You may not have heard of the American photographer Peter Hujar, because he didn't really care about fame, in the traditional sense. If people were going to talk about him, he said, he'd rather they were whispering. Peter chose to stay behind the lens, but he was a staple of the New York downtown arts scene in the 1970s, moving in the same circles as writers like Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs and Fran Lebowitz, and artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz. In other words, he was part of the Lower East Side's gay illuminati.
Hujar's black and white photographs range from portraits of his famous contemporaries to erotic nudes of gay men he knew, to the strange rural scenes, cityscapes and characters that he encountered while travelling in between. Today, thirty years after his death to an AIDS related illness, over 160 of these images are being published in a new photo book, entitled Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. Perhaps the book marks a renaissance for Peter, an opportunity to once again be whispered about as the ultimate outsider artist, an important queer chronicler of the 70s and 80s, and yet another brilliant talent lost to AIDS.
Philip Gefter, one of New York's foremost photography critics, wrote one of the essays in the collection, and also happened to know Peter personally. Below, he talked us through the artist's prickly persona and enduringly challenging images.
VICE: Hi Philip, so tell us: where did you first meet Peter and what was he like?
Philip Gefter: I met Peter in the late 1970s at a gay party in New York. He was very weird. I was reluctant to talk to him because he seemed very anxious. We had a funny exchange where we were sitting in a bedroom and he picked up the alarm clock next to the bed and he said, "I could take this and no one would ever know who took it." I thought that was odd, but I didn't say anything. A few days later I called the host and he said someone took the alarm clock. I wasn't sure that Peter had actually taken it but I thought of it as a riddle I couldn't solve, and that's how I thought of Peter too. We had any number of encounters over the next three or four years. The last was when I curated a photography show that featured his work and I asked him to come and collect it last minute. He never talked to me again. He was a very difficult guy.
When you first met him did you know who he was? Where was he in his career?
Yes, back then he was a kind of god to me; I was in my early twenties, had studied painting and photography in art school and I was working at [the photography magazine] Aperture. I already knew Peter by reputation – he was a well known photographer in downtown Manhattan. But he was not well known in the broader public like Robert Mapplethorpe, his peer, for example. Their body of work covered the same terrain – they were both pioneers in photographing the male nude. Mapplethorpe had exhibitions, he was written about. Peter eschewed that kind of attention. By 1981 Mapplethorpe was an art world rock star, but Peter had more of a cult status downtown, and some people considered him the truer artist.
"Never before had an erection been presented as a work of art with such clarity, with such observation."
Do you think he eschewed the public acclaim deliberately, or was it indignancy ?
I think both. It wasn't Peter's personality to be political, he would alienate but not intentionally. He alienated me as a curator when I asked him to do something not out of the realm of the ordinary. But he did that consistently with people he might be able to benefit from. And he used to say about Mapplethorpe's work, "well it looks like art" – he had this attitude about the true artist versus the celebrated hack and he was intentionally counterpoint to convention; he didn't like anything that was bourgeois. So he didn't want to cultivate curators, or dealers, or the art world. The art world wasn't even as obnoxious then as it is today, but he obviously thought it was. He didn't make much of a living out of his work at all, and he rarely sold photographs.
The photos themselves are very broad in subject matter – rural landscapes, the downtown scene, male nudes – what you think unites his pictures?
I like to talk about art historically; he photographed his artistic community, many of those people ended up crossing over into mainstream respectability and regard; Fran Lebowitz, Susan Sontag, Alan Ginsberg. He was photographing a time and a place in culture, not unlike Nadar in 19th century France, or Berenice Abbott, who worked with Man Ray in Paris and photographed an entire circle of people. These people were Peter's circle. The portraits he made were not only of people he knew, but they were always personal. You can feel the connection between artist and subject. Robert Mapplethorpe photographed the male nude with a kind of arctic elegance, for example – very formal, arms length, the figure more as an aesthetic object. Peter photographed the male nude in a much more intimate way. At times there's a playfulness, at times a pensive quality. It's as if he walked in on somebody, happened upon them, and the portrait has captured that. It's very pure.
You said Peter took pioneering pictures of male nudes, can you explain more?
The way that he photographed the nude, it was both erotic and not. Let's take his picture of Bruce de Sainte Croix. When Bruce was later interviewed he talked about the idea Peter had to reintroduce the penis into Western art, and like Mapplethorpe, he did actually introduce the male nude into the iconography of 20th Century art. Bruce was a dancer and described that session as a dance, Peter the choreographer. The dance was to have an erection and the erection is formidable; in some it might summon desire, others terror. But Bruce is just looking at his erection with the same kind of contemplation as the viewer studying it. Never before had an erection been presented as a work of art with such clarity, with such observation. There's an erotic component but it's not pornographic.
Around the early 80s in New York a lot of people were dying from AIDS related illness. Peter's photos of Warhol star Candy Darling on her hospital bed remind me of Nan Goldin's photos of her friends in their coffins – attempts to immortalise or preserve people through photography. Do you think that's something Peter was thinking about?
Well he did a book called Portraits in Life and Death, so that alone tells you something about his approach. I don't know quite enough about how he was thinking about it to answer fully but I think looking at his work I could see where he might have said to people, play dead as one of his idiosyncratic ideas. The Candy Darling picture isn't an example of that though. She was on her deathbed and I read an interview with her where she said she was playing the death scene of every diva she could think of in cinema. She was performing.
I will say that the photos David (Wojnarowicz, Peter's long term boyfriend) took of Peter on his deathbed are beautiful amazing pictures so in keeping with Peter that they could almost be self portraits. David was photographing Peter as if that's how Peter would have wanted to have been photographed. The year Peter died, 1987, was a difficult year – a lot of people died that year, the AIDS crisis was in full force, and for a gay man in New York at the time that was the predominant black cloud over their lives, myself included. I'm a miraculous survivor, I should have died a thousand times from my exposure to AIDS and I've had several lovers who've died. It was a promiscuous community and a promiscuous era. Peter was definitely a part of that.
My final question: do you think Peter's legacy fits what he would have wanted it to be?
I think he is finally beginning to be understood as the artist he is and the curatorial world recognises his significance and the market is too – for better or worse. I think that his reputation had suffered in the glare of Robert Mapplethorpe's mythic reputation, but as I said before, I really believe they were contemporaries – not just because they lived 10 blocks apart and photographed similar subject matter. I'll put it in context of Picasso and Braque – each era has duelling artists; in 40s and 50s painting, it was Pollock and De Kooning, or in photography, Avedon and Penn. There's room in the world for both of them and I think over time they will be come to be seen as having their own concerns as artists. This book should help. I think if Peter could get a glimpse of where he is in the scheme of things right now, he would be satisfied because his reputation has arrived on its own terms, and everything had to be on his terms.