Updated: Jun 12, 2020
The unmatched photography of Peter Hujar.
The exhibition at Bampfa of a collection of Peter Hujars photographs is incredibly poignant. Knowing little to nothing about this artist before seeing this collection, I went in unaware of the connections between people in his life and mine. After seeing vaguely familiar faces in many of his intense portraits, I tried to learn more about Peter Hujar. Born in 1934 in New Jersey, accounts of Hujars childhood are complicated and upsetting, which left him insecure about his family life. He started photographing in 1956 and even these early pictures showed his unique style, which many admired him for in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The photographs he produced during these years and the time leading up to his death in 1987 are powerful and affecting because of his connection to the subjects and his enactment of familiarity within them.
Many of the photographs in Speed of Life are beautiful portraits, the subjects trusting and open with Hujar, exhibiting a sense of vulnerability. It also features objects and landscapes, common as they are, shown anew from Hujars transparent perspective. But it seems Hujars portraits are what drew people to him as a photographer. This is because of the obvious connection he has with his pictured subjects. Many of these photographs feature famed and influential people. Yet one can see an unadulterated side of them in the portraits, accessed because of Hujars ability to communicate and bond with his subjects. One can see an unmitigated side of one of his subjects in the photograph above, Candy Darling on Her Death Bed, 1973.
Usually photographed as one of Andy Warhol’s Superstars, Darling was used to being shown off and glamorized. With this portrait of vulnerability, Darling has no other choice than to show a primal and somber version of herself, with Hujar’s help. His ability to capture this earnest moment shows his connection to his subjects.
An aspect I really enjoyed about the photographs presented in Speed of Life was the fact that it felt curiously familiar to me. I felt I recognized and knew the people in his portraits and the objects he deemed important him. Seeing these slivers of his life from Hujars perspective translated into a reaction of understanding for me. I think this sense of understanding is what many artists try to strive for and emulate, the ability to portray themselves in their work in such a way to reach out and affect someone. Hujar captured the targets of his photographs so clearly in the way he saw them that it rendered his point of view extremely well. Lucky in the way that he was able to accomplish this with his photographs, Peter Hujar was able to depict a time of love and awakening, mingled with the atrocities of the AIDS epidemic. He was not only able to expose a pure side of a subject, but show the viewer what he saw, which results in connection and empathy with the photographer and the photographed.