Ruinous, Bleak and a Bitter Sense of Freedom
By Jeffrey Escoffier
Photography, at least before the digital era, has a special relationship to history. Unlike other visual images, photographs are ‘traces’ of what they portray— they are the direct result of light reflected from objects in front of the camera onto a chemical emulsion. The photographic trace is recorded at a moment of time and then stored for future viewing; it is, thus, automatically an historical representation. According to cultural critic Siegfried Kracauer, the historical significance of photographs rests on their capacity to record things normally unnoticed at the time.
These thoughts come to mind, in the wake of visiting two recent shows featuring work by photographers Peter Hujar (1934-1987) and Leonard Fink (1930-1992), roughly contemporaries, who produced their most notable work during the 1970s and early 1980s — one of the most volatile and wildly creative periods in New York City’s history. The city was on the edge of bankruptcy, it was physically crumbling, and it had an abundance of cheap rents — and was thriving culturally like no other time. It was also a politically charged time: the neoliberal dismantling of the welfare state, the emergence of second wave feminism, the Stonewall riots and rise of gay liberation. The photographs in these two shows capture the mood and feel of the times.
Musically, there was loft jazz, hip hop, punk and disco, and there was graffiti art; there was the downtown art scene which included people like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman, Richard Hambleton, Jenny Holzer, and David Wojnarowicz; there were writers like Lynn Tillman, Dennis Cooper, and Kathy Acker; not to speak of the reorganization of the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs under the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator of modern art, Henry Gedzahler; and the dance boom which ranged from George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov to Bill T. Jones and Merce Cunningham, as well as breakdancing; and let’s not forget there was a renaissance of film production in New York which led to movies like Dog Day Afternoon; Mean Streets; The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three; Husbands; Taxi Driver among others. “[I]n the heyday of punk,” writes Rebecca Solnit, “it was clear we were at the end of something, of modernism, of the American dream, of the industrial economy, a certain kind of urbanism. The evidence was all around us in the ruin of cities.”
Many of the photographs of Peter Hujar and Leonard Fink in these two shows were shot during a decade in which New York City was literally in ruins, hundreds of buildings destroyed by arson in the Bronx, piles of garbage everywhere uncollected, the Hudson River piers abandoned and crumbling, the Westside elevated highway collapsing from disrepair, thousands of city employees laid off, and dark gloomy subway cars covered in graffiti tags. It was only after their deaths that each photographer came to be known as a significant observer of the period’s cultural milieu.
Peter Hujar was famous in the downtown art scene, but it was an underground fame — he was famous for his refusal to compromise, for his aesthetic taste, for his personal sensitivity, and for his encouragement and support of fellow artists. Although widely recognized at the time as a brilliant photographer, and considered by many critics today to be one of the greatest American photographers of the late twentieth-century, Hujar never achieved the prominence that his rival Robert Mapplethorpe did — in part, because, he refused to engage in any kind of personal promotion, and, in part, because they had very different aesthetic temperaments. This was reflected in their work, where Mapplethorpe’s work has formal rigor and flash, Hujar’s exhibited both rigorous craftsmanship and a warm embrace. Mapplethorpe’s photography looks like ‘art,’ while Hujar’s has ‘presence.’
Hujar grew up in rural New Jersey, raised by his Ukrainian grandparents until his mother remarried and brought him to New York City when he was eleven. Both parents were abusive and alcoholic; at age 16 Hujar left home and from then on lived on his own. He attended the School of Industrial Art (later the High School of Art and Design) and studied to become a commercial photographer. After several trips to Italy, he returned to New York, settled in a rundown neighborhood on the Lower Eastside and soon became part of the downtown art scene. Andy Warhol dominated the art scene in this period. And as a handsome young man, Hujar appeared in a series of Warhol’s ‘screen tests’ later called “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys.”
Initially, working as a fashion photographer and entranced by New York’s thriving bohemia, he decided to work only enough to survive, which he did, barely; at the same time, he devoted himself to perfecting his craft and became a master of the darkroom. He immersed himself in the camp parodies of Charles Ludlum’s Theater of the Ridiculous; the politicalized transvestitism of the Cockettes; schmoozing with artists and rock musicians at Max’s Kansas City, the gathering spot for musicians, poets, artists, and politicians; dancing at the Tenth Floor, the famous gay disco dance club; and promiscuous sex during “those fun dark days on the pier” with his friend Gary Schneider.
Hujar’s photographs in this show, many of them portraits, offer us glances into these crisscrossing social and cultural worlds: the downtown art scene; the fashion world; writers and intellectuals; the world of ballet and dance; disco and dance clubs; the streets, bathhouses, backrooms, and piers where gay men were able to have sex twenty-four hours a day; avant-garde theater; and of course, friends and lovers. Hujar had connections to all these worlds. At his funeral photographer Nan Goldin was amazed at “how many people came who thought they were Peter’s best friend… many of us had never even met each other.” No other photographer from that period bridged those many different worlds, from the highbrow intellectual world around figures like Susan Sontag to the gay male public sexual milieu down at the city’s abandoned piers, yet he managed, in his own way, to tie them together and to represent them all.
Hujar’s portraits, usually simple headshots or upper torsos, revealed a sensitivity and meditative restraint — often shot in an empty room, with a simple chair, and no fancy props or designer lighting. At the same time, each of his subjects exudes a strong sense of presence — many of his subjects are deep in thought (“Susan Sontag,” “Charles Ludlum,” “Peggy Lee,” “Fashion: Madeline Kahn”), one with a large erection masturbating (“Bruce de St. Croix”), another doing his make-up while dressing in drag (“Ethyl Eichenberger Applying Makeup”), or just looking quietly at him taking their picture (“Fran Lebowitz,” “Cookie Mueller,” “David Wojnarowicz,” “Boy on a Park Bench,” “Christopher Street Pier (5)”, “Isaac Hayes,” “William Burroughs,” “Henry Lyon Young,” “Penny,” “Pregnant Nude”).
