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Peter Hujar (October 11, 1934 – November 26, 1987) was an American photographer best known for his black and white portraits. Hujar's work was known for stripping his subjects of their identity down to their innate, vulnerable forms. His photography has also been known to capture the individuality of each of his subjects. Whether his subject was a person, animal, or object—Hujar stressed that each is one of a kind.
Hujar was born in Trenton, New Jersey. Peter never knew his father, who had abandoned Peter’s mother, Rose, and his child. Rose lived in downtown Manhattan and worked as a waitress. When Peter was 11, he was sent to live with his mother and her male companion. The two adults were boozers, and after Rose threw a bottle at her son, who was then 16, Peter moved out. Because of this he was deeply insecure about his past childhood. He was raised by his Ukrainian grandparents on their farm, where he only spoke Ukrainian until he started school. Hujar remained on the farm with his grandparents until his grandmother's death in 1946, when he moved in with his mother, Rose Murphy, and her second husband who were living in New York City. However, the household was abusive and Hujar left to take care of himself as a teen. Hujar is ofter described as charismatic, complicated, and deeply insecure due to this family history.
He received his first camera in 1947 and attended the School of Industrial Art where he expressed interest in being a photographer. He was fortunate to encounter an encouraging teacher, the poet Daisy Aldan, and followed her advice of becoming a commercial photography apprentice.
As early as 1956, Hujar began taking photographs that showed signs of his particular style and point of view. Hujar's style is something that should be experienced rather than just described. After meeting artist Joseph Raffael, Hujar accompanied him on a Fulbright to Italy, where he took many photos with the artist. In 1963, Hujar secured his own Fulbright and returned to Italy where he explored and photographed the Palermo catacombs. On this trip, Hujar was accompanied by his lover Paul Thek, who would be one of the important relationships of his life.
Back in New York, Hujar was part of the downtown art scene. He was one of the lead figures in the incoming groups of artists, musicians, writers, and performers at the beginning of the AIDS Crisis and cultural scene in downtown New York during the 1970s and early '80s. He was immensely admired for his completely unyielding attitude towards his work, life, and values. He appeared in one of Andy Warhol's Screen Tests (which Warhol later included in a series called "The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys"). He worked for a spell for successful commercial photographer Harold Krieger and shot for Harper's Bazaar and GQ. He moved in to his deceased friend Jackie Curtis's loft at 189 2nd Avenue. Hujar took many photos of his friends, combining many of them with his Palermo photos for a book called Portraits in Life and Death, published in 1976 by Da Capo Press. The introduction was written by his close friend Susan Sontag and her portrait appears in the book. Using the people in his life as subjects, Hujar took iconic photos of Sontag, Ethyl Eichelberger, Candy Darling, Divine, and his lover David Wojnarowicz. His photograph of Darling on her deathbed in the hospital has been frequently reproduced.
Hujar is probably best known for the work he produced during the last years of his life before dying from AIDS-related pneumonia; his photographs from that period document the effervescent creative spirit that pulsed through the East Village and its environs in overlapping fields — visual art, post-punk music-making, performance art, and political activism. Hujar was diagnosed with AIDS in January 1987, and died ten months later, on November 25, at Cabrini Medical Center from AIDS-related pneumonia. Wojnarowicz was with him when he died and made a brief video recording of his body, head to toe, and took 23 photographs. While on his deathbed, Hujar shot photographs of Wojnarowicz in his final attempt to capture life through the lens of a camera. Per Hujar's wishes, his funeral was held at Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village.
He is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Valhalla, New York.
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