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Peter Hujar

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Peter as Cindy, 1982
Peter as Cindy, 1982 Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Lauded by the singer Antony Hegarty as “one of the 20th century’s greatest, if unsung photographers”, Peter Hujar (1934-1987) roamed the streets of downtown New York after-hours in the late 1970s and 80s, documenting its untamed margins: the freaks and outsiders who lived on the edges of society, its burned out buildings and dimly lit streets...

Who? Lauded by the singer Antony Hegarty as “one of the 20th century’s greatest, if unsung photographers”, Peter Hujar (1934-1987) roamed the streets of downtown New York after-hours in the late 1970s and 80s, documenting its untamed margins: the freaks and outsiders who lived on the edges of society, its burned out buildings and dimly lit streets. He reached new heights of posthumous recognition when his stark and gravely beautiful portrait of Candy Darling on her deathbed was used by Hegarty for his breakthrough album, I Am A Bird Now.

What? Three Lives: Peter Hujar, Paul Thek, & David Wojnarowicz at the Matthew Marks Gallery is a show of some of Hujar’s most intimate photographs: self-portraits and portraits of his lovers and fellow artists Paul Thek and David Wojnarowicz, some of which have never been shown before. All three artists were to die of AIDS within a few years of one another and the portraits he made of them attest to the intimate, complex, and productive nature of their relationships.

Why? A child of Ukrainian immigrants, Hujar grew up in a broken, abusive home which he left at age 16. He learnt his trade as apprentice to Richard Avedon working on fashion shoots before getting commissions from Harpers Bazaar. He later turned his back on the fashion world to work in fine-art photography, pointing his camera at friends and members of his extended community (from Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag, John Waters and Robert Wilson) and other lesser known members of the New York demimonde. In his seminal 1976 monograph, Portraits in Life and Death, he juxtaposed classically composed portraits of his friends and lovers in repose with dessicated corpses he photographed on a trip to the Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily, creating a meditative, quietly devastating Memento Mori. Obsessively circling around themes of mortality and the passing of time, his work exudes a powerfully affecting melancholy, an austere, fragile sensuality and most of all a noble empathy with his subjects. Noted the writer, Fran Lebowitz (also a subject of his camera), “Every single person he photographed, every single person that he was interested in, was a misfit. Peter was a misfit.”

Three Lives: Peter Hujar, Paul Thek, & David Wojnarowicz will be on view October 22 through December 23 2011, at Matthew Marks Gallery, 523 West 24th Street.

Kin Woo is writer-at-large for Dazed and Confused and columnist for AnOthermag.com.

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