New York

Peter Hujar, Boy on Raft, 1978, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11". © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC.

Peter Hujar, Boy on Raft, 1978, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11". © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC.

Peter Hujar

Peter Hujar, Boy on Raft, 1978, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11". © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC.

In one of the most enduring passages from Teju Cole’s 2011 novel Open City, the protagonist, a young man named Julius who has recently arrived in New York from Nigeria to complete a psychiatry fellowship, takes a series of ever-longer walks around the island of Manhattan. His observations are cool and detached until he hits upon a singular and exasperating fact: This is a place surrounded by water that has totally turned its back on the flow of its rivers and the ocean beyond them. “The shore was a carapace,” thinks Julius, “permeable only at certain selected points. Where in this riverine city could one fully sense a riverbank? Everything was built up, in concrete and stone, and the millions who lived on the tiny interior had scant sense about what flowed around them. The water was a kind of embarrassing secret, the unloved daughter, neglected, while the parks were doted on, fussed over, overused.”

Perhaps it was the misfortune of the fictional Julius to have lived uptown and, more pointedly, to have come into being some twenty-five years after the death of Peter Hujar. Some of the most striking images in the first major retrospective to cover the breadth and depth of Hujar’s photography, a should-be, could-be blockbuster of a touring show called “Speed of Life,” were his pictures of water, including waves, surfs, and several variations on the rippling surface of the Hudson River. His monumental Boy on Raft, 1978—an iconic image of melancholy perseverance if ever there was one, shows a small, almost adolescent figure, bereft at sea, shot from above, clinging to what looks like a discarded chunk of Styrofoam. Imagine, for a minute, if Julius—who was, after all, conjured in the imagination of a prolific critic and a photographer himself—had come across Hujar’s work or, better yet, had made his acquaintance as another character in another novel. What might a fictional Hujar have shown Julius of his New York, his downtown demimonde, his secret shoreline and riverine world?

For years, Hujar has been known for the people he photographed, for the world of artists, writers, performers, and misfits he captured right at the last moment before that world was torn asunder and devastated by the AIDS crisis. He took the portraits that everyone seems to know of David Wojnarowicz glowering with a cigarette between two fingers, of Susan Sontag daydreaming with her arms behind her head, and of Candy Darling projecting smoldering beauty on her deathbed. Although it is relatively small, including just 140 photographs and supported by a judiciously minimal display of archival ephemera, “Speed of Life” makes a fascinating and compelling argument for Hujar’s place in the history of photography, not only for the celebrity of his subjects but for his own aesthetic sensibility. “The signature move in his art,” writes the exhibition’s curator, Joel Smith, in the accompanying catalogue, “is to lavish a portraitist’s attention upon a subject that defies it.”

As is palpably clear from the exhibition’s pièce de résistance—a meticulous arrangement of seventy photographs in closely hung vertical pairs, which replicates Hujar’s own placement of the same images for his last solo show at Gracie Mansion in New York, in 1986, before he died, such that no one type of image sat next to another of the same kind—Hujar’s subjects included not only people but also plants (Grass, Port Jefferson, NY, 1984); animals (Goose, Germantown, New York, 1984, and Cat, 1969); architecture (Rockefeller Center [2], 1976); rugs; ruins (Garden Chair, Newark and High Heels in Ruins, Newark, both 1985); catacombs; cars (Brooklyn Hot Rod, 1976); the severed head of a cow, a volcano (Stromboli, 1963); and both loved and unloved bodies of water (Hudson River, 1975). Somehow he captured a mix of brutality and vulnerability in all of them. The subject of his Dog, Westtown, New York, 1978, appears as regal and wounded as that of William S. Burroughs (1), 1975, showing the writer stretched out on a checked-wool blanket, head resting in his hand. That was also Hujar’s signature move, to ask his subjects to lie down, get comfortable—not unlike an analyst’s instructions to an analysand. He and Julius would have had a lot to talk about.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie