It begins in small doses. As you walk down the steps from the main entrance of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, a wall of Peter Hujar’s iconic black and white photographs awaits you on your left. Two parallel lines of images trace across the wall, beckoning visitors into the exhibition. This teaser is digestible and inviting, making you want more.
As visitors turn the corner, they enter a room made up of walls like the one they just left: two rows of black and white photographs tracing the perimeter. Here lies the majority of the exhibition Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, on display at BAMPFA until November 18. Since Hujar primarily shot with a twin-lens reflex camera, all of the images are square. Spatially, the photographs fit perfectly with one another, and at first glance the room appears buttoned up—uniform. But really, something much more chaotic is at play.
In the last solo exhibit of his life at the Gracie Mansion Gallery in 1986, Hujar staged his photographs in the same two parallel lines we see in this room. It is said that Hujar spent hours shuffling his images into different patterns until at last reaching a desired formation. He wanted to be sure that no two images hanging next to one another possessed the same subject matter. Apsara DiQuinzio, BAMPFA’s Phyllis C. Wattis MATRIX Curator explains, “Showing the works in a grid of two rows, with no two similar pieces consecutively repeating, creates an opportunity for the viewer to build associative relationships on their own. It keeps the viewer active, enabling them to draw their own connections.” For example, a portrait of a friend sits above a pensive dog, which is situated next to a cityscape.
Because this instinct of differentiation is honored in the current exhibition of Hujar’s work, it invites modern-day viewers to experience the same reaction that gallery-goers felt in the 1980s. We look at all the similarly-shaded and sized images on the wall, and we want to connect them to one another. What lines can we draw between a close-up of the Hudson River and Candy Darling on her deathbed? Is there an unseen bond between two sheep in one image and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in another? In a way, it’s this desire to connect that forces viewers to look beyond the surface of these images. This is the magic of Hujar’s work—it tricks us into thinking we are safe. But once we step closer towards all the grays and murky blacks in the photos, we realize that the neatness and consistency we thought we recognized is actually covering up something much more raw.
Critics regularly argue that the soothing look of Hujar’s work is why his contemporaries—Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin, to name a few—gained more recognition during his lifetime. Other photographers shocked the public with depictions of LGBTQ subjects, while Hujar was more subtle. Instead of capturing the glossy sharpness of a gay male form, Hujar wanted other senses to come into play. “I want people to feel the picture and to smell it,” he said in reference to the image Randy Gilberti’s Legs (1981). And looking at those legs, you almost do start to smell them. There are indents at the ankles where socks were just removed, and the toenails are in need of trimming. All the texture of a real life is still there, and this is exactly the point.
Since the birth of portraiture, we’ve argued over how accurately a person can be represented in the genre. A photographer’s perspective or direction of a subject is often present and identifiable. But in many of Hujar’s images, it feels like we’re catching glimpses of these people a little earlier than we usually do in a photograph, before they’ve been wiped blank. Randy Gilberti didn’t pose for his friend long enough for the marks on his ankles to fade. Hujar retained an unadulterated sense of respect for the lives he captured with his camera. The idea was never to look, but rather to imagine. All of these people on the wall fought hard to be themselves, and Hujar didn’t want to represent them as anything besides just that. As you walk around the room, the photographer’s empathy is still tangible and infectious.
The openness of the subjects in these photographs inevitably gives off a sense of their vulnerability. Many of the people looking into Hujar’s lens appear to have let their guard down. In fact, the subjects are often captured in varying states of repose. Susan Sontag’s head is resting in her arms, and Fran Lebowitz supports herself on her elbows in bed. In the photograph Bouche Walker (Reggie’s Dog) (1981), a Boxer sits with splayed legs, resting the back of his body on one hip.
Because of all these relaxed poses, it’s easy to draw diagonal lines throughout Hujar’s photographs. Diagonals are a useful tool in advertising, and Hujar started his career as a commercial photographer. Z-pattern advertising capitalizes on the way our eyes track an image from left to right and top to bottom. Many of the images in this show complement the way our eyes are trained to read forms in pictures. In a sense, it’s yet another way Hujar lulls viewers into accepting and connecting with the people he is representing.
Hujar surrounded himself with influential and brave characters. Many of the people he photographed are recognizable to us today because their audacious thinking garnered them lasting fame. But set against the portraits of William Burroughs, Ethyl Eichelberger, and the other recognizable faces in this show, are a number of animal portraits, which should not go overlooked. Hujar spent his early childhood on his grandparents’ farm in rural New Jersey. Before he entered the hip scene of New York City’s East Village, his world was full of animals. And so, the rawness and respect that is felt in Hujar’s portraits of friends is also found in his animal portraits. Maybe that’s why they seem so unique. While looking at the image Sheep, Pennsylvania (1969), I feel as though I am caught in the act of gazing, like the sheep knows I am staring at it.
The animals in these photographs feel more real than the animals I’m used to seeing in print, maybe even in real life. It’s clear that they are given the kind of respect that one gives to a person rather than a pet. It isn’t the attentive love of a dog owner that Hujar casts on these animals—it’s a moment of utter focus. The animals’ expressions as they look back at the camera remind me of the look one might give to someone who speaks their same language. In fact, I think it’s these animal portraits that allow me to see what’s at work in the rest of Hujar’s portraiture in the show. The desire to represent something with piercing clarity and genuine respect is felt more intensely in the subjects that are more commonly seen as breeds rather than individuals.
If the show at BAMPFA introduces us to Hujar in small doses, it concludes in small doses too. As visitors leave, they pass the same wall they visited when first walking into the gallery. But after seeing all the images in the larger room, looking at this single wall of photographs now feels different. Before heading back up the stairs and out the exit, I stare at all the people and animals and landscapes that once surrounded the photographer. One of Hujar’s mentors, Richard Avedon, famously said, “My portraits are more about myself than they are about the people I photograph.” Hujar seems to challenge this notion. He sought out people who desperately wanted to be themselves, because he desperately wanted to capture them as just that. If Hujar’s portraits tell us more about himself than his subjects, what they tell us is the story of a photographer’s prodigious capacity for empathy.
If you would like to check out this incredible show, Peter Hujar: Speed of Life is on view at BAMPFA until November 18, 2018.