Nan Goldin, Gary Indiana, Dev Hynes, and more, reflect on ten of the photographer's singular portraits—some never before published until now
Imagining Manhattan in the ’70s is a noisy trial. Din of increased traffic, disturbances native to thin-walled hotels, the high-unemployment tides of street life prevail in memoria. There seem to have been many anarchic bombings, and late-breaking sirens. There seems to have been non-stop music: The extended yelp of punk. Infernal disco. Glittering rock, electric guitars blasting like hairspray. Jazz playing with itself in full, unsoundproofed lofts. From South Bronx, an archipelagic new sound, cut up and scratched, called hip-hop. The era was itself like a record scratch, interrupting the city’s monied flow and changing its tune. Unrepeatable, the brief time echoes.
Then to see a Peter Hujar image is to experience a rest. His record of the time was eventless, made in the intervals. Black-and-white photographs, minimally composed along serene, unflappable lines, echo what Berenice Abbott did for Paris in the ’20s and also for New York in the ’30s. Light seems not to change. Angles fall with sensuous precision. Quietude becomes natural. His city is not a town but a grander interior, the towers and bridges and caves beneath the piers seen as empty.
Hujar settled, by age forty, into a semi-legal loft on Second Avenue, where he became known as an East Village Richard Avedon. He was poorer than Mozart and minded less, refusing commissions and shunning institutional fame. For a classicist, he was unusually relaxed. A devotion to bliss and play didn’t make him unserious. His beatific attitude harbingered death and iconicity, years before the plague made saints of half the people he knew.
Famously, he photographed friends, lovers, and neighbors downtown, either in his loft or on house calls. Susan Sontag. Fran Lebowitz. Paul Thek. Boys named Manny and Bruce. They appear alone yet in good company, as well as in good hands. They yearn and contemplate. Supine on the floor or sprawled on a bentwood chair, they do not look up at a deity, but into silence, comfortably. Hujar, no egotist, demonstrates a strong bedside manner and a respect so sincere it looks like flattery. Only in his self-portraits do we see sometimes an awkward shadow, as if he were shy of his looks or uncomfortable being held in the glare.
Now, it’s time to take a long look. Hujar figured, correctly, that fanfare would come in retrospect—when he could stand it. Thirty years ago, he died. This past Friday, a holistic new exhibit of his work, Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, opened at The Morgan Library in New York City. Some of the one hundred and forty photographs in the show have never before been shown. Here, eleven of Hujar’s admirers—contemporaries, knowing fans, the unacquainted—reflect on their best-loved photos.
Gary Indiana on Gary Indiana Veiled (above)
Peter lived around the corner from me. We knew each other. I knew his work very well. He had photographed me before. It was a completely natural thing, this portrait. He was revisiting pictures he’d made earlier, of people lying on their backs. We did one photo like that in my apartment. Then Peter noticed an Indian shawl I’d found somewhere in the trash. Peter had me stretch it around my head. He probably adjusted it here and there. I try to empty my mind when someone photographs me. I wasn’t thinking of anything.
I didn’t see the photo for some time afterwards. I didn’t picture what it would look like but I imagined it would be somewhat deathly, like a corpse in a shroud. It isn’t, really. I think I look like Ali Nazimova in it. Peter made images with real depth of meaning that also had an immediate impact. He worked very, very consciously. You can’t mistake any of his photographs for anyone else’s. He had his own planet.
Gary Indiana is a novelist, journalist, and critic in New York City. His novels Gone Tomorrow and Horse Crazy are being reissued by Seven Stories Press in 2018.
Nan Goldin on Greer Lankton in a Fashion Pose (I)
I met Peter in 1982 at Cookie [Mueller’s] house, where everyone met everyone. Like everyone else, I was in love with him. He was so calming, and he always made you feel good. He was known as the human Valium. He was so beautiful and had an underlying seriousness. He could also be very funny and light, even when he was dying. At his funeral, we realized we all thought we were his best friend.
