Peter Hujar and the Art of Portraiture

Matthew Israel
Jul 31, 2013 6:45PM

Recently I sat down with Stephen Koch, the Director of the Peter Hujar Archive, to discuss a few of the stories behind some of Hujar’s best-known photographs. Hujar, who died of AIDS in 1987, was a leading figure in the group of artists, musicians, writers, and performers at the forefront of the cultural scene in downtown New York in the 1970s and early '80s, and was enormously admired for his completely uncompromising attitude towards work and life. He was a consummate technician, and his portraits of people, animals, and landscapes, with their exquisite black-and-white tonalities, have been very influential on subsequent photographers.

Stephen was a close friend of Hujar’s and has been the Director of the Archive since Hujar’s death. Below are some excerpts from our conversation:

MI: Could you tell us a bit of the story behind Peter's portrait of Paul Thek?

SK: Peter and Paul were friends for a long time (and briefly in a relationship) and this image comes from late in their friendship. Peter and Paul met originally via Cooper Union and an artist studying there named Joseph Raffael. Peter and Joseph were together at that point and among all of the really smart gay men they hung out with at Cooper, there was Paul, and Paul was really the star. Paul was a fantastic artist. The three of them traveled together in Italy at the end of Cooper. Joseph was awarded a Fulbright in the late 1950s, and the idea was that the three of them would piggyback on the money and used it to travel to live in Florence together. It was one of the most important periods of Peter's life and was formative to his maturation as an artist.

MI: When were Peter and Paul in a relationship?

SK: As of 1965, and only briefly. At that point, Paul was one of the art world’s golden boys. He had had a successful show at the Stable Gallery and an even more successful show at the-then brand new Pace Gallery. He was the darling of the art world and he looked it. He was handsome, very blonde, amusing, fun to be with. He had an amazing charisma, which after the fact I realize came as a result of his being bipolar. In 1965 he had no idea that this was true, but as of the mid-1970s, Paul began a lifelong struggle with his sanity. It’s not said very often but Paul struggled from the same disease as Van Gogh. Luckily he was given Lithium but he really struggled tremendously.

MI: And this portrait evinces that struggle?

SK: Yes, and it comes at the beginning stages of what would be a prolonged and difficult period for him. Paul was not just eccentric, not just unusual, but really crazy. When I asked Peter once why he couldn’t live with Paul, he said “I can’t live with someone who is insane.” 

In this way, this image captures not the face of the art world darling but the face of someone who has seen real trouble; someone who has gone through a lot of pain. By 1976, Paul’s time as an art world darling was long gone. He was no longer represented by Pace and he lived a very different life, alienated from his previous community because he was so unstable.

MI: Let’s move on to the Char Pei. Could you tell us about the place of animals in Peter’s work?

SK: Peter loved taking pictures of animals. It was a very important thing for him and it’s true that his images of animals have been among his most popular works since he died. This is actually his most popular animal portrait.

Peter's relationship to animals was very intense. I can remember driving with him one time in the countryside—I was driving always since he didn’t drive—when he said stop and jumped out of the car to go into a cow field to see a bunch of cows sitting under a tree chewing on grass.

And then his conversation with them began. He talked to them, for fifteen minutes, a half hour, and then an hour. Before taking any pictures. And he did this regularly. By doing this he felt he was creating a rapport between an animal and himself and he believed he was doing genuine portraits of animals just as one might do portraits of people.

MI: There are two versions of this work, correct?

SK: Yes, one pictures the dog looking almost snobbish with its head turned in a sort of “who are you?”-type pose. The other one—this one—is more benign. The dog is less confrontational—more proud—and your eye lingers on the folds in its skin. The dog belonged to one of Peter’s friends.

MI: What is distinct about this portrait?

SK: It seems like the animal is telling us something about himself. This is a sign of the wonderful rapport Peter had with animals.

One additional fact about the Char Pei: Peter knew everyone loved this image, to the extent that when he became ill he gave a print to everyone who was a caretaker for him. He didn't actually make the prints—but asked Gary Schneider, a young photographer then, who he had taken under his wing, to do them for him, and he would sign them. To this day these remain the only photographs Peter did not print.

