- Peter Hujar 1934–1987
- Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
- Image: 373 × 374 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2020
New Jersey Night from the Westside Highway 1975 is a black and white square-format photograph from a loose body of work known as Night by the American photographer Peter Hujar (see also Tate P82557–8). Printed to emphasise shadow and contrast, it shows the bright lights of high-rise city buildings in the distance with what appears to be a construction site or disused lot in the foreground. Hujar made few prints and this is a rare example of a lifetime print.
Hujar is a major figure of American photography of the 1970s and 1980s and was closely connected to the countercultural movements in New York of that time. He was particularly known for his intimate black and white portraits and nude studies of the visual artists, writers and performers whom he counted among his close friends and acquaintances (see, for example, Tate P82409–P82412). His work also includes photographs of Midtown and downtown New York, and domestic and wild animals (see Shaggy Cow, Hyrkin Farm (II) c.1969–85, Tate P82560).
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, Hujar worked as a commercial photographer while also pursuing his own practice, focusing from the mid-1960s onwards on the people connected to the downtown culture in which he was immersed: the emerging punk scene, camp performance and the circles around cult music magazines. As his images circulated in the alt-pictorial newspaper tabloid Newspaper and in Interview magazine, on flyers advertising drag performance and, in 1969, a poster for the Gay Liberation Front, they became a familiar part of the East Village’s visual culture.
Hujar rarely worked in series, but did focus for varying periods of time on particular themes and a box he left behind after his death labelled ‘night’ suggests that this was one. In 2005 his estate co-published some photographs from this box together with others that relate to this subject matter as the book Night. Altogether, the prints in this book date from 1976 until 1987, the year that Hujar died. Shot in New York City and New Jersey, they feature Wall Street buildings, loading docks, deserted city streets, parks, wrecked cars and candid, mostly anonymous, portraits, including some of Halloween partygoers. Not all the photographs in the series were necessarily shot at night since Hujar worked at dawn and dusk, as well as after dark.
Hujar’s only lifetime publication, Portraits in Life and Death, was released in 1976. Featuring portraits of his contemporaries juxtaposed with death portraits shot in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily, the book defined the sensitive, classical approach that he applied to all of his subject matter. This included not only people but also plants, animals, seascapes and cityscapes: Midtown skyscrapers, empty streets, abandoned buildings and cruising spots of the East and West Villages.
Hujar walked through lower Manhattan each night, often taking his Rolleiflex, the same camera that he used for indoor shoots. While the streets were empty after dark, having lived there for decades Hujar likely felt safe (Nickas 2005, n.p). Rather than appearing threatening, then, the darkness in these photographs suggests familiarity and also potential, for encounters and events that may not happen in the light of day. It is this aspect of the nocturnal that had fascinated earlier European photographers like Brassaï, Bill Brandt and WeeGee who, as is also the case with the American Berenice Abbott, forged the tradition of twentieth-century night photography to which Hujar’s Night photographs belong. He would have been aware of them all and, like his friend Diane Arbus (1923–1971), felt an especial affinity with the alternative view of New York.
Just as with his photographic predecessors, Hujar captured a world that no longer exists. His Night photographs are set in a city on the brink of bankruptcy, in the moment between the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This was a fertile time for photography, and the queer political scene of this time was well-documented. So too were aspects of subculture, such as the piers below 14th Street that were used by gay men as a place for sunbathing and cruising, as well by artists as a place to make work. Alvin Baltrop, Stanley Stellar, Frank Hallam, Shelley Seccombe and Leonard Fink were among those who, like Hujar, photographed the men there. Yet very few captured queer culture in New York at night. Fink, Rink Foto and queer photographers working in other cities, such as Amos Badertscher in Baltimore, are among the known examples. Like them, Hujar’s work offers an uncommon view of an important aspect of gay culture from this time.
Peter Hujar; A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and Fotomuseum Winterthur 1994.
Peter Hujar and Robert Nickas, Peter Hujar: Night, New York 2005.
Peter Hujar. Speed of Life, exhibition catalogue, Fundación Mapfre, Barcelona, 27 January–30 April 2017; Fotomuseum The Hague, 1 July–15 October 2017; The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 26 January–20 May 2018; Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, California, 11 July–7 October 2018.
Emma Lewis and Yasufumi Nakamori
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