Peter didn’t photograph anyone or anything he didn’t have deep feelings for. He had such integrity. When he got a new camera, he had to find out whether it was speaking for him, and if not he would return it. That was something I learned from him. The depth in Peter’s photographs is astounding. They are as calm as he was but so intense. He had a special relationship with light. Many people have tried to imitate it and failed. In his portraits, he doesn’t exert the gaze, which is the norm of most photography. He met people where they lived. He is the greatest portraitist of the twentieth century.
One of my biggest regrets in life is that Peter asked me to sit for a portrait but it never happened. We thought we had unlimited time. But there is a photograph he took of me. It’s invisible. It exists between us.
His favourite photographs ever taken, or so he told me, were the black and white pictures I took in the ’70s of the drag Queens. My favourite photographs ever taken are the ones of his hanging in my house. I live with Greer, David Wojnarowicz, bodies in the catacombs, a horse, an abandoned house, and the boy with his hand on his enormous hard-on looking at himself.
I met Greer in Chicago in the ‘70s. I don’t know what I was doing there—tripping, I guess. Greer was very fragile then. I met her again in the early ’80s in New York after her sex change. She had an innocence about her. She starved herself to perfect thinness. She wore a babydoll dress and looked so young, such a pretty girl. When Greer and I lived together on the Bowery in the early ‘80s, she worked twenty-four hours a day making her dolls: contortionists, anorexics, a family of freaks. She was an artist every minute of the day. She couldn’t work unless someone else was there.
Greer was really nervous the day she went to Peter’s studio. And when she came home, she was exhilarated. My favorite of those photos is the one of her on her back, with her arms above her head, looking so graceful like the teenage ballerina she had been. Totally open and vulnerable. She is staring at the sky like she’s had a vision, but looking inside herself at the same time. I have that portrait hanging over my bed, like a divine presence.
Nan Goldin is a photographer in New York. Some of her new work, chronicling her addiction to opioids and her survival, appears in the January 2018 issue of Artforum.
Vince Aletti on Reggie Walker
Reggie Walker and I met through a group of friends from Chicago who all lived in the same building on East 6th Street, near Avenue A. We used to go dancing at the Loft on Saturday nights and hang out sometimes during the week. When Reggie had to move out of that building, I told him he could stay in my guest room until he found a place. He never did find a place. Six years later, he got very sick here and died within a week. He never told me he had AIDS. We hadn’t really been friends for a long time by then. He used to stay in his room with the door closed; at times we barely spoke. I was angry that he never got it together to move on, angry that I could never bring myself to throw him out.
I didn’t remember that Peter had taken Reggie’s picture, and seeing it reminds me why I invited him to stay with me in the first place. It’s dated 1976, the same year Peter photographed me and the same year I moved into a big apartment across the street from him. Reggie was funny, quick, and intense and had great style. I don’t remember that pistol pendant he’s wearing; it seems so unlike him. But he always wore a cap. I was shocked when one day I saw him without it—he was really too young to be bald—and I don’t think it ever happened again. Peter catches him looking inward, and that thoughtful, distracted expression is one I recognize. In all the years I was angry at Reggie, I realize I stopped really looking at him. I stopped seeing him like this.
When he died, he left behind a dog that had grown up in my apartment—a big pit bull that I could no more put out than I could put out Reggie, and that Peter photographed in 1981. Bouche, whose portrait is included the Morgan’s book and exhibition too, looked intimidating. People would cross to the other side of the street when I walked him. But he was a sweetheart, and I saw his easy-going nature as a reflection of Reggie’s good side. He’d poured so much love into that dog he didn’t have much left for himself. Seeing Reggie again through Peter’s eyes makes me realize it’s so much more complicated than that.
Vince Aletti is a photography critic and curator. He wrote the text for the 2016 monograph Peter Hujar: Lost Downtown.
Devonté Hynes on Sheryl Sutton
I never did see Sheryl Sutton dance, but from my studies I have always pictured her style to be poised, poignant, in control, her movements powerful and intimate. My knowledge of her first came from another photo—a still from Robert Wilson’s “Deafman Glance”—which was the background of an old computer of mine. I’ve always felt that it’s hard to truly capture a dancer in photographs, but only because it’s actually very easy to take a photo of a dancer—if you get what I mean.
