The Institute of Contemporary Arts is proud to present the first UK retrospective of the photographer Peter Hujar, one of the most important American photographers of the 1970s and early 1980s. Hujar is best known for his black and white portraits of the New York avant-garde, but his subjects also include nudes, animals and the night time streets of Downtown Manhattan.
Hujar started his career on the fringes of fashion photography, before becoming increasingly involved in avant-garde circles. He first began to make a name for himself in the early 70s with his male nudes and portraits of the gay scene, and this exhibition contains portraits of cult transvestite performers such as Candy Darling, Ethyl Eichelberger and Divine. Others include figures from New York's cultural aristocracy, such as Andy Warhol, as well as younger scene-makers such as Susan Sontag, John Waters and David Wojnarowicz -- the latter Hujar's partner and friend in the 1980s. Many of the subjects of Hujar's portraits are shown languidly reclining, posing with beautiful insouciance.
In 1976 Hujar published Portraits in Life and Death, in which his images of New York's luminaries were supplemented by photographs of desiccated bodies in the catacombs of Palermo. Susan Sontag, who wrote the foreword to the book, commented on the symbiotic relationship between the two groups of works: "Photographyâ¦ converts the whole world into a cemeteryâ¦ Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death."
The exhibition also contains a number of Hujar's male nudes, reflecting his immersion in the dynamic gay culture which characterised New York at this time. Looking beyond Hujar's portraiture, the exhibition also features a selection of the photographer's images of New York itself, including stunning images of empty Downtown streets at night, as well images of the city's cruising grounds. Finally, the show also contains a number of striking images of animals, which he photographed using the same square format film, and the same iconic approach, that he brought to his human subjects.
Hujar's work received little public recognition during his lifetime, but the photographer was a highly significant figure in the East Village scene of the 1970s and early 1980s, and his work was an important influence on fellow artists such as Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe. Since his death, from AIDS, in 1987, Hujar has been the subject of retrospectives at Grey Art Gallery, New York University, in 1990, at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (travelling to Fotomuseum, Winterthur) in 1994, and at PS1 Contemporary Art Centre, New York, in 2005.