New York

Peter Hujar

Grey Art Gallery

In this recent retrospective of Peter Hujar’s photographs, curator Thomas Sokolowski included not only the well-known self-portraits and portraits—those of Ethyl Eichelberger, Susan Sontag, and David Wojnarowicz, for example—but also images of animals, which resonate with the same particularity and clarity as those of people. Sokolowski suggested the affinities between the two with intelligent sequencing, as in the pairing at the gallery entrance of a 1981 image of a Great Dane with a 1975 self-portrait. The dynamic operating in both photographs is the same; it is always dignified, never contrived, yet not quite candid. These black and white photographs are generally square in format; they are uncluttered, rarely dramatic, and almost classical in style. Often Hujar’s models (many of whom were friends) seemed to divert their eyes away from the camera, suggesting a feeling of poignant alienation. On the other hand, in a 1974 photograph of Candy Darling the subject’s eyes seem sadly lulled, almost transfixed by the camera. Many of Hujar’s nudes gaze directly at the photographer, dispelling any idea of voyeurism. As for the animals, some are anything but camera-shy. Two cows appear quite pleased to pause during their promenade for a portrait, while another seems prepared to march straight ahead and out of the picture. In other photographs, goats, horses, and a goose take on weird likenesses to the photographer with their long, solemn faces.

Fran Lebowitz, in an interview with the curator, observed, “Peter had no distance from his subjects. There’s no irony in his photographs, there’s no contempt, there’s no slumming.” Vince Aletti, also interviewed by Sokolowski, makes a comparison between Hujar and Diane Arbus, who he says “was very drawn to her subjects,” adding, “It’s that kind of real connection to the person that gets under the skin and not just under the surface.” When one considers his entire body of work, which spans from about the late ’50s until 1987 (when he died of AIDS), it becomes evident that Hujar was able to reveal the most subtle, idiosyncratic, and tactile details, even in the more expansive images of towns and landscapes. There is little that is grandiose in these scenes; the emphasis, the character, is found in the everyday.

Beside his portraits, animal images, and landscapes, Hujar might also focus on details—a leg, a gesture, a shoe. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of his overall sensibility is how he was able to create a coherency between disparate subjects while always maintaining their individualism and integrity, and always conveying a kind of isolation. In this way, Hujar created an unadorned, introspective, and often melancholy meditation on contemporary life, and death.

Melissa Harris