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Peter Hujar: Speed of Life
“Candy Darling on Her Deathbed” (1973); from Peter Hujar: Speed of Life (Aperture, 2017)Collection of Ronay and Richard Menschel © The Peter Hujar Archive, LLC. Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

The Downtown New York photographer that you should know

Thirty years since Peter Hujar’s death, we look at the legacy of the artist who was a contemporary of Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, and David Wojnarowicz, but never reached the same notoriety

During the 1970s and 80s, “underground legend”, Peter Hujar, spent his days capturing the reality of living in New York City. Closely linked to sociocultural scenes, his images were real, raw, and showcased a “deep understanding of his subject's true nature through his lens”. After beginning his career in the 50s as a commercial photographer, before two stints living and working in Italy, Hujar progressed onto more personal photography – including photographing iconic names of his era; Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag, and John Waters, to name a few.

Despite being a contemporary of Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus, as well as a mentor and (brief) lover to American artist and activist, David Wojnarowicz, Hujar never reached the same global levels of notoriety during his lifetime – possibly due to his refusal to self-promote. When he passed away in 1987 due to Aids-related pneumonia, he left behind just one published book (Portraits in Life and Death, 1976) but Hujar’s legacy continued to grow, and he is now celebrated as an unsung hero of his time. Documenting subcultures, the people and intimate moments of Downtown New York, Hujar provides snapshots of moments that “might otherwise have disappeared into time”. 

Earlier this year, Aperture published Peter Hujar: Speed of Lifea comprehensive tome discussing his work and featuring the writings of Joel Smith, Philip Gefter, Steve Turtell, and Martha Scott Burton. With the 30th anniversary of his death falling yesterday, Sunday 26 November, we let quotes and images from the book guide us through the life of the underground luminary.

“We came from a thing that wasn’t the art world: we came from human expression. We came into it not caring whether we were artists or not: we wanted to express living” – Ed Baynard on Peter Hujar


Having been abandoned by his father and his mother being an alcoholic and emotionally abusive, the New Jersey-born artist was raised by his grandparents on their farm. Photography was his vehicle, and he once said, “I can express myself only through photography”. Success for him didn’t involve fame and fortune, but simply to create work that spoke to people. A friend of Hujar’s, painter Ed Baynard explained, “We came from a thing that wasn’t the art world: we came from human expression. We came into it not caring whether we were artists or not: we wanted to express living.” Another friend, photographer Gary Schneider – whom Hujar mentored – told the Guardian, “He certainly didn’t work well with most galleries and collectors. So he kept himself in poverty... He often worked against his supporters.”

Although being the precursor of Mapplethorpe, Hujar criticised his contemporary for his “art look”. Adding that Mapplethorpe’s images lacked the rawness and grit that he managed to capture. Hujar was also skeptical of Diane Arbus – a fellow American photographer who was notorious for shooting subjects “whose normality was perceived by the general public as ugly or surreal”. Upon meeting her – whose style depicted similar features to his own – Hujar was shocked and offended by her opinion: that he was trying to rip her off. He said, “She had seen some of what I was doing and some photos were much too close.” Although he only reached minor success in his own lifetime, Hujar mentored young artists in the city and was a huge influence on people such as Nan Goldin, Schneider, and David Wojnarowicz, amongst others.


In 1980, Hujar met David Wojnarowicz – a then 26-year-old “creature of the city and of the still inchoate scene in the East Village”. Sharing a similar childhood and passion Hujar probably saw a lot of himself in the young creative, which meant he “nearly qualified as the ultimate self-improvement project”. What began as a brief sexual relationship soon grew to a mentoring partnership. Described as “that of a protective father”, Hujar was fixated on “David making art and succeeding with it”. For a while, their work meshed together, especially as Hujar turned his lens to urban life; abandoned structures and nighttime shooting, whilst Wojnarowicz’s prolific work included graffiti along the same cityscapes.


