In 1861, the photographer Nadar visited the catacombs of Paris, a sepulchral netherworld that still lies beneath the living city. He was already famous for aerial views he had taken during daring flights in his hot-air balloon, and for his portraits of both society’s mighty and its bohemians; in the catacombs, he experimented by illuminating his shots with the new medium of electricity. An interlocking network of abandoned quarries, filled in the 18th century with bones disinterred from Parisian cemeteries for “hygienic” reasons, the catacombs offer to this day a peculiar spectacle. The skeletons have all been disassembled; tibiae, femurs, and skulls are neatly stacked like bottles in a wine cellar, while plaques bearing Latin inscriptions warn viewers that a similar fate awaits them. A consummate showman, Nadar may have intended this subterranean excursion as a publicity stunt, but it’s likely he found something amid those 7 million mortal remains that moved him, for he took his own picture there—the celebrated portraitist disguised as a laborer in the land that spells the ruin of all identity.
One hundred and two years later, a young photographer and latter-day Romantic named Peter Hujar took his camera down into the catacombs of Palermo, in Sicily. Palermo’s ossuary dates from the 16th century, when the city’s Capuchin monks, digging up some bodies, discovered a natural process of mummification. After they succeeded in preserving a holy Brother for veneration, prominent local families took note—the last of hundreds of loved ones, a two-year-old girl, was embalmed in 1920. Hujar’s haunting shots show his subjects in various states of dissolution: the women’s skulls wreathed in withered garlands, the men’s shrunken bodies shrouded in tattered robes of faded nobility, the remains of children dressed for their long repose in sleeping gowns and nightcaps. Rows of cadavers arrayed in friars’ habits stand with arms crossed and heads bowed, as if in silent meditation. All that shields them from the anonymity of the grave is the dried husk of human intention.
Hujar, who died of AIDS in 1987, reproduced the catacomb pictures at the conclusion of Portraits in Life and Death (Da Capo Press, 1976), the sole publication of his work during his lifetime. The rest of the book (now out of print) is filled with portraits of denizens of the downtown New York art scene and others whom he photographed in his Second Avenue loft between 1974 and 1975. Vintage prints from these two series, shot about a dozen years apart, are now on view at Matthew Marks Gallery. The juxtaposition is both brilliant and chilling. It reminded me of a tale by Guy de Maupassant, Nadar’s near contemporary, about a youth at a masquerade ball who dances wildly all night until collapsing at dawn, when his disguise is removed, revealing the wasted face of an old man.
Part physiognomist, part necrologist, Hujar (like Nadar) seems to have sensed the mask of death behind the most vivid of personalities. Friends, acquaintances, and lovers, both famous and forgotten, relax before his camera, often reclining on his bed, in a rogues’ gallery of intimate encounters. Yet their faces—at once revealed and remote, openly vulnerable and introspective—recall the subtitle of an essay by the artist David Wojnarowicz, Hujar’s beloved cohort late in life: “Soon All This Will Be Picturesque Ruins.”
What makes a great portraitist? Surely a certain Don Juan-esque quality is in order—an ability to make an isolated individual, at least for a short time, the focus of all one’s energies and unqualified attention. That magic act was one that Hujar performed repeatedly. From the sole self-portrait he included in the book—in which, achingly handsome (if craggy) and intense, he reclines come-hither style on white sheets—one gathers his own charms were considerable. Yet in his work, at least, he seems to have exercised extreme discretion—deploying a cool professional remove tempered by tenderness and deep empathy.
His capacity for identification extended even to mute beasts, whose pictures are among the most viscerally moving in Peter Hujar: Animals and Nudes, recently published by Twin Palms Press, which also plans to reissue Portraits in Life and Death next fall. (A more compelling selection of Hujar’s nudes, mostly males, may be found in Peter Hujar: A Retrospective, the catalog to his 1994 exhibition at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.) Whether photographing a shar-pei whose rippling flesh recalls that of a bodybuilder, the coquettish turn of a goose’s neck, or the tragic, curbside corpse of a dead kitty, Hujar used a remarkable gift for interspecies communication to capture the pure, unselfconscious presence of animals, their corporeal life at the edge of human understanding.
Born in 1934, Hujar was the son of a bootlegger who abandoned the family at his birth; until age 12, he was raised on his grandparents’ New Jersey farm, speaking Ukrainian to the cows at pasture. He went to high school in Manhattan, found work as a photographer’s assistant, traveled to Italy, and (encouraged by Richard Avedon) toiled intermittently in fashion and advertising through the 1960s. Early on, though, he started taking pictures of subjects that moved him: the barnyard companions of his youth, or children in a mental hospital.
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.
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.