Vince Aletti on Peter Hujar

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Diana Vreeland (II), 1975
Diana Vreeland (II), 1975Photography by Peter Hujar, © Estate of Peter Hujar, Courtesy of Maureen Paley, London and Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

Ahead of Maureen Paley Gallery's exhibition of Peter Hujar's work, photography critic and collector Vince Aletti discusses the timeless allure of the acclaimed photographer's portraiture

“I first met Peter through a friend of mine in 1969. He was charismatic, tall, handsome and funny in a way that was really seductive. He was quiet and modest, not always comfortable in crowds of people, but when you spoke to him he could be disarmingly intimate. Peter was very attractive, although never quite believed it, and had an easygoing charm and intensity.

I came to his work through knowing him – we became very good friends. At first I felt like I had no perspective on the photographs, I liked Peter so much and I liked what he was doing, but I didn’t have any critical distance from it. There’s always something so personal when you’re looking at a friend’s work that makes that distance difficult.

"Fame was interesting to Peter because of the level of theatricality which comes with it" — Vince Aletti

After some time though, I began to notice how much of a genuine response Peter’s images were to people, places and things in his life. From the beginning it was incredibly soulful and spoke about his need, and urge, to connect. He wanted to really see people, to understand them and reach out in a way that was very touching. Peter rarely photographed people that he didn’t care about.

On a certain level though, he was attracted to fame, and loved photographing famous people. He even had a list that he hoped the opportunity would arise to shoot some day. Fame was interesting to him because of the level of theatricality which comes with it.

In his book Portraits in Life and Death, it’s a downtown New York community. John Waters, Divine, Susan Sontag, William Burroughs – famous people, but people that he knew. There are photographs in the Maureen Paley show of characters like Peggy Lee, which he only met on assignment, but mostly he knew the subject on some level. Even with the pictures of his pick-ups, I think he intended, with every photograph, to make a connection through the camera. I think for him it was more intense than a physical connection.

"Peter's pictures are about being in that room, with that person"

For me the seriousness and the concentration of the work was in the obvious intensity of Peter’s gaze and what he was able to elicit from his sitters – which was a real engagement, the return of that gaze. I know that Peter valued that. I often talked to him after he’d photographed someone and he knew right away whether he had been able to break through. He would wait for that moment, when his subject just gave in. Peter waited for them to let go, rather than giving him their ‘camera face’.

For me those images are the strongest of Peter’s pictures, and really it is then that the images become graphic portraits, but also, on a level beneath that, have an emotion and soulfulness. They are about being in that room, with that person, and communicating on a level that goes far and beyond simply snapping a picture.”

Photography critic and collector Vince Aletti first came to prominence as a music writer and editor, presenting the first ever published piece on ‘disco’ in 1973 for Rolling Stone magazine. He worked as the Senior Editor at New York’s The Village Voice for 20 years, leaving in 2005 to focus on his image critique. Since then he has been writing on the relationship between photographer and subject, notably presenting the exhibitions Male in 1998, and subsequently Female in 1999, at Wessel + O'Connor Gallery in New York. The exhibitions were documented in the Male/Female issue of Aperture magazine, which also featured an interview between Aletti and Madonna. The feature was celebrated in the book Da Capo Best Music Writing in 2000.

Aletti has held close relationships, both critical and friendship, with a number of people within the photographic world including gallery owner Helen Gee and Richard Avedon. His understanding offers an integral insight into the process of contemporary image making.

Vince Aletti will give a talk about the life and work of Peter Hujar at Maureen Paley Gallery, Saturday July 19 at 17:00pm. An exhibition of Peter Hujar’s work runs from July 19 – August 24 at Maureen Paley Gallery.

Text by William Oliver