Visual notes from the underground

Peter Hujar (1934–1987), "Candy Darling on her Deathbed," 1973, gelatin silver print, collection of Ronay and Richard Menschel. © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.
The Morgan showcases cult figure Peter Hujar’s photos of a lost New York

Peter Hujar never, by a long shot, achieved the success and notoriety of Robert Mapplethorpe, the most prominent downtown photographer of the 1980s. In fact, a great rivalry existed between the two.

“Mapplethorpe was a fantastic self-promoter, and Hujar a dismal one. He also was a slow-goer as an artist, so in the late 1970s they wind up at the same point despite the fact that Hujar had been working 20 years longer,” curator Joel Smith said in an interview about the photographer who was known to be difficult and refused to pander — to dealers, to collectors, to anybody.

“But he derived satisfaction from the fact that Mapplethorpe’s work was about artifice and perfection and beauty. And his work was about finding the beauty in reality and the beauty of imperfection.”

Both chronicled the East Village before it became prime real estate, and both trafficked in taboo subjects. Both were gay men, and both died prematurely of AIDS-related complications — Hujar at 53 in 1987, Mapplethorpe at 42 in 1989.

In 2013, The Morgan acquired more than 100 prints by Hujar, along with 5,700 contact sheets, correspondence, job books and tear sheets. The current show includes most of the prints, plus items from nine other collections.

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1934, Hujar had a difficult personality in no small part because he had a difficult childhood. His father left home before he was born (they never met). His mother subsequently turned him over to his Ukrainian grandparents, who lived in a semirural neighborhood in Ewing Township, New Jersey. When his grandmother died, his mother brought him to Manhattan to reside with her and her second husband, a bookie, in a one-bedroom apartment on East 32nd Street. He left home after his mother, a drinker, threw a bottle at his head when he was 16.

In 1953, he graduated from the School of Industrial Arts on East 79th Street (now the High School of Art and Design at 1075 Second Avenue), where he had the good fortune to befriend his English teacher, Daisy Aldan, a lesbian poet and literary-journal editor who encouraged him to follow his dream and enter the world of photography. Her whimsical portrait, “Daisy Aldan” (1955), kicks off the show.

According to Smith in the exhibit catalog, Hujar’s “tribal sense of identification with the rejected of this world” caused him to gravitate to outsiders. “He admired underdogs bent on lonely causes — the ‘All-In’ people, in his phrase — and he was as enticed by impossibility as any of them. The signature move in his art is to lavish a portraitist’s attention on a subject that defies it.”

But he first worked for 15 years as an assistant to commercial photographers. And then he befriended Richard Avedon in a master class in 1967, a transformational encounter that led to freelance work for music and fashion magazines, like “GQ” (1970-71) and “Harper’s Bazaar” (1968-69), and gigs in advertising.

But it all felt too mainstream, so in 1973, he took a “bohemian vow of poverty,” Smith writes, and rented a loft on Second Avenue at 12th Street (now the site of Village East Cinema), where he could devote himself completely to his art, money be damned.

The exhibit boasts an eclectic mix of black-and-white photos, presented side-by-side and top-to-bottom and seeming to bear no relationship until a closer look reveals a common thread, like a strong diagonal line. Or not.

As the curator said about Hujar’s style: “He was drawn to a very clear, emphatic view of a single thing, whatever it was. Highways, a leg, the World Trade Center.”

There are portraits — individual ones, mostly, but also group shots — nudes, landscapes, cityscapes and numerous sympathetic photos of animals, an interest that carried over from his early childhood in New Jersey. One of our favorite city scenes: “San Gennaro Street Fair at Dawn” (1976).

Celebrity portraits, such as the leggy picture of Madeline Kahn (1981), keep company with portraits of artists, writers, friends, lovers and drag queens — a snapshot of the bohemian circles that Hujar dipped in and out of throughout his life and career.

He met Susan Sontag in Sicily in 1963 through a mutual friend. She wrote the introduction to his only monograph, “Portraits in Life and Death” (1976), which includes an admiring photo of Sontag reclining. In 1974, he captured another writer and friend, Fran Lebowitz, in bed, in a prettily decorated room in Morristown, New Jersey.

But his most iconic image, “Candy Darling on Her Deathbed” (1973), immortalizes transgender Andy Warhol superstar Candy Darling, subject of The Velvet Underground song “Candy Says.” The darling of the downtown drag-queen scene, Candy glammed it up for the camera, Hollywood-style, as she lay dying of cancer in a hospital room. The picture appeared in the New York Post the week after Candy died in 1974, and on the cover of Antony and the Johnsons’ album “I Am a Bird Now” in 2005.

Now it’s here at The Morgan, through May 20.