Peter Hujar: Speed of Life at The Morgan Library & Museum
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Peter Hujar (1934-1987)

Peter Hujar was a photographer whose work is synonymous with Downtown New York City. His images are steeped in the smoky black and white ambiance of a city in decline filled with inhabitants who hid behind masks of makeup and costume jewelry. Each print simultaneously represents a specific personal history, one that is ephemerally eventful and routinely banal, interspliced with momentous nights of primal pleasures and multitudinous mornings meditating on paths untrodden.

Hujar captured what many of his contemporaries were surrounded by but sought to skewer. Not many photographers dared to capture New York City in the 1970s and 1980s completely unfiltered or as gritty as Hujar deemed worthy. From the elderly to the newly born, from drag performers to businessmen, no idiosyncratic individual was spared as an intriguing subject. Recognizable faces abound in Hujar’s work, from Susan Sontag to Fran Lebowitz, including a widely circulated photograph of Candy Darling, a transgender Warholian superstar, on her deathbed dramatically striking a pose with elongated arms and a melodramatic gaze. Hujar’s nature stills exude metaphysical undercurrents and animalistic movements, with dogs as a particular favorite.

Hujar wrote, “I make uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects. I photograph those who push themselves to any extreme and people who claim to the freedom to be themselves.” Indeed, many of his subjects possess admirable courage. In decades shrouded in layers of decadence, Hujar captures the vulnerable moments human beings are unable to permanently evade (contemplative moments of silence, succumbing to one’s sexual desires, attempting to orient oneself in unfamiliar terrains) and the precious moments of an ageless innocence that ignites a passion towards life.

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Boy on Raft (1978)
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Dog, Westtown, New York (1978)
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John McClellan (1981)
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Christopher Street Pier (2) (1976)
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Candy Darling (1974)
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Canal Street Piers: Face and Writing on Wall (1983)
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Daniel Schock Sucking Toe (Close-Up) (1981)
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Fran Lebowitz (1974)

Passing away in 1987 at age 53, Hujar neither created a “master narrative” with his work as Garry Winogrand or Robert Frank were able to, nor an oeuvre as shockingly indelible as Robert Mapplethorpe. The current exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum (on view until May 20, 2018) is a comprehensive and fulfilling retrospective of a distinctly New York photographer, largely mentioned in the footnotes among more renowned artists. Each photograph will send a jolt of recognition through each patron, who will notice the familiar features of many New Yorkers observed and confronted in everyday life, or, more revealingly, the parallels in sentiments shared holistically between Hujar, the subject, and oneself.

For more information on the Peter Hujar exhibit, visit The Morgan Library & Museum

–Salvatore Casto

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