Peter Hujar Foundation director and friend Stephen Koch reflects on the photographer’s illustrious career and tense friendships with Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus
When photographer Peter Hujar passed away on 26 November 1987, he left his legacy in the hands of his friend, Stephen Koch, who admittedly had no idea what he was doing. At the time, Hujar’s celebrity was far outweighed by that of his contemporaries, such as Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. However, in the three decades since, Koch, now the Director of the Peter Hujar Archive, has brought Hujar’s legacy into a light which now sees him referred to as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.
During a talk at the Barbican Centre as part of its Masculinities exhibition, Koch told Jonathan D. Katz, “Once he said, ‘By the way’, as if informing me, ‘I have decided I want two graves.’ And I said, ‘Why do you want two graves?’ And he said, 'There should be one grave for me. The other grave should be for my work.’ He said, ‘I'm not gonna let them make me famous after my death.’
However, Koch adds, that was “the seriously depressed Peter talking” and “he'd come out of it.”
A complicated but ultimately caring and curious man, from the 1960s until his passing in 1987, Peter Hujar’s work focussed on society’s outsiders and the community that circled him. He had a deep connection with artist David Wojnarowicz, his friend and one-time lover who famously photographed Hujar on his deathbed. Hujar succumbed to Aids, leaving behind a deep archive which to this day continues to influence the visual world around us. Below, we glean several insights from Koch’s discussion on his friend and the late, great artist, Peter Hujar.
ON HIS NOTORIOUS TEMPER
“Peter was very vulnerable at the most intimate part of his life, but he was one of the most wonderful friends imaginable. I would say a large number of the most interesting conversations I ever had in my life were with Peter. He was amazingly intelligent, sometimes pretty kooky but nonetheless intelligent. As Gary Schneider said, he made everyone feel like you were his only friend, and that was very flattering.
“The last show of Peter's life was organised by David Wojnarowicz because Peter would’ve seen to it that it never came about. The show was at the Gracie Mansion Gallery. I was out for dinner that night and I told the people there I had to leave early. I wanted to be there to show him my support. I didn’t want him to just stand there among a few people looking around bewildered. I took a taxi and the taxi couldn't get to the front of the gallery, there were throngs of people outside. Inside it was like being on the subway – it was absolutely jammed! And I realised that I had this completely skewered understanding of who he was.
“He was the opposite of a name-dropper, but he knew ‘everybody’. And everybody admired him very much. His intimacy was irresistible... until it got too close...”
“The day Peter was told he had Aids, he never shot another photograph. It stopped” – Stephen Koch
ON HIS FORAY INTO COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHY
“Peter was a very arresting person. When you met him, you knew right away, this is not ordinary normal-normal, that he was very special, very focused, and clearly someone that people wanted to know.
“After he walked out on his mother and found someplace to live, he was 16 years old, and he was in an English creative writing class at high school, led by a very interesting, remarkable woman named Daisy. One day, she kept him from leaving class. She asked him to sit down and said, 'Peter. You are an artist – you don't know it yet, but you are. And you will be one until you die. If you're interested in photography, I have some advice for you. You must go out and find the ten most important commercial photographic studios in the city. Knock on the door and ask for a job doing anything. Sweeping the floors, if necessary. And he did, that's exactly what he did. And step by step, he turned himself into one of the most technically accomplished photographers on the scene.”
ON HOW HE RECONCILED HIS COMMERCIAL WORK AS AN ARTIST
“Peter worked until 1972 in various capacities in commercial studios. He was the director of an important commercial studio. He was not ashamed of being a commercial photographer. Peter liked Richard Avedon’s fashion photography. I subscribed to all these magazines and when Peter came to visit, there would be a copy of Vogue or something, and he would immediately dive in, fascinated, absolutely absorbed. He did not despise commercial photography. But he decided at a certain point that life was short and he couldn't successfully do both, one of them had to take priority over the other and it did.
“Peter never doubted for one second that photography was art. It is true that a lot of people had different ideas, that it was not seen as art and it was not valuable. I remember a time when you could buy a print of the Jewish giant by Diane Arbus for $500 easily. Peter didn't accept such a thing.
“When Susan Sontag produced her book On Photography, two things were a problem. First, he wasn't mentioned, and he absolutely believed, and he probably was right, that he just wasn't famous enough, even though she knew how good he was. The other thing was that it raised questions about whether photography is or is not an art, and that was a fatal error that he would absolutely not accept. At one point he quoted having been in the conversation with Richard Avedon, and he quoted Avedon saying to him, 'You know, Peter, there are times when I wonder if maybe Susan is the enemy.'”
ON THE REPRESENTATION OF AIDS IN HIS WORK
“It is painful to say, but a fact... the day Peter was told he had Aids, he never shot another photograph. It stopped.
“Gary Schneider told me at a certain point after Peter died, he went into the darkroom and he saw the chemicals were there and it was like someone had walked out in the middle of a session and never gone back. Robert, for example, desperately made photographs as close to his death as he could.
