Peter Hujar (1934 – 1987) was an American photographer best known for his black and white portraits. He has been recognized posthumously as a major American photographer of the late-twentieth century. His countless square format works are direct, yet rendered with evocative tonal contrasts enhanced through his meticulous darkroom process. Among his subjects are scenes of death, the margins of New York’s nightlife, cityscapes, landscapes, and intimate pictures of close friends and lovers.
He was born to Rose Murphy, a waitress, who was abandoned by her husband during her pregnancy. He was raised by his Ukrainian grandparents on their farm, where he spoke only Ukrainian until he started school. He remained on the farm with his grandparents until his grandmother’s death in 1946. Peter Hujar moved to New York City to live with his mother and her second husband. The household was abusive, and in 1950, when he was 16, he left home and began to live independently. Peter Hujar received his first camera in 1947 and in 1953 entered the School of Industrial Art where he expressed interest in being a photographer. By 1957, when he was 23 years old, he was making photographs now considered to be of museum quality. Early in 1967, he was one of a select group of young photographers in a master class taught by Richard Avedon and Marvin Israel, where he met Alexey Brodovitch and Diane Arbus.
In 1958, Peter Hujar accompanied the artist Joseph Raphael on a Fulbright to Italy. In 1963, he secured his own Fulbright and returned to Italy with Paul Thek, where they explored and photographed the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, classic images featured in his 1975 book Portraits in Life and Death. In 1964, Peter Hujar returned to America and became a chief assistant in the studio of the commercial photographer Harold Krieger. Around this time, he also met Andy Warhol, posed for four of Warhol’s three-minute “screen tests,