PRINT October 1990


Surprised by his pictures of animals, you can almost gather how Peter Hujar, a curiously neglected but also legendary photographer, who died in 1987, would portray people, and that he would have a memorable feeling for them. His dogs, horses, goats are individuated and affecting characters. They have sniffed in his presence. Some of them pause while others seem almost to display themselves. John Berger has written, “No animal confirms man, either positively or negatively. . . . But always its lack of common language, its silence, guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man . . . .Just because of this distinctness. . . an animal’s life. . .can be seen to run parallel to his. Only in death do the two parallel lines converge. . . . With their parallel lives, animals offer . . .a companionship . . . to the loneliness of man as a species.”1 Hujar appears to have grasped this without thinking about it. And as if that weren’t remarkable enough, his animals come on to us like people.

I don’t mean that he anthropomorphizes them or somehow endows them with our traits. Nor are they depicted as prize specimens of their class. The photography of pet books or stock shows satisfies that unctuous taste. Rather, Hujar accords animals the same kind of attention he lavishes on people, letting import take its course after that. It seems that each kind of being can claim from him an equally intense regard, that they compare in their knowability—that is, they’re both mysterious—and that he can identify with each, indiscriminately, as organisms. This approach is all the more marked when it’s a case of an animal we don’t empathize with very much. . . a goose.

The “parallel life” that interested Berger can be ascribed not only to animals but similarly to the human subjects of photographs, since they are speechless, too, behind their paper divide. Compensating for this, Hujar appreciates creaturely muteness as being vibrant in its own right. Of course the vibrancy inheres finally in the images alone, which have already survived many of their subjects, and that now survive their author.

It’s tempting to speak of the impulse behind Hujar’s project as animist, that is, as catching the whisper of some extra gift of life and sentience in the inanimate—in this instance, the pictorial object. If so, he fulfills that impulse not by vivacious narrative so much as by a reflection on the carnal. As they show themselves for us, his nudes of both sexes also give themselves over to this introspective activity. The men sometimes express it by fondling their cocks, as if to distill the self-regard of posing into its primal gesture. They have come to know themselves in the biblical sense, and their knowledge of the erotic use of their bodies is offered to us as a natural form of seduction. At the same time, the photograph insists on the full person, in the manner of a portrait—and a formal one at that.

A naked man, seated on a chair, puts his foot (his big toe) in his mouth—not your usual pose. It has some of the same quality of unconcerned oddness as Hujar’s cow chewing on barbed wire. This sitter has composed himself in a Rodin-like attitude at once infantile, mute, contorted, and narcissistic, and because none of these are resolved, it is enigmatic as well. Has he somehow been stunted as an adult human being, or is he having the next best thing to oral sex with himself?

“He went into the woods with a light and he took pictures of animals” . . . . Among the moving portraits of Hujar’s show last winter at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University, some landscapes reveal a pastoral vision. With their dappled sunshine or earthiness, they contrast with the artifice of the lighting in his bare-walled studio, the urban site of many figure studies that one thinks, for some reason, were taken at night. But if these modes are distinct, Hujar has nevertheless introduced an openness to phenomenal states, characteristic of the pastoral, into his renderings of his city subjects. We can say of the majority of them that they’re seen au naturel, even when clothed. On a warm evening, a man relaxes against a tree, a neutral enough act, but within the context of Hujar’s overall work, one suggestive of male cruising. Both subject and photographer are on the lookout for their necessary kinds of action, outside and within the viewfinder. Hujar’s people are endowed with a quality of being at large, they’re approachable, and they look unspent. Meeting Dean Savard’s smile at a heavy-drinking party, one knows what this would have meant in close quarters. Restless in their effect, the objects in the scene fail to compete with the steady flirt of the young man’s eyes. His acute come-on is, in its way, as magnificent as that of Brassai’s famous hooker at the billiard table. I am reminded of Albert Camus’ remark, too, that “charm is a way of getting the answer yes without asking a clear question.” That opens us to an understanding of the “tough” charm of Hujar’s photographs. They are poised by an awareness that conceives social reflex—even elaborate artifice—as a natural phenomenon.

This can mean at least two things: that the exhibitionistic gestures of the gay culture—his scene—were obvious givens to the photographer, and that he came to feel at home in his own pictorial style. But how short a fall to leave it at that without noticing something else, which would bring us closer to the actual grasp of his work. For he depicted a world that was natural above all because it was mortal. A consciousness of the moment is necessary to frame any camera image, but the consciousness of a life is what often suffuses Hujar’s particular kind of image. He was there to photograph quite unhesitatingly in the hospital room when the life of one of his subjects, Candy Darling, neared its end, and her most beautiful denial of that fact he touchingly encouraged for what it was. Here was something more poignant than a temporary remission, for in collaborating with each other, both subject and photographer affirmed that a cosmetic surface can have an undeniable depth. The eerie bloom of the face in this portrait has nothing to do with ravaging nature, yet stems from the profoundest instinct.

Hujar’s outlook is certainly attuned to the extravagance of some subjects who emphasize masquerade and makeup. Their forte is the mimicry of cross-gender behavior, as provocation to the public, and as ritual for themselves. The circus and Halloween in Greenwich Village make their appearance in his work. Transvestites strut about, and actors are sometimes seen costumed, but in off moments. Still, the vaudeville of all these people did not interest Hujar just as display. Rather, he alerted himself to the more active signals for which such theater prepared. Then, as he put his pictorial “make” upon them, another mood would come over his gays, for the camera has a power of isolating consciousness from its surroundings. You can see it slightly in the few street scenes, or street portraits, and more definitely in the set pieces with the face in the studio. Stephen Koch, a close friend of the photographer and now executor of his estate, has written about them as having a terrible solitude. Certainly Hujar must have foreseen that state and used his charm to guide people into themselves (just as he had gotten animals to stay still).