I stare at this photo, taken by Peter Hujar in his studio, and wonder so many things. What was she doing before the photo taken? Where she is swinging her left leg to next, and is there an arm movement coming? I have no idea what is coming. But I know that I would like to follow.
Devonté Hynes is a composer and producer whose fourth album under the moniker Blood Orange is expected later this year.
John Edmonds on Susan Sontag
Hujar’s photograph of Susan Sontag is so deeply imprinted in my mind that I can’t remember where I first saw it. I do, however, remember the first time I saw the portrait in a book of Hujar’s work. The book, entitled Portraits in Life and Death, with a foreword written by Sontag herself, contains precisely what it says in the title: Portraits of living men and women, mostly in their bedrooms and other domestic spaces, along with photographs of decaying and rotting corpses. Through its juxtaposition of images that exude both vitality and mortality, the book aspires to be a memento mori, an object to “Remember you must die.”
There is something else at work in this image of the contentious writer and critic. Taken in 1975, the picture depicts Sontag in a moment of sensuous recline, her expression sly and handsome. Here she is before us, immortalized as thoughtful, cunning, serious and cool—one of the greatest “photography thinkers.”
Unlike Hujar’s photographs of male companions, which tend to be more concerned with the figurative and the erotics of staring, this portrait of Sontag—a good friend of his—offers a slightly different view with the same formalism. We’re gifted a glimpse into her mind. Her intensity and dreaminess linger in a completely silent frame.
John Edmonds is an artist working in photography. His first monograph will be published by Capricious in 2018.
Sam McKinniss on Candy Darling on Her Deathbed
The last time I saw Peter Hujar’s work was at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea for a show called Three Lives: Peter Hujar, Paul Thek, & David Wojnarowicz in 2011. That was a real stunner. They should have titled it Three Deaths—that’s how sad it was. The pictures in that presentation were extraordinarily vulnerable, beautiful and doomed. The artistic and romantic bonds between the three of them, as made evident through Hujar’s portraits of them, it reaffirmed my belief in other artists. It’s well-known that I’m a total sap, but I do think intimate relationships are good for art.
When the pop star Lorde asked me to make the album art for Melodrama (2017), I showed her Peter’s 1973 photograph of Candy Darling in moribund, flowered repose as a possible point of inspiration, which, incidentally, Antony and the Johnsons used for the cover of their second album, I Am A Bird Now. Lorde loved it. Peter captures Darling’s “come hither” stare, delivered from her hospital bed. I think that’s what the art critic Leo Steinberg would call “the condition of being both deathbound and sexed.”
Sam McKinniss is a painter in New York. An exhibition of his latest work, entitled Daisy Chain, is currently on view at team (bungalow) in Los Angeles.
Durga Chew-Bose on Fran Lebowitz [at home in Morristown]
What’s gained from a lost time, like New York then—the ‘70s—is an unreal, totally conjured sense of nostalgia. We weren’t there, we have no clue, we get it wrong, but we catch a feeling. In photographs, especially.
Like the wear of a couch. A crack on the wall. Bodies, thin and lounging. Young and beautiful. How the light lands on all the right parts, like a bare shoulder, a curled lip. She’s disapproving, first thing.
She’s young, Fran Lebowitz, 24, at home in Morristown, New Jersey. She’s in her sister’s bed, who’s off at college. She’s just awake—barely, it feels—naked under polka dot sheets. She’s staring at the camera, propped on her elbows.
The walls are wallpapered—a pattern of bold orbs, hard to miss and yet: Fran. She’s it.
I first saw this photograph on my friend’s 28th birthday. In Soho, at Leslie+Lohman. We didn’t stay long. We came to see Fran, first thing.
I didn’t think of it then, but I’m thinking of it now, something that Edmund White wrote. He goes, “A friend in New York in fact was defined as someone you never needed to see, who would never get angry at you for ignoring him.”
Durga Chew-Bose is a writer and editor in New York City. Her collection of essays Too Much and Not the Mood was published by FSG Originals in 2017.
David Velasco on Pregnant Nude (Lynn Hodenfield)
Peter Hujar’s Pregnant Nude (Lynn Hodenfield) is the perfect inverse of Candy Darling on her Death Bed. Candy lists to stage right, pale, gilded and adorned in her hospital bed, sick with lymphoma, her hands obscured behind her head. Lynn veers to her left, open, naked, her hands laying against her belly and her crotch. Near-death and near-life matched in two errorless images. Peter took these fascinating people and turned them into tarot cards.
