“Lost Downtown” showcases the late Peter Hujar’s landmark black-and-white photographs
Nearly 30 years after his death, American photographer Peter Hujar seems to be coming into his own. Over the past few years, his controversial black-and-white photographs of New York celebrities have gained well-deserved attention among US artistic circles, culminating in the current exhibit, “Lost Downtown,” which opened on January 28 and runs until February 27 at Paul Kasmin Gallery in Manhattan.
Hujar was born in New Jersey in 1934 and moved to Manhattan as a teenager. He did fashion photography for Harper’s Bazaar magazine in the 1960s, but it’s his portraits, created in his Manhattan studio, that continue to capture the world’s attention.
“Lost Downtown” features over 20 photographs by Hujar of casual acquaintances, close friends and cherished lovers, providing a rare insight into the personalities and charisma of the Downtown Manhattan scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The celebrities featured in the photographs, including John Waters, Susan Sontag and Divine, generally lived in the same Lower East Side neighborhood as Hujar. The late photographer always chose sitters who were uninhibited in front of the camera, resulting in perfectly composed artworks that captured intimate aspects of each subject’s personality.
“It’s a vanished world, and Peter Hujar was right there in it,” writes Stephen Koch. “The Lower East Side between 1972 and 1985 – filled with artists, wannabe artists and hangers-on – was a community of the misbegotten gathered from every town in America and relocated in the mean streets between Broadway and the Bowery. That Downtown is forever gone. Time, gentrification, disease and death took their toll. But before it vanished, its extravagant cast sat for Peter Hujar’s camera – and is now alive again in front of our eyes.”
Hujar died on AIDS in 1987, at the age of 53. His work is part of various public collections, including the Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.