Social Media

Book of the Week: Peter Hujar: The Speed of Life

Book of the Week Book of the Week: A Pick by Laura M. André Laura M. André selects Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. by Peter Hujar as Book of the Week.

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. Aperture, 2017.
Laura M. André selects Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. Photographs by Peter Hujar. Texts by Joel Smith, Philip Gefter, Steve Turtell, and Martha Scott Burton. Aperture Foundation, 2017.

Published in conjunction with a major, traveling retrospective exhibition, Peter Hujar: Speed of Life presents readers with the first sustained examination of one of the most important—and underappreciated—artists of the 1970s and 80s. A central figure in the New York art scene of the period, it seems that Hujar's life and work in some way influenced everyone he encountered, whether through professional mentorship, personal friendship, romantic love, or a combination of all of these forms of intimacy: Vince Aletti, Fran Lebowitz, Susan Sontag, William S. Burroughs, Gary Schneider, Nan Goldin, Kiki Smith, and of course, David Wojnarowicz, whose photographs of Hujar on his deathbed remain among the most affecting images of loss and love that I have ever seen.

In the book's opening essay, Joel Smith situates Hujar's work as residing chronologically and aesthetically somewhere between Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, "at a crossroads of brutality and beauty." But Smith also asserts that this comparison does little to help us actually see Hujar's photographs—the unforgettable portraits, the expertly composed cityscapes, the historically important documents of 1970s gay culture, and the quietly haunting interiors.

After Hujar's death in 1987 at the age of 53, his work—if not his presence—became subsumed by the AIDS-crisis-fueled, increasingly vociferous, protest-oriented art of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was also overshadowed by the politically driven hysteria and censorship directed at the younger artists Wojnarowicz, Mapplethorpe, and the NEA Four. It was not until 2013 that The Morgan Library & Museum acquired the Peter Hujar Archive and, working in conjunction with the Fundación MAPFRE, organized this publication and the accompanying retrospective exhibition, which travels from Barcelona to The Hague before reaching the U.S. in January 2018.

With this book and exhibition, Hujar joins the countless artists whose work only found recognition after their death—something Hujar predicted during his life. As Gary Schneider recalls, “He was kind of anti-institution, Peter. He even talked about how he would have to die for the work to become famous. And it was really true.”

Susan Sontag (1975) and Rene Ricard (1978). From Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. Aperture, 2017.

Paul Hudson (Leg) (1979) and Surf (2) (n.d.)From Peter Hujar: Speed of Life. Aperture, 2017.


Laura M. André is the manager of the photo-eye book division. She received her PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and taught photo history at UNM before leaving academia to work with photography books.

See more Books of the Week