Fundación MAPFRE/Aperture, 246 pp., $50.00
This is what the great photographer Brassaï, who spent a lifetime recording the merry-go-round of twentieth-century Paris, had to say about his work: “I hunt for what is permanent.” Peter Hujar, who photographed New York and died in the city in 1987, could have said the same thing. Hujar’s achievement, the subject of a compact, engrossing retrospective now at the Morgan Library and Museum, has a nerve-wracking power. Here is an artist who yearns for the certainty of forever while refusing to deny the indeterminacy of the present. Hujar explores a considerable range of subjects. The exhibition, entitled “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life,” includes portraits of friends, erotic nudes, nocturnal cityscapes, and studies of animals in the countryside. Hujar responds to different subjects in different ways. He’s there for the subject. The work never suggests a signature style. Avidity itself is his style. Henry Miller called Brassaï the eye of Paris. Peter Hujar is the eye of New York.
“Peter Hujar: Speed of Life” arrives in the city he called home at a time when interest in photography is at high tide. This medium, for much of the twentieth century a fascinating outlier in the visual arts, can now claim a prestige equal to if not greater than that of painting. Major museum exhibitions of work by Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Stephen Shore, and the still-underappreciated Indian photographer Raghubir Singh are accepted as inevitabilities, as essential to our cultural life as a show of Michelangelo’s drawings. There’s cause for celebration in photography’s hard-won success. But there is also cause for concern, because we risk losing track of what is prickly, unruly, and essentially dissident about even the most artful of photographs. Photography, perhaps more than any other medium, sets in high relief the vexed relationship between art and life. Looking at a photograph, there is no easy way to determine whether we are held by the facts that the camera has revealed or by the particular way that the photographer has interpreted the facts.
When we find ourselves bewitched by Nadar’s portrait of Baudelaire, is it the photographer’s treatment of the writer or the writer himself that most fully engages us? And if it’s some combination of the two, as is surely the case, then how do we disentangle this confounding dynamic? Is it possible? Is it even desirable? Looking at Hujar’s portrait of a reclining Susan Sontag, who was a friend and wrote a brief introduction to the only book he published during his life, we may feel similarly perplexed. Is it Sontag who interests us? Or Hujar’s view of Sontag? Writing about Hujar, Sontag argued that photography is fundamentally romantic, because it makes “the familiar appear strange, the marvelous appear commonplace.” But we didn’t need…
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