On ViewPaul Kasmin Gallery
January 28 – February 27, 2016
The twenty-four black-and-white photographs from the estate of master portraitist Peter Hujar (1934 – 1987)included in Lost Downtown, document a pivotal moment in the New York art world and, at the same time, manage to convey something essential about the medium itself. One of the images, a portrait from 1975 of a young Susan Sontag, recumbent yet reluctantly submitting to the photographer’s lens, graces the cover of the show’s catalogue, cannily printed on newspaper like some bygone Village art rag. In making this cover choice, the show’s organizers no doubt had in mind this oft-quoted passage from Sontag’s On Photography:
“Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos [. . .] To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”1
Lost Downtown is an elegiac exhibition.In its subject matter and the personalities on view—many no longer with us—the exhibition amounts to a meditation on photography’s capacity to “testify to time’s relentless melt.” As viewers, we bear witness to Hujar’s extraordinary ability to capture a connection with his subjects, which ironically accentuates our distance from those moments. The show is overhung, but that only adds to the intimacy of the small storefront space, which, with walls painted a somber grey, makes an ideal venue for these often jarringly direct pictures. They reveal a demimonde of drag queens, West Street hustlers, art world luminaries, and art world intimates—a queer arcadia in a dilapidated industrial landscape before the twin tidal waves of the AIDS epidemic and rampant real estate speculation altered the populations and places of downtown Manhattan almost beyond recognition.
Hujar’s training as a fashion photographer led to his famously exacting standards, and accounts for the pictorial vocabulary of his portraits and candid shots. The subjects are carefully positioned, carefully lit, and the depth of field is often quite shallow, to emphasize the figure at the center. While the images recall fashion photography of the era, the relationship between the camera and the subject registers a very different temperature from fashion’s usual iciness. Unlike in an Avedon or a Newton photograph, where the subject exists in an “iconic” space apart from our own, the subjects in Hujar’s photographs are very present and surprisingly vulnerable. Andy Warhol (III) (1975) gives a stunning portrait of its notoriously inscrutable subject. Hujar knew Warhol from the early Factory days, and here, in the set of Warhol’s jaw and the cant of his eyelids, we catch a glint of the titanic drive and ambition that made him the most important artist of America’s postwar period. Hujar exposes the humanity in the man who often manipulated to his own advantage the mask of celebrity.
Borrowing a definition from W. J. T. Mitchell’s What Do Pictures Want?, Hujar’s images are not iconic but “totemic.” The word totem derives from the Ojibwa term for a sibling relationship. In his photographs, Hujar did not mean so much to carve out sacred spaces, although that is there too in many of these photographs, but rather to trace lines of kinship. His downtown, in other words, was one big family. This sense of consanguinity makes the well-known portrait Candy Darling on her Deathbed (1973), all the more powerful. Hujar celebrates Candy Darling, transgender actress, Warhol Factory celebrity, and trooper to the end as she lies on her hospital bed. Hujar gives her the gift of escaping, if only temporarily, her losing battle with leukemia through one last opportunity to inhabit the world of glamour as she poses in makeup and costume while wrapped in bed sheets. However, the context—hospital rooms belong to friends and family—brings home Candy Darling’s mortality, and her performance morphs into something deeper and more disturbing as her lustrous eyes become fathomless dark pools.
An erotic connection, perhaps the closest of kinships, guides the emotional impact of David Wojnarowicz (1981), one of the many portraits Hujar made of his friend, lover, and mentee. As with the Candy Darling portrait and two other prints in Lost Downtown, Gary Snyder executed this print according to Hujar’s posthumous instructions. However, the new prints did not particularly stand out from the rest of the show. Snyder evidently used a greenish toner that gives this portrait a lighter feel than many of the others, which have a sepia tint. This lightness combined with the close-up of Wojnarowicz’s open expression, lips sensuously parted, creates complicity with the viewer—a pact, as it were, between lovers. In a film documenting Hujar’s dying days that Wojnarowicz would never finish, silent footage of beluga whales swimming in tanks is interspersed with the image of Hujar’s dead body. In Hujar’s portrait, Wojnarowicz also appears to be floating, silently drifting away from us into the recesses of memory.
The most riveting image of loss appears in Sidney Faulkner (II) (1981). Like the Candy Darling portrait, it is a deathbed scene, but irony-free. Executed with pinpoint precision, it is all the more devastating in its emotional impact. Faulker’s craggy brow and aquiline nose create an impression of strength, virility even. Yet, at the tip of his nose glistens a tiny drop of mucus. No accident, it marks the focal point of the image as Hujar’s lighting throws it into high relief. That drop beautifully expresses the life force we all share, bags of bodily fluids that we are. In Faulkner’s case, it is just about to leave him. Similarly, Lost Downtown leaves us at the brink, just as the heady freedom of the late seventies and early eighties became obliterated by unchecked disease and ruthless economic imperatives. Hujar’s black-and-white photography, what he photographed, and his influence on subsequent artists (e.g. Wojnarowicz and Nan Goldin) are a unique guarantee we will never forget that moment.
- Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 11.