and participate in various communities while still always remaining an "other," a man in some essential way isolated.

Stephen Koch, for example, remarks that "The unsayable truth—I dislike saying it now—is that his isolation, cruelly though it hurt him, was part of his strength. It was part of his art. It may have been essential to his art."

Hujar's difficult personality undoubtedly affected his career. As Koch observes, "There were some curators and dealers who had grasped his place in American photography: Not many. A few foresighted collectors had stood by him: Not many. (This was not, by the way, exclusively the fault of the dealers and collectors. Hujar was an angry and difficult man. He could suddenly lash out at perfectly well intentioned people, and 'inexplicably' reject them. Collecting or showing him required not merely foresight. It also took nerves of steel.)"

For all the complexities of his personality, however, Hujar managed to endear himself to many. In a piece in the Retrospective, photographer Nan Goldin recalls, "The thing that was most amazing at Peter's funeral was how many people came who thought they were Peter's best friend. And many of us had never met each other. He lived in different worlds, he touched many people, and his work, like so few photographs, can't be forgotten and becomes even deeper and more compelling over time. Peter's work is not just photography—it's about birth and death and the stages of life and variety of identity and all the friends in between."

Linda Rapp

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    Bibliography
   

Camhi, Leslie. "The Lovely Bones." Village Voice 47.47 (November 20, 2002): 59.

Dansky, Steven F. "The Look of Gay Liberation." The Advocate 16.2 (March-April 2009): 27-31.

Harrison, Lori B. "Bodies Are Burning: AIDS-Related Art, Gender Bending, and the Postmodern Condition." The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 2.4 (October 31, 1995): 13.

Kertess, Klaus. Peter Hujar: Animals and Nudes. Santa Fe, N.M.: Twin Palms, 2002.

Koch, Stephen. "Peter Hujar and His Secret Fame." Peter Hujar. Stephen Koch and Thomas Sokolowski, eds. New York: Grey Art Gallery & Study Center, 1990. 15-18.

Stahel, Urs, and Hripsimé Visser, eds. Peter Hujar: A Retrospective. Zurich, Berlin, and New York: Scalo, 1994.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Rapp, Linda  
    Entry Title: Hujar, Peter  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2009  
    Date Last Updated November 13, 2009  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/hujar_peter.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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Chicago, IL   60607
 
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2009 glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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