The Breath of Sovereignty

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The Photography of Peter Hujar

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All photos by Peter Hujar courtesy of Albert Merola Gallery
by Steve Desroches

“I make uncomplicated direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects. I photograph those who push themselves to any extreme and people who cling to the freedom to be themselves.” – Peter Hujar

In life, photographer Peter Hujar had artistic vision that bordered on prophecy. His body of work captures downtown New York City throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, a complex time if there ever was one, providing a chronicle of gay life in the city at the time as well as its explosive creative community. Nostalgia reigns supreme these days regarding that time period in New York, and here in Provincetown. But nostalgia is reality’s drunk cousin. How could those times of urban decay and oppression be missed? Hujar’s work with its grace and gentleness explains it quite perfectly.

Even if you are not familiar with his name you most likely know Peter Hujar’s work. His portraiture features a narrative arc that few photographers can master. Candy Darling on her deathbed, the hypnotic-gaze of Cookie Mueller, Divine in repose; the portraits all revel in not just the celebrity of the subject, but in the connection to their humanity that bats away the myths and trappings of fame. But of all of his photographs there is perhaps none more famous than of the one featuring members of the Gay Liberation Front marching arm in arm down 14th Street. The staged photo would later be used for the Gay Liberation Front’s poster, which appeared downtown less than a year after Stonewall. It’s remarkable for all kinds of reasons, historically and artistically, but it captured a tipping point. Look at the faces of those activists: they’re smiling, some clearly laughing. The portrait is imbued with the sense of possibility, a feeling of power, and maybe for the first time, optimism, which is after all the weapon of the true revolutionary.

Gay Liberation Front poster from 1969

Since his death from AIDS in 1987, at the age of 53, Hujar’s work has appeared in a variety of books and scholarly works as well as, of course, in publications he produced in his lifetime. Last year, however, marked the first major exhibition of his work when the Morgan Library and Museum in New York presented Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, which then traveled to Fundación MAPFRE in Madrid. To honor the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots the Albert Merola Gallery here in Provincetown is presenting Peter Hujar: Time it was, a seven-photo show featuring a beautifully curated presentation of the work of a photographer now considered to be one of the most important of the 20th century. The show opens on June 28, fifty years to the date of Stonewall.

“He was a very intense person,” says James Balla who co-owns the gallery with husband Albert Merola. “He was into people. I think he was a very difficult person, even among his friends, and could be hard to deal with. But he was also very empathetic. He could pull this out in a portrait. He could comment on the subject. He was very sensitive that way.”

Consider the photo Christopher Street Pier #2 (Crossed Legs) taken at the famed gay cruising spot in 1976. Others captured that long gone time, space, and culture focusing on the sexual freedom, the gritty, celebratory raunch, or the exploratory mystery. That’s all there in the image, but so, too, is an ease and a full breath followed by the exhale of personal sovereignty.

Dog in Street, Provincetown, 1976

The Albert Merola Gallery worked with the Peter Hujar Archive and Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York in creating this show to present a comprehensive story of those times. While much of his work was in New York capturing moments like the reclining gentleman at the Christopher Street Pier, Balla and Merola of course inquired if Hujar ever came and worked in Provincetown. After all, many of his subjects were frequent travelers on the pipeline between downtown New York and Provincetown in the 1970s. The initial answer was “No,” to everyone’s knowledge Hujar never came to the Cape tip. Archival work can at times resemble archaeology, though. With a little more digging, remarkable discoveries are made. At the New York archives that manage Hujar’s work a print made in 1976 was found. Titled Dog in Provincetown Street, the image captures a solitary shepherd on a quiet Conant Street with dew still fresh on parked cars and a fan in a window signifying it’s still summer or perhaps early autumn. There is no other record in his papers or in the memories of those who knew him that place him in Provincetown, but nevertheless he was here long enough to capture the image of a wandering dog.

Hujar quit his magazine work quite early in life, a life that included a troubled and abusive childhood, finding him on his own at a painfully vulnerable age. His commitment to life as an artist was both thrilling and reckless. A critique of his work, and perhaps his life as an artist, seems to emit a persistent light of faith in his photography. For all the chaos that surrounded him is the calm of knowing that what he created and those he photographed would echo long after, something he seemed to know before the arrival of the plague that took so many away. His creations had life, of that he was certain.

Christopher Street Pier # 2

“It wasn’t his thing, to promote himself,” says Balla. “He gave prints away, and didn’t make big editions of those he did print. He was not into the self-promotion of pushing his work like some of his contemporaries. He didn’t want to be remembered as that ‘gay photographer,’ either. But he knew he’d be famous. He knew his work would get out there. And it has.”

Peter Hujar: Time it was is on exhibition at the Albert Merola Gallery, 424 Commercial St. from Friday, June 28 through Sunday, July 21. An opening reception will be held on June 28 from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information call 508.487.4424 or visit albertmerolagallery.com.

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