Hujar broke away from society’s mold, determined to produce photographs that were ‘real’ and in doing so, recorded invaluable details about the unfiltered lives of people living in New York City during the 70s and 80s. “Hujar’s friends had long regarded him as a close people-watcher and remarkable storyteller”, and he was praised for capturing glimpses of reality in the capital’s underground sociocultural scenes. Friend and writer, Fran Lebowitz also told the Guardian, “West Side downtown there were these burnt-out piers. They were used by gay men to have sex in. They were pitch black inside … the environment was very rough and dangerous. Peter was physically fearless in the city, that’s for sure.” Describing his own work, Hujar once said, “I photograph those who push themselves to any extreme. That’s what interests me, and people who cling to the freedom to be themselves.”


In the late 1950s, Hujar met American artist, Paul Thek, and the two struck up a relationship that would become one of the most significant of Hujar’s life. Sadly, by the 70s, they had split romantically. As discussed above, he went on to have a brief love affair with Wojnarowicz. He also infiltrated the Downtown scene – which included Warhol. While Hujar believed the Father of Pop Art was one of the “few genuinely original artists of the era” and even considered him family, the photographer kept images of him out of his debut book, Portraits in Life and Death (1976), as he was worried his strong image and character would overpower the rest. However, Hujar and Warhol had a mutually beneficial relationship, each using one-another in their art. Hujar even appeared in one of Warhol’s famous “Screen Tests” in a series called "The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys". Portraits in Life and Death also included photographs of Candy Darling, Divine, Susan Sontag – who wrote the book’s introduction – and, of course, Wojnarowicz.


Ethyl Eichelberger was an American drag performer, playwright, actor, and great friend of Hujar’s. Described as “the most fruitful artist-muse partnership”, Hujar photographed Eichelberger both as a man and a woman and in and out of costume. Gender ambiguity was a theme Hujar often explored within his work and was not simply a consequence of cross-dressing. For example, when studying the image Reclining Nude on Couch (1978), which depicts a nude figure from behind, Hujar plays with symbolism and form. The shape of the hips indicates it is a female, but upon closer inspection, testicles can be seen between the figure's legs. These stylistic tropes depicted in Hujar’s work are what made his work so crucial but also what kept him in the underground. His concern with creating real work bypassed the idea of creating popular work, a revolutionary way of thinking for the 70s and 80s, but which unfortunately left him in the shadows of ‘sell-outs’.


Homosexuality was illegal until 1980 in New York City and the Gay Liberation Front was the first group to commit itself to the cause of gay rights. Hujar was excited to get involved with campaigning, despite it being daunting and facing discrimination for publicly supporting this cause. In 1970, he created a black and white photographic poster that depicted those who had come to support at the meeting, running towards the camera with “COME OUT!!” printed across it. It was created in advance of the first gay liberation march, which Hujar also photographed.


Hujar, despite being a pupil of fashion photographer icon Richard Avedon, bypassed all temptation to becoming a big-shot fashion photographer. Although Avedon developed an admiration for Hujar, and was himself described as a photographer who helped “define America’s image of style”, Hujar never succumbed to such a glossy lifestyle. Albeit, he still fulfilled a successful spell for commercial photographer Harold Krieger and shot for GQ and Harper’s Bazaar, but even then, he admitted that this coming up in conversation made him embarrassed – Speed of Life writes, “And so, he was fine to live in poverty, although he worked none less”, and his work remained “at a crossroads of beauty and brutality”.


Peter Hujar passed away from Aids-related pneumonia on 26 November 1987, with Wojnarowicz at his side. Even in his dying moments, he photographed his friend and former lover. In turn, once Hujar has taken his final breath, Wojnarowicz documented the artist’s body with video and a total of 23 photographs.

Hujar left his archive to his friend, Stephen Koch, who prepared an exhibition that opened in 1990 at Grey Art Gallery. The show featured 132 images. Since his death, institutions such as the Met, MoMA, the Whitney, as well as Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum have bought his work and his legacy continues to be learned of and built upon.

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life – published by Aperture – is available now