A new survey of fifty black-and-white photographs by Peter Hujar presents a rare opportunity to see the artist’s work through the eyes of acclaimed musician and collector, Elton John. Spanning nearly two decades, the exhibition includes portraits of friends and fellow artists, atmospheric landscapes, and Hujar’s landmark nudes. These striking images provide an intimate lens onto Downtown New York’s vibrant social scene and a life cut short by the ongoing AIDS epidemic.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, New York’s East Village was home to a flourishing culture of artistic experimentation and sexual liberation. With daring vulnerability, Hujar’s photographs captured a community of emerging artists, performers, and playwrights.
Among the circles of Hujar’s friends was the renowned dancer and dramaturg, Sheryl Sutton, who starred in Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s influential 1976 opera, Einstein on the Beach.
The liberation of gay life in 1970s America sparked the vibrant sexual and artistic exploration visible in Hujar’s portraits of drag queens. Yet the landscapes he captured at night and in dilapidated locales still offered a feeling of loneliness, alienation, and quiet intimacy familiar to many marginalized queer persons. As the art critic Bob Nickas writes, “the night is a space in which to immerse oneself, or lose oneself, and for a gay man it is always to some degree a libidinal space.”
Drawing upon his short-lived career as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and GQ, Hujar pictured the San Francisco-based psychedelic drag troupe The Cockettes when they arrived in New York in November 1971 for a string of performances at the Anderson Theater. Commissioned by Steve Lawrence for the photographic periodical Newspaper, Hujar’s newsprint portraits were passed out by wheelbarrow during the performance’s intermission.
Many of Hujar’s most radical works combine the softness of his iconic portraits with the intimacy of eros and eroticism. Nude figures appeared before Hujar’s camera in varying states: in whole and in detail, young and old, covered in tattoos and caught in arousal.
Throughout the 1980s, Hujar took spontaneous trips to New Jersey and upstate New York with friend and former lover David Wojnarowicz. In an abandoned building in Newark, they found a room littered with broken dishes, a ruined armchair, and garbage. Hujar’s flash illuminates every surface, filling the picture with pattern and texture.
Hujar lived and worked in an apartment on Second Avenue previously occupied by the underground performer and Warhol superstar, Jackie Curtis. Its large, white wall became the backdrop against which he photographed his wider network of friends, including the performer and playwright Ethyl Eichelberger. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Eichelberger starred in a series of East Village plays based on the lives of great women like “Medea,” “Lucrezia Borgia,” “Klytemnestra,” and “Auntie Belle Emme.”
His subjects also included dancers, writers, artists, and composers, such as Edgar Winter, Peggy Lee, Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, and Robert Wilson. Many of these portraits were included in his first and only book published during his lifetime, Portraits in Life and Death, released in 1976.
Hujar developed his ideas about portraiture by referring to classical paintings, in which the sitter looks directly at the artist or just out of frame. His portrait sessions fostered connection through the lens, leaving open opportunities for profound introspection and genuine fragility. As Gary Schneider recalls, “everybody thought they were his best friend, so all of a sudden you were inside his camera with him.”
Growing up on his grandparents’ farm in New Jersey, Hujar developed a profound connection with animals—his first and most enduring photographic subjects. Throughout his life, the artist returned to farms in New Jersey and upstate New York, seeking communion with farm animals through his camera’s lens. Back in his Second Avenue studio, he turned his camera to his friends’ pets. Through these pictures, Hujar managed to evince the individuality of animals rather than reduce them to more generic species.
As Hujar’s friend Steve Turtell recalled, he sought out subjects with “a certain kind of isolation built into their personalities.” Behind the scenes of a circus performance, for example, Hujar stumbled upon a clown’s trunk stuffed with miscellaneous supplies. At the center of the image is a wistful portrait of the comic film actor Buster Keaton. Beneath the facade of a clown’s cheerful persona, he implies, may lie a more somber expression.
Hujar was diagnosed with AIDS on January 1, 1987 and passed away on Thanksgiving day that year. Even in his death, his photographs hold onto the beauty of his life. “Hujar’s photographs,” writes the curator Joel Smith, “monumentalize moments, beings, lifetimes, and subcultures that might otherwise have disappeared into time. His subject is those who live—at the speed of life, in present tense, undistracted by hope, anxiety, or nostalgia.”