Life & Culture

The Photographer Who Defined the New York Underground

30 years after his death, Peter Hujar is included in Helmut Lang’s just-announced ‘Artist Series’ and is the subject of a new book, previewed here

  • TextTed Stansfield

The 80s were an extraordinary time in New York. The city witnessed a recession, a stock market crash, the AIDS crisis, a crack epidemic and a spike in crime rates and gang violence, along with a gender revolution in the workplace, an explosion in club culture and the birth of hip hop and MTV. It was the age of Andy Warhol, Studio 54, Madonna, Mapplethorpe and MJ. And it was here, amid this cultural turbulence, that photographer Peter Hujar emerged.

Born in New Jersey and raised in New York, Hujar’s name is synonymous with his stunning black and white portrayals of the city’s countercultural and underground scenes. Though he started out in the 50s as a commercial photographer, he later focused on his personal and artistic work which included portraits of artists, musicians, writers and performers such as Warhol, William Burroughs, Fran Lebowitz and Susan Sontag.

Hujar’s career was bookended by Diane Arbus, who rose to prominence in the 70s, and Robert Mapplethorpe, who did so a decade later. And while Arbus was known for her documentary work and Mapplethorpe for his portrayals of BDSM, black men and botany, Hujar’s work was harder to pin down. “One thing I won’t answer is anything about why I do what I do,” he told David Wojnarowicz at the beginning of an attempted interview.

While Hujar sadly died of AIDs in 1987, his photographs of Downtown New York and those who inhabited it resonate as powerfully today as they did back then. This week, Helmut Lang revealed that a selection of his images will be included in a new project initiated by the brand’s Editor-in-Residence and Dazed’s Editor-in-Chief, Isabella Burley, who describes his portrayals of the New York underground as having a “unique intimacy”.

“Documenting his friends such as John Waters, Candy Darling and Cookie Mueller, figures who have all become immortalised in countercultural history, and would later come to change the mainstream,” says Burley. “The artist series project channels the way Helmut Lang worked with artists such as Jenny Holzer and Robert Mapplethorpe. Focusing on cult works from their archive, we hope to recontextualise them and introduce them to a new generation.”

In addition to this project, a new survey of the photographer’s work titled Peter Hujar: Speed of Life has just been released. Here we delve inside its pages with an exclusive preview of this beautiful new tome.

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life is out now.