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Peter Hujar, “Sophie Mgcina and Thuli Dumakude” (1983)
Peter Hujar, “Sophie Mgcina and Thuli Dumakude – South African Play ‘Poppie Nongena’” (1983), from The Shabbiness of Beauty by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021)Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC

This book reveals tender, provocative, rarely-seen images by Peter Hujar

The Shabbiness of Beauty sees artist Moyra Davey entering into a visual dialogue with some of the lesser-known images from the photographer’s vast archive

Something really special can happen when artists respond to one another’s work. Their engagement not only creates new work but also opens up new perspectives on existing art. The Shabbiness of Beauty, published by MACK, is one such project. A kind of call and response between Peter Hujar and multidisciplinary artist Moyra Davey, it feels like a very beautiful visual conversation conducted across the ages. “I curated myself with Peter Hujar,” writes Davey, “A risky act, but it was an invitation I could not resist.” The invitation came from Gallery Buchholz in Berlin, which envisioned opening up a kind of visual dialogue between the two image-makers. 

Dying in 1987 from AIDS-related pneumonia at just 53 years old, Hujar left behind a legacy of penetrating black and white photographs. A contemporary of Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, and Diane Arbus, Hujar’s recognition as an artist came posthumously, as he himself predicted it would. “I want to be discussed in hushed tones,” he once reportedly said. “When people talk about me, I want them to be whispering.” Among his most famous images are his striking pictures of Warhol superstar Candy Darling on her deathbed, and the tender photographs of his friend and one-time lover of David Wojnarowicz.

Visiting Hujar’s archive in Queens, New York, Davey started the project by seeking out the pictures that most deeply affected her. “I began by listing categories of images I wanted to see: animals, water, young men, body parts, NYC, babies. I’ve long been familiar with Hujar’s work and chose images I knew I could be in conversation with, but I also tried as much as possible to select from amongst his lesser-known works.”

Hujar’s emotional, humanistic engagement with the world around him speaks to Davey’s interest in relationships and the worn, commonplace objects of everyday life. Alongside the more subversive photographs Hujar is known for, the images here oscillate between eternal, elemental subjects such as crashing waves and the rippling, glittering surface of the sea, to more intimate, ephemeral moments, such as the soulful eyes of a foal, a breastfeeding mother, an inexplicably tiny lone shoe, the dirty soles of bare feet. 

Davey was particularly drawn to Hujar’s portraits of a baby feeding. “I knew I wanted the close-up of the tiny baby latched at his mother’s breast,” she writes. The images remind her of the time when her own baby was so small, recalling, ”How difficult it was, and how people can tell you it will be hard but you have no idea until it is happening to you. Dina (the mother) could be feeling all this in the photo, or not. We have no idea.”

The images are accompanied by text composed by writer Eileen Myles, along with a facsimile of a gossipy but poignant letter from Hujar to Wojnarowicz, in which he describes the passing of New Year’s eve and asks, touchingly, “TV tells me it’s the coldest December in history. It is cold out. Did you buy a warm coat?”

Take a look through the gallery above for a glimpse at some of the photographs featured in The Shabbiness of Beauty.

The Shabbiness of Beauty by Peter Hujar and Moyra Davey is published by MACK and is available now