Peter Hujar was an American photographer best known for his black and white portraits. He has been recognized posthumously as "one of the major American photographers of the late twentieth century"
and "among the greatest American photographers."
Hujar was born October 11, 1934, in Trenton, New Jersey, to Rose Murphy, a waitress abandoned by her husband during her pregnancy. He was raised by his Ukrainian grandparents on their farm, where he spoke only Ukrainian until he started school. He remained on the farm with his grandparents until his grandmother's death in 1946. He moved to New York City to live with his mother and her second husband. The household was abusive, and in 1950, when Hujar was 16, he left home and began to live independently.
Hujar received his first camera in 1947 and in 1953 entered the School of Industrial Art where he expressed interest in being a photographer. He was fortunate to encounter an encouraging teacher, the poet Daisy Aldan (1923–2001), and following her advice, he became a commercial photography apprentice. Apart from classes in photography during high school, Hujar's photographic education and technical mastery were acquired in commercial photo studios. By 1957, when he was 23 years old, he was making photographs now considered to be of museum quality. Early in 1967, he was one of a select group of young photographers in a master class taught by Richard Avedon
and Marvin Israel, where he met Alexey Brodovitch
and Diane Arbus
In 1958, Hujar accompanied the artist Joseph Raffael on a Fulbright to Italy. In 1963, he secured his own Fulbright and returned to Italy with Paul Thek, where they explored and photographed the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, classic images featured in his 1975 book Portraits in Life and Death
. In 1964, Hujar returned to America and became a chief assistant in the studio of the commercial photographer Harold Krieger. Around this time, he also met Andy Warhol, posed for four of Warhol's three-minute "screen tests,"
and was included in the compilation film The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys
In 1967, Hujar quit his job in commercial photography, and at a great financial sacrifice, began to pursue primarily his own work. What followed was a dramatic expansion of his output. In 1969, with his lover the political activist Jim Fouratt, he witnessed the Stonewall riots in the West Village. In 1973, he moved into a loft above The Eden Theater at 189 2nd Avenue, where he lived for the rest of his life.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, he inhabited the small bohemian art world in downtown New York City and made portraits of people such as drag queen and actor Divine, writers Susan Sontag, William Burroughs, Fran Lebowitz, and Vince Aletti. He visited "extremely serious, very heavy S&M bars"
and the abandoned West Side Hudson River piers where men cruised for sex.
In 1975, Hujar published Portraits in Life and Death
, with an introduction by Sontag. After a tepid reception, the book became a classic in American photography. The rest of the 1970s was a period of prolific work. In early 1981, Hujar met the writer, filmmaker, and artist David Wojnarowicz, and after a brief period as Hujar's lover, Wojnarowicz became a protégé linked to Hujar for the remainder of the photographer's life. Hujar remained instrumental in all phases of Wojnarowicz's emergence as an important young artist.
Hujar's work received only marginal public recognition during his lifetime. In January 1987, Hujar was diagnosed with AIDS. He died 10 months later at the age of 53 on November 25 at Cabrini Medical Center in New York. His funeral was held at Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village and he was buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. Hujar willed his estate to his friend Stephen Koch.
Peter Hujar (born 1934) died of AIDS in 1987, leaving behind a complex and profound body of photographs. Hujar was a leading figure in the group of artists, musicians, writers, and performers at the forefront of the cultural scene in downtown New York in the 1970s and early 80s, and he was enormously admired for his completely uncompromising attitude towards work and life. He was a consummate technician, and his portraits of people, animals, and landscapes, with their exquisite black-and-white tonalities, were extremely influential. Highly emotional yet stripped of excess, Hujar’s photographs are always beautiful, although rarely in a conventional way. His extraordinary first book, Portraits in Life and Death
, with an introduction by Susan Sontag, was published in 1976, but his “difficult”
personality and refusal to pander to the marketplace ensured that it was one of the last publications during his lifetime.
Source: The Peter Hujar Archive
Peter Hujar, who died of aids-related pneumonia in 1987, at the age of fifty-three, was among the greatest of all American photographers and has had, by far, the most confusing reputation. A dazzling retrospective, curated by Joel Smith at the Morgan Library & Museum, of a hundred and sixty-four pictures affirms Hujar’s excellence while, if anything, complicating his history.
The works range across the genres of portraiture, nudes, cityscape, and still-life—the stillest of all from the catacombs of Palermo, Italy, shot in 1963, when he was there with his lover at the time, the artist Paul Thek. The finest are portraits, not only of people. Some memorialize the existence of cows, sheep, and—one of my favorites—an individual goose, with an eagerly confiding mien. The quality of Hujar’s hand-done prints, tending to sumptuous blacks and simmering grays, transfixes. He was a darkroom master, maintaining technical standards for which he got scant credit except among certain cognoscenti. He never hatched a signature look to rival those of more celebrated elders who influenced him, such as Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus, or those of Robert Mapplethorpe
and Nan Goldin
, younger peers who learned from him. His pictures share, in place of a style, an unfailing rigor that can only be experienced, not described.
Hujar needed no introduction to the low. He never met his father, who abandoned his mother, a diner waitress, before his birth, in 1934, in Trenton. She left his raising to her Ukrainian-speaking Polish parents in semirural surroundings in Ewing Township, New Jersey, until, when he was eleven, she took him to live with her and a new husband in a one-room apartment in Manhattan. The home wasn’t happy. Hujar moved out at sixteen, at first sleeping on the couch of a mentoring English teacher at the School of Industrial Arts (now the High School of Art and Design): the fine poet, editor, and translator Daisy Aldan, a free-spirited lesbian who is portrayed in the earliest of his works in the Morgan show, from 1955.
Source: The New Yorker