- Peter Hujar 1934–1987
- Photograph, inkjet print on paper
- Image: 375 × 375 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by the Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of Christian Keesee 2019
Susan Sontag 1975 is a black and white portrait photograph of the American writer Susan Sontag (1933–2004) by the American photographer Peter Hujar. It is one of a group of black and white portraits by Hujar in Tate’s collection (see Tate P82408–P82412). Sontag is shown from the waist up, stretched out on her back on a made bed; she wears a dark turtleneck sweater and has her arms crossed behind her head. She appears relaxed but also confident, her pensive gaze directed upwards away from the camera. The photograph was shot in Hujar’s studio – he would ask his sitters to pose lying down on his bed so that he could achieve the intimate atmosphere so characteristic of his portraits. This portrait of Sontag contrasts with the more candid portrait of Hujar’s then lover, the American artist David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992), who he photographed in the same setting but undressed, the bed dishevelled, staring into the camera (see David Wojnarowicz (II) 1981,Tate P82410). Hujar often chose to photograph his close friends and partners. He and Sontag first met in 1963 and immediately struck up an intense friendship. The last chapter of Sontag’s second novel Death Kit (1967) was inspired by the photographs that Hujar made in the ancient catacombs in Palermo, Sicily. Sontag also wrote the introduction to Hujar’s book, Portraits in Life and Death, published in 1976, in which he juxtaposed his images of the mummified bodies in the catacombs with his portraits of his New York contemporaries.
Hujar was a familiar figure in the cultural world of downtown New York during the 1970s and 1980s and was involved with different scenes such as visual art, punk music, performance and political activism. He died in 1987 from an AIDS-related illness, like so many of his contemporaries. His intimate and informally staged portraits of renowned artists and writers, as well as of many anonymous New Yorkers, remain as a document of the circles he moved in at a critical time in the history of New York’s counterculture. Hujar also carried out a photographic study of the mummified figures in the ancient catacombs in the Sicilian capital of Palermo and a number of these were published, with a preface by the American writer Susan Sontag, alongside a selection of his New York photographs in his book Portraits in Life and Death in 1976.
This print is a posthumous estate print made by Hujar’s friend and protégé Gary Schneider in an edition of ten, of which this is number eight. Hujar entrusted some of his printing to Schneider during his lifetime and approved the concept of posthumous editions as long as Schneider did the printing.
Peter Hujar. Speed of Life, exhibition catalogue, Fundacion Mapfre, Barcelona, 27 January–30 April 2017, Fotomuseum The Hague, 1 July–15 October 2017, The Morgan Library & Museum, 26 January–20 May 2018, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, California, 11 July–7 October 2018.
Peter Schjeldahl, ‘The Bohemian Rhapsody of Peter Hujar. Photographs at the Crossroads of High Art and Low Life’, The New Yorker, 5 February 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/05/the-bohemian-rhapsody-of-peter-hujar, accessed 10 April 2018.
Edward M. Gómez, ‘Peter Hujar’s Elegy for New York City in the 1980s’, Hyperallergic, 24 February 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/428018/peter-hujar-speed-of-life-morgan-library-and-museum/, accessed 10 April 2018.
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