“When (Peter) had met David, David had something that Peter very much needed – a car! A real car that worked and he could drive it. Peter never owned a car and if he had, everyone would desperately hope that the police would stop him. David wanted to show him the places that he was interested in. He took Peter out to the ruins, the urban ruins that lie around the rim of New York City. What I call the photographs from ‘Desolation Row’. They were a new and more forceful encounter with the wreckage of life than he'd had before.
“David (Wojnarowicz) accumulated grievances against the people that he thought were failing in their responsibilities to the public to react to Aids in the way they want to, and he was, in a way. (David) was furious. Everything had to be guided through that, and he was tireless in his attacks on people who were failing. That wasn't Peter... but there was a kind of quiet politics.”
ON WHAT IT WAS LIKE BEING PHOTOGRAPHED BY HIM
“I was photographed repeatedly (by Peter) and he was never very happy... I would go in, the schmuck that I was, and say, 'I want to look good'. He knows how to make people look great – look what he did with David (Wojanowicz). David was a perfectly okay person, but a young god from Mount Olympus, he was not. (Laughs) except Peter made him look like that and knew exactly how to do it.
“I would go in and it would take me a long time to finally get off it and be easier with it, but he was very patient, he would wait, until finally, your mask cracked. He wouldn't say, ‘Stop trying to look good.’ He knew what was going on, of course, and it was embarrassing. I think it was different for different people. He would fall in love with faces.”
ON HIS ROMANCE WITH PAUL TECH
“When I met Peter and Paul they were very much a couple – Peter and Paul, like the saints. I thought the relationship was wonderful. But the first great love in Peter's life was Joseph Raffaele (later Raffael). He was the star student at Cooper Union School of Art when Peter met him. It was a great love which went on for many years and was very important and never really ended.
“They went on a Fulbright to Rome and Paul sort of followed along. I called them The Three Musketeers. What they learned there – this is my interpretation – is how to fully, really embrace the role of being an artist. You might say, 'I want to be an artist' or 'I should be an artist' or 'I'm an artist part of the time', no, they were completely immersed in that destiny. They all lived for it. It's an interesting biographical fact, very little known, that one of the people who was involved in the same process with them was a slightly older and more successful artist, Cy Twombly, who was then living in Rome and he sort of took up The Three Musketeers. So they shared a lot of sensibilities. Paul was, when sane, enormous fun. He was enormously funny and charming, and charismatic. It was not really said much, but it's true that he had severe bi-polar disease, and would spend several months cyclically being insane… and I mean really insane. How he lived with that is part of his tragedy. Peter once told me that he could not completely share his life with someone who spends half the time insane.”
ON BEING COMPARED TO DIANE ARBUS
“We talked about Arbus a fair amount. I don't think that Peter was wholeheartedly tuned into her aesthetic, there was something about it that didn’t work for him. One thing that I know is true, is they shared a very strong interest in the grotesque. Except that, for Peter, from the very beginning, there were no grotesqueries. He did not acknowledge the way people were separated from society by something that was an affliction.
“His first set of really masterful work was done in a school for retarded children. The (images are) beautiful and the kids are happy. They are not grotesque. They look like young kids being happy with themselves. It's a wonderful thing. He did this repeatedly. There was a series of photographs that he made at an outpatient clinic for mental patients in the Bronx, and he went and did portraits of them. All of them do look a little crazy but he loved them. He was never interested in humiliating them or embarrassing them or showing them off to that advantage.”
ON THE TENSE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PETER AND ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE
“Peter was someone that Robert had glommed onto very early on, around 1974 or 1975. He was very interested in a photograph that has since become quite famous, ‘Seated Nude, Bruce de Saint Croix’ (1976). It shows this young man Bruce de Saint Croix with a very large erection, contemplating it. Robert was very impressed. I was told later by Bruce de Saint Croix who went on to become a social worker advocate that Robert treated him, Bruce, like furniture.
“It was very interesting to see the stark contrast between those two artists. In all my years in New York, Robert was the most successful cultural operator and opportunist I ever laid eyes on. It was nothing short of phenomenal. Robert came out of obscurity and rocketed into very great visibility. Peter did not. Robert was interested in beauty that could look perfect. Peter was someone who insisted that his pictures be beautiful, but they had to be done of broken things and broken people. That's where the beauty had to be.
“I knew them both. I would ask Robert, 'What do you think of Peter?' and he said, 'Well, he's a great photographer. Everybody knows that. It's perfectly obvious. But, if I put something on my wall, I don't want to look at it and go (makes frightened noise).' That was that.”
“When they were dying, the photographer Lynn Davis used to move back and forth between their places every day. And when she arrived, they always asked, 'How's the other one?' Peter died fairly long before Robert. Robert used every conceivable medical device he could find to just keep breathing, whereas Peter, I wouldn't say he accepted death, but it came to him in a lot more natural way. He said, there's no smell, there's no feeling, there's no physical warmth in Robert's work. And for him, that was fatal.”
Listen to the full talk here