In his portraits of family, friends, and lovers, American Peter Hujar’s (1934–1987) has spun an authentic, vibrant web of intimate relations. A major exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris celebrates the photographer’s work.
The eyes pierce the viewer, as if to peer into your soul, and they follow you as if they had their hooks in you, drawing you closer, making it impossible for you to tear away. When looking at a Peter Hujar photograph, we are overcome with the desire to shorten the distance between the subject and ourselves. For instance, the 1981 portrait of David Wojnarowicz exerts such an irresistible pull: a cigarette between his lips, shirtless, he gazes at you with a deep, serious look; he seems almost sorry to be alive, as if lost in thought about his condition. It is perhaps because, deep down, Peter Hujar, too, was sad, that he was able to capture sadness in another human being and show a damaged soul in all its complexity. “He had a charming personality, but there was also a dark side,” recalls Vince Aletti, art critic, the exhibition’s curator, and a friend of Peter Hujar.
“I’m not one to psychologize,” continues Aletti, who had met the artist in 1969, “but he must have had a difficult childhood, with an absent father, which no doubt helps to explain his darker side.” Nor was Peter Hujar ever able to make a living off his art, which made his life financially difficult. “He always followed his own paths, despite all the hurdles he had to overcome,” explains Aletti. These difficulties are imperceptible in his art. Peter Hujar infused his portraits with utmost gentleness, thus revealing his love for his subjects. While these did indeed include lovers, there was also a host of people whom he found intriguing, who inspired dreams, who surprised him. “I photograph those who push the limits. That’s what interests me—people who stand up for their own freedom,” Peter Hujar used to say.
Such freedom is cultivated in photography which crystallizes the precise moment when the subject becomes truly himself or herself. Peter Hujar enjoyed photographing people stretched out on a bed, like the actress Candy Darling who, surrounded by flowers, both languorous and anxious. This photo was taken in a hospital room and she is fact on her deathbed, with only a few months to live. This portrait speaks to Hujar’s ability to capture the scintillation within the soul, the joy and the pain, the zest for life and the death drive. There is a mix of emotions and desires, and the photographer cuts through them, getting right to the quivering heart of humanity. This might be why he was fond of New York’s underground culture, marginalized people, people trying to find themselves, and more specifically trying to define their sexual identity. He may have sought the same thing in landscape and nature photography: derelict, neglected places, where weeds are pushing through crumbling pavement and abandoned houses stand overgrown with fungi. In one memorable photograph Peter Hujar aimed his flash at a forest at night: the branches seem to go wild in the sudden beam of light. The photograph reveals perhaps the untamed inner nature of everyone, as if the trees were a mirror of the soul.
It is in animal portraiture that Peter Hujar often seeks something unsettling, making us feel we are being watched, even as we think ourselves the spectators. The cow, the cluster of sheep, and the snake on a chair—they all seem to be eyeing the photographer or toying with him. One room at the Jeu de Paume partly reprises the last exhibition Peter Hujar organized in New York, at the Gracie Mansion gallery in 1986, which included a strip of sixty-six photos lined up in no apparent order. The photographer mixed together portraits, landscapes, and nature photographs… Drawing inspiration from that display, Jeu de Paume compiled a panorama showing Peter Hujar’s versatility: he explored every domain, always reinventing the medium. The exhibition no doubt paints a portrait of a frustrated human being—“someone troubled,” as Vince Aletti puts it—but also of a person able to surround himself with people and things he was particularly fond of. Hujar’s photographs seem to be the result of a rigorous selection, as if the process of taking a portrait brought the subjects into a small circle of privileged individuals dear to his eye and to his heart.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Peter Hujar, The Speed of Life
October 15, 2019 to January 19, 2020
Jeu de Paume, 1 Place de la Concorde, 75008