One of the most famous photographs in the show is “Candy Darling on Her Deathbed.” Darling, like Hujar himself, was another person who achieved a degree of fame through the peculiar paths of the bohemian underground. It’s also unlike any other picture in the show in that it’s a ‘glamour shot.’ Taken in 1974, as Darling (born Richard Lawrence Slattery) was in the hospital dying from lymphoma, Hujar encouraged Darling to make herself up and pose as the “super star” she was. It’s a beautiful photograph, there’s nothing morbid about it — it is poised, poignant and elegant. Darling, whom poet Wayne Koestenbaum declared, “the greatest drag queen” of the Warhol circle, first became known as an Andy Warhol Superstar and had appeared in Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s, Flesh (1968) and in Women in Revolt (1971). Despite such ‘underground’ fame, and like Hujar, she never really managed to escape poverty and spent periods of her life sleeping on friend’s couches and living hand to mouth.
The Morgan’s show consists mainly of portraits and includes, in addition to those of his friends and various kinds of celebrities, fresh and sensitive portraits of children and farm animals (Hujar grew up on a farm in rural New Jersey). However, the show does include some photos by Hujar as an observer of city life in that period. One is the very famous “Gay Liberation Front Poster Image” (one of GLF’s founders, Jim Fouratt, was his boyfriend at the time). Like other gay photographers, notably Leonard Fink and Alvin Baltrop, Hujar took pictures at the deteriorating piers along the Hudson riverfront. The piers were famous, both as scenes of endless orgies and as galleries of erotic, political and conceptual art, open to everyone. They weren’t just old, empty warehouses or unused docking facilitating, they were unguarded, literally falling apart safety hazards; the City couldn’t afford to tear them down. The men cruising them for sex had to watch out for holes and sometimes fell in the Hudson. Occasionally someone would report a floating body. Two of Hujar’s photographs in the show give us a stark look at the piers: the stark and scary “Hall, Canal Street Pier” and the picture “Mural at Piers.”
It’s impossible to talk about Hujar without noting his important relationship with David Wojnarowicz, the artist, writer and AIDS activist — and the show includes two portraits of Wojnarowicz. Briefly lovers, Hujar became his mentor and encouraged Wojnarowicz to pursue art. He was, according to Wojnarowicz “the parent I never had, the brother I never had. He helped me drop a lot of the shit I carried from the street — the pain, the fear, the guilt.” After Hujar died in 1987 (from AIDS-related complications) Wojnarowicz declared, as he too was about to die from AIDS complications, that “Everything I made, I made for Peter.”
The exhibition of Leonard Fink’s self-portraits at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art features a different kind of photographer. Unlike Hujar, Fink was not a professional photographer and none of his photography was ever exhibited or published during his lifetime. However, when he died in 1992, he left behind 25, 000 negatives and prints. Though he was neither out to his family nor at the Metropolitan Transit Authority, where he worked as a lawyer, Fink’s great subject was the emergence of gay life in New York City after Stonewall. He took pictures at gay pride parades and other community events, but many of his photographs focused on gay male life at the bars along Christopher Street and on the Hudson River waterfront, especially the vivid sexual scenes in the abandoned and crumbling piers along the Hudson. The work displayed in this show focuses on his self-portraits and they show the course of his developing sense of identity as a gay man and as sexual person, as well as a photographer. The portraits in the show follows the evolution over time from his self-portrait as an Eagle Scout, to a young man taking pictures of himself in a dresser mirror — semi-nude or dressed to go out cruising or with a partner — and finally to a confident gay man naked and out roaming for sex.
The piers played an important role in that development — not only because Fink shot so many pictures there —almost half of Fink’s self-portraits in the show were shot at the piers — also because the collective sexual activity created a sense of community and because of the artistic expression which found a stage there — murals and/or conceptual art pieces created by Gordon Matta-Clark, Vito Acconci, Tava, Luis Frangella, David Wojnarowicz among others. Fink’s “Self-Portrait, Catwalk, Pier 46 (1979)” shows the funky grandeur of the piers and "Self-Portrait on Pier 46 (‘This is Serious Too’)” illustrates the physical fragility and impermanent nature of the artistic work at the piers. Unlike most of the pictures taken at the piers, Fink was the only photographer to regularly include himself in the photo.
The Fink photographs in the exhibit are supplemented by pictures of and/or by other photographers at the piers, such Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Gail Thacker, Tee A. Corinne, Del LaGrace Volcano, Shari Diamond, Stanley Stellar and Frank Hallam. One of the pieces is an impressive painting “Gilgamesh” by Tava (Gustav von Will) on a corrugated and rusted section of one of the pier’s wall.
Although the piers were only a small part of New York’s gay and artistic scenes during the seventies and early eighties, the photos of Fink, Hujar and others taken at the piers pull a lot things together and serve to symbolize the City’s physical decline as well as the sexual liberation and artistic creativity of the period. Rebecca Solnit once happened upon a show that included some photographs taken at the piers. “The time was about this kind of place,” she wrote, “one that was ruinous, bleak, but somehow imbued with a romantic outlaw sense of possibility, of freedom to be idealistic in the bitter vein of the Sex Pistols’ “No Future.” That is what the photos in these two shows illustrate.
Jeffrey Escoffier is a Research Associate at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and the author of American: Homo: Community and Perversity (to be reissued by Verso in the fall of 2018). With Jeffrey Colgan, he is working on a book and a podcast series called Drop Dead about New York's 1970s fiscal crisis and cultural developments that will launch later this spring.