MI: What was Peter’s relationship to Susan Sontag?

SK: Susan played a very significant role in Peter’s life—as well as Paul Thek’s. They all used to spend a lot of time together and Susan had a kind of magic in the eyes of Peter and Paul. She seemed to know instinctively how to be famous. For Peter and Paul, she couldn’t do anything that didn’t make her more famous. Importantly, Susan was always closer to Paul than Peter. I think this is because she thought of Paul as brighter than Peter but I would disagree.

MI: Where does this image exist in the context of Susan’s career?

SK: This photograph was made at a crucial moment. Peter had decided to do a book, the one substantial book he published in his lifetime, which would become Portraits in Life and Death. It was planned to feature images of people he knew in the (New York) downtown world at the time juxtaposed with bodies from the catacombs in Palermo, Sicily. This image is included in the book.

On her end, Susan was deep in a prolonged and difficult struggle to write her book, On Photography, which was one of the major efforts of this stage in her life and which has become one of the most important books on the history of photography. Just as she finished it she learned she had very advanced breast cancer. She actually wrote the preface to Portraits in Life and Death from her hospital bed, if I remember correctly, on hospital stationery which I grabbed for her. I had come to see her—I knew Susan before I knew Peter—and during our visit she remembered she needed to write the piece and that she had promised Peter—who I didn’t know so well at that point—that she would do it. In the span of 25 minutes I watched her write something up and then the nurse kicked me out for staying too long. Susan asked me to type the text up and give it to Peter. It turned out to be a dazzling introduction. Delivering the text to Peter was the first time I saw the inside of his apartment. He sat down and read the text and in many ways our friendship began with that moment and this image.

MI: Where was the photograph taken?

SK: Probably at Susan’s house, I think her pretty fancy house, at 340 Riverside Drive. I’m not absolutely sure of this, but it’s not Peter’s studio, where many of his portraits were taken. Like a lot of Peter’s subjects, she is reclining and she is looking inward. She is not as assertive as usual. She is someone in deep, silent thought. Susan had many glamorous pictures taken of her and Peter knew how to take glamorous images—having trained as a commercial photographer and working in fashion—but (as in many of his images) he chose to capture her with this meditating look, which was a very different side of Susan than was usually seen, but in many ways, this is the Susan that I knew exactly.

Notably, Peter was not mentioned in On Photography. He thought this was because he wasn’t famous enough. Also, the book features Sontag’s struggle with the question of whether photography is an art. Peter never questioned this and [as a reflection of his opinion on the matter] often quoted Richard Avedon’s comment to him: “You know, Peter, there are times that I wonder if maybe Susan is the enemy.”

MI: Could you tell us about the portrait of Peggy Lee?

This is one of Peter’s great portraits of a famous person. It was actually done on a magazine assignment, of which he did many—though he usually never considered such works part of his art. For this assignment, he was told to go to the Waldorf Astoria hotel and photograph Peggy Lee. He went there in the afternoon and took some pictures and then the talk began. Peter had an amazing gift for conversation. His conversation was mesmerizing—so personal and intensely felt. Like no other person I knew, he said what he felt and didn’t ever mouth others’ words. He was seen by many people as taciturn but this was just because if he didn’t have anything to say he wouldn’t say anything. But if you let him say things you would get into a special conversation.

MI: And he spoke to Peggy Lee?

SK: When Peter arrived in the afternoon, they immediately started talking. Then, because it was getting late and she said she had to have dinner, they had dinner together, and the conversation continued and continued and continued all night long.

MI: Did he take pictures during this time?

SK: Peter didn’t start taking pictures until the middle of the night. This image was taken at 3 A.M. Peter left the hotel in the morning after doing his “Peter thing”—spending time with a superstar, and from that exchange and talk, creating a picture of a person who is very famous but interested and enthralled and thinking in a special way which is not part of a celebrity portrait at all. Peter always sought for a moment when something about a person was revealed that was alive and crucial and not a cliché—and that is what this image was.

Explore more works by Peter Hujar from Pace/MacGill Gallery.

Matthew Israel