The Lovely Bones

In the '70s, as he withdrew from fashion, he also began photographing celebrities in the flaming downtown demimonde he inhabited—men who looked good in high heels or did wildly convincing imitations of Lana Turner and Lucrezia Borgia. Unlike so many photographers who dipped into that world, Hujar belonged to it, investing his photographs of drag queens and field horses with the same aura of dignity, melancholy, and mystery. And unlike Nan Goldin (one of many photographers he influenced), there's no "lifestyle" in his pictures, no sense of a party cooler than one you'd ever be invited to—just the irreducible strangeness of individuals.

Of course, it's fun that he knew so many soon-to-be-famous people. John Waters, Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, and Divine, among others, all appear at Matthew Marks, in pictures dating from a time when their renown was still in its infancy—before they began imitating themselves, and their looks became fixed and iconic. Above his pencil mustache, Waters's wide brown eyes appear surprisingly gentle; Sontag (sporting the first hints of her gray streak) reclines with the alluring pride of a Great Dane; Lebowitz's luscious lips belie her later dykey incarnation; Divine, de-wigged and without makeup, seems a creature beyond all roles. Nothing distinguishes them from the obscure artists and poets, the two-bit actors and anonymous models, whose unique presences also flared up before Hujar's camera.

In his lifetime, fame—beyond the Second Avenue variety—seems largely to have eluded him. (With the usual injustice, it's grown posthumously.) In Close to the Knives, Wojnarowicz's autobiographical collection of essays, he gives a harrowing account of Hujar's last weeks, when the proximity of death seems to have fueled a fierce, raging vitality.

Palermo Catacombs #1 (1963)
photo: Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
Palermo Catacombs #1 (1963)

Details

Peter Hujar: Portraits in Life
and Death

Matthew Marks Gallery
523 West 24th Street
Through December 23
212-243-0200

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The room where I write looks out over a park where Hujar photographed men in the early 1980s, waiting in the leafy dark for (one imagines) furtive assignations. Later in the decade, the parks department thinned the trees; today the most common rendezvous there are between bleary-eyed dog walkers at 7 a.m. So much of Hujar's world has disappeared or altered, like the West Side piers and Second Avenue—even the disease that laid waste to his world has changed the path of its destruction. But bohemia lives forever in photographic emulsion.

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