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Peter Hujar, Speed of Life: a book of feelings


To complement the wonderful exhibition Peter Hujar: Speed of Life at the Fundación MAPFRE in Barcelona, Aperture releases an eponymous publication bringing together the oeuvre of the American photographer and New York underground icon of the 1970s and 80s, belonging to a lost generation of artists who died of AIDS. In those decades, lower Manhattan, was a breeding ground for talent. Peter Hujar, known for his portraits of intellectuals and artists, such as Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol, and the underestimated David Wojnarowicz, was a photographer of daily life and of his neighborhood. “To meet Peter Hujar was not difficult,” Joel Smith, exhibition curator at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, wrote in the introduction to the book. “Everyone in the East Village, it seemed, knew him by sight or had sat at some point at the blue kitchen table in his Twelfth Street loft. He personally linked countless circles, uptown and down, that did not otherwise overlap. But Hujar was difficult to know closely, to convince or dissuade. Difficult to save from solitude, passing euphorias, self-castigation, fatalism, rage.”

A tormented introvert, Peter Hujar, who died in 1987 and had long remained in the shadows, is at last in the spotlight. Hostile to any form of self-promotion, he had never been known to the general public. However, he was a sort of an urban legend. His personality is palpable in his photographs, which are at once tender, suggestive, experimental, and melancholic. The book contains 160 images, which is much more than people tend to know of his work. There are portraits of men and women, animals, babies, views of architecture, street scenes, soothing landscapes, disturbing details, goofy mises-en-scène, as well as travel photos whose atmosphere lends these pages a sensitive, fragile character. Many of the portraits hint at the tenderness Peter Hujar must have felt for his subjects, and for everything in general. Other images challenge us in turn, to such an extent that we are overwhelmed by a flood of emotions. We feel plunged right into the midst of the photography of intimacy, a current represented by a group formed around Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, and others.

Peter Hujar’s extreme sensibility seems to have generated the comparison between his photographs and those of David Mapplethorpe: both were New York-based homosexual artists, and both died of AIDS, except that the latter was more controversial, more spectacular and more famous. The present publication, however, nuances this oversimplified juxtaposition: it includes a number of images showing that Peter Hujar, too, was capable of aestheticism. Even if the label of an “accursed” artist seems to have stuck to him for good, this collection of images sheds a new light on this endearing and complex figure.

Jonas Cuénin


Peter Hujar, Speed of Life 
Published by Aperture

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