The large number of Hujar’s reclining portraits was well worth notice by writers on his work. His studies of the mummies in the Palermo catacombs are involuntarily stiffened in this pose, but to many of the photographer’s living models it seems to have been congenial. It relaxed them, with their weight easily responding to gravity. It also let him come in close, and affords us the subtly unfamiliar pleasure of seeing the face more or less horizontally. Further, the pose establishes an intimacy with the viewer that seems vaguely privileged and conversationally offhand, even though the image is composed very surely. Divine, that fat, lewd man, looks down toward the lower left corner of the square, toward which his great belly sags. But more important, this is a ghostly Divine, all in white denim, whose maleness can’t quite be placed. Sometimes the recumbent sitter, while merely at ease, also seems voluptuous, lost, and implicitly vulnerable before the camera.

Was Hujar more interested in the everyday guise of his sitters or in their personas, their masks? I said before that he tended to see people au naturel, specifically within the resonance of their courtship practices, and clearly as one who was engaged in these practices as well. In fact he used the camera as a traditional form of seduction that was also highly adapted to the society in which he circulated. For all his insider status, however, he was detached from the rococo culture of his group by his spare, almost classicist photographic style and his existential vision. Though his work was keenly prized by colleagues, it was also professionally marginalized because of this unlikely mix of qualities that didn’t fit any category. Of course this also made him distinctive. He took the known features of a camp sensibility, its delight in “bad” taste, its penchant for an illusion that is not perfect, its indifference to conventional morality that acts as a protest within the self-righteousness of the host culture—he took all of these in their deliberate lightness, enjoying them for their own sake, and he darkened them. This characteristic effect he achieved through a stripping process that was not unkind. So often he closes with an individual who would want to be known in a certain guise but who is mysteriously persuaded of a hidden, deeper and more sorrowful personal core. This is fatal to the celebrity he or she has enjoyed in a small cult world, and even in a larger zone such as Peggy Lee’s or Jerome Robbins’. Whatever their off-frame theatrical personae, people now seem more menschlike without it, that is, in their new pictorial role. But rather than emphasizing the mundane over the idealized aspects of the sitters, as if to plug his realism, Hujar sought an introspective element, still dependent upon them but less familiar because it was a product he himself invented. In the end, visualizing that product, he either disregarded or saw through worldly style.

In the beginning, though, Hujar was heavily disadvantaged by success as a ’60s and ’70s fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. To bring off acceptance there, he had developed a tricky studio lighting that could be overstudied, and that he never purged. Worse than that, a manikin is “there” for a fashion photographer so as to sell clothes, whereas Hujar needed a person to be there, so that he could foster an act of revelation. Nevertheless, fashion might have sensitized him to style as personal display, whose fragility he could evoke. How different he was in his moral purpose, and his subsequent downward mobility, from Robert Mapplethorpe, who also maintained open lines between fashion, celebrity, frank eroticism, and portraiture.

In the light of the controversy Mapplethorpe has posthumously stirred up over an NEA grant for his retrospective, it is ironic that his work should epitomize so much of the ruling-class antiliberalism of the Reagan years. There was no secret in his identification with the ultrarich and no subtlety in his worship of overly developed musculature, historically a staple in the visual propaganda of the repressive state. Yet the scandal of his work did not lie in its engagement with taboo, rough-trade subject matter—socially provocative as that is—nor in its flirtation with authoritarian power values. Rather it lay in the shallowness of its artistic form, designy, iconic, and flat. Appropriate as it may have been for its hard-edged content, Mapplethorpe’s form could never extend itself to the human subjecthood of its figures. He treats them decoratively, that is, as no more than fleshy embodiments of that same studied bloom that he repeated in his flower pictures. In fact, his hyperestheticized manner, reflecting only upon itself in just-so arrangements, is more loyal to its own process than to the sexual content of his pictures. As for his subjects, they remain perfected and therefore frozen objects in an erotic fantasy that merely titillates. This list of drawbacks could be continued, but why go on? The position of Mapplethorpe and Hujar in American photography is the reverse of what it should be.

When he rejected the material rewards of fashion, condemning himself to poverty, Hujar did not automatically come into his own. For practically from the start, he had been sensitive to the deprivation of “parallel lives,” already evident in a harrowing 1963 study of retarded children in an Italian asylum. What makes it harrowing is the freshness with which their space communicates with “ours.” He does not minimize their deficit, nor does he sensationalize it. This photographer, whose one published book, from 1976, is called Portraits in Life and Death (with a text by Susan Sontag), was drawn to illness and repeatedly visited mental institutions and hospitals to take pictures of people and friends who languished there. At first I tended to think of this motive in his work as morbid, but now I see it as the psychological crux of an art in which we are all perceived, in or out of the sickroom, as unprotected from our fate. That motive gives the spark of life to his portraiture, and a shock of recognition to us. At the same time, he was interested in many possibilities of our condition besides the desire and pain to which he so often returned. During the last several years, too many years, photographers have documented the lives of those stricken with AIDS, sometimes eloquently. Hujar does not seem to have consciously engaged with that illness as subject, and would not have considered his subjects to have been defined by affliction. But he was on insider terms with it. His connection with the theme was too viscerally yet imaginatively involved to be documentary, so much so that, as it was incandesced by his art, they shall have no choice in the future but to speak of him as the poet of the age.

Max Kozloff’s next book is a monograph on Duane Michals to be published soon by Twelvetrees Press, Pasadena. He received the 1989 Infinity Award for excellence in photographic writing, presented by the International Center of Photography, New York.



1. John Berger, About Looking, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980, pp. 3–4.