It took over three decades for Peter Hujar’s work to be recognized for its true worth, a process that began in 2017, on the 30th anniversary of his death, when publishing house Aperture brought out the monograph Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. This first step in his rehabiliation had been orchestrated by the Pace/MacGill gallery in New York and the Fraenkel gallery in San Francisco, alongside his executor, the writer Stephen Koch. During his lifetime, Hujar did not have an official gallery and published only one book, the masterpiece Portraits of Life and Death (1976), which was prefaced by Susan Sontag, whom he had befriended in 1963.
Hujar’s life began in Trenton, New Jersey, where he was raised by his Ukrainian grandparents: his mother lived in Manhattan, where she worked as a waitress; his father had left long before he was born. At the age of 11, on his grandmother’s death, he went to live with his alcoholic mother and her partner, both of whom dished out copious violence. A gin bottle thrown against the wall was the final straw, and he left home for good at 16. This unloved adolescent would constantly seek the company of those like him, such as the artist-activist David Wojnarowicz, who was briefly his boyfriend. His interest in photography came from leafing through fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, and especially his discovery of Lisette Model (1901–83), a European photographer who showed a disturbing vision of America long before Robert Frank, and who had been a pioneer in her combination of street photography and fashion.
Hujar started out as an assistant to Otto Maya and Jess Brown, who shot for interior and lifestyle magazines, before taking night classes with Richard Avedon and the art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Marvin Israel. Right from the start, he knew he wanted to do portraits. Avedon wrote him, in 1979, “If there are new photos you want to sell, don’t hesitate to call, because I’m your collector.”