Which makes it shocking to me that I know Lynn Hodenfeld, know what she looks like clothed twenty and forty years later. That she grew up into the mother of that baby, who herself grew into a brilliant woman. Hallie Hodenfeld and I met—unlikely odds—as teenagers and became friends fast. And when I learned of this photo—when Lynn handed me the book that contained it, in 2003 or 2004, I was a new New Yorker and also her tenant, paying $400 a month for an oversized closet in her brownstone, a kid who had no idea who Peter was or who Lynn used to be or how he would ever, ever make a living—I felt the crack of myth meeting life and thought: Everything’s going to be just fine if only even some of us get a shot, through chance and charm, at being such pictures.
David Velasco is the editor-in-chief of Artforum. He recently authored a book on Sarah Michelson for the Museum of Modern Art’s Modern Dance series, which he created.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya on Blanket in the Famous Chair
I have not seen this picture before. But here is the “Famous Chair,” one of probably several famous chairs, with a blanket, any blanket. By photographing a fixture that has been the supporting cast of many stellar portraits, Peter reveals a sense of humor and awareness of his precarious place as an icon of New York photography—both in his time and now, approaching legacy. He pioneered, along with contemporaries like Robert Mapplethorpe, George Dureau, and Rotimi Fani-Kayode, a style of late twentieth-century studio portraiture. Peter inspired photographers from Robert Giard, known for humbly documenting queer writers, to the dramatic celebrity portraitist Gregg Gorman. But what makes Peter’s work stand apart is the fragility and honesty of his portraits. The subjects are never overpowered nor transformed into his own desired objects, but gently and generously given over to the intimate stage he created with that recognizable studio floor, an occasional blanket, and, most often, the “Famous Chair.”
Paul Mpagi Sepuya is a photographer and artist working in Los Angeles and New York. His work has been exhibited at The New Museum, The Studio Museum, and MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Los Angeles, and will be seen next in Being : New Photography 2018 at MoMA.
John Waters on Horse, West Virginia
All of Peter’s animal photos remind me of rough trade porn pictures taken through an artist’s eyes. If animals could masturbate, these beautiful but dangerous, tough pinups might be a real turn on for some of our kinkier barnyard brothers and sisters.
John Waters is a filmmaker, writer, visual artist, stand-up comedian, and art collector.
Stephen Koch on Dead Gull
Around 1985, David Wojnarowicz began accompanying Peter outside of Manhattan to various desolate sites in New Jersey where they were able to wander unnoticed, looking for images of what might be called the ruins of modernity. They explored abandoned housing projects and car wrecks in heaps. I call the great series that emerged from these shoots “Desolation Row.” It includes some of the most powerful images from the final phase of Peter’s life.
One day, as Peter and David were scavenging in the rusty relics of an old railroad yard, David spotted the body of a dead seagull. He picked it up and held it by its dead wings, facing Peter and the camera with a delighted, almost triumphant smile. Peter snapped the moment; it’s in the contacts. Then he propped the bird’s corpse into its pose for this picture.
The finished portrait of death is perhaps a little repellant. Yet reverie suggests something more. This bird, so obviously and horribly dead, seems almost about to rise up and take flight—a hint of life in death.
Why was David so delighted with that dead bird in New Jersey? Peter and David shared an absorption in images of gulls. While Peter was dying, David replicated Durer’s watercolor The Wing of a Roller—a European species of gull—in the upper left corner of his magnificent painting Wind (for Peter Hujar). When they first met, David had noticed that Peter kept a print of the Durer above a mirror in his loft. It was an image Peter loved. He fantasized about having it tattooed onto his arm.
As he was dying, Peter kept the Durer print propped beside his bed. And after Peter died, David designed the large flat slab covering his grave in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery. Nothing is engraved on that black granite except Peter’s name and dates. And a perfect reproduction of the Durer wing.
Stephen Koch is a writer, and the director of the Peter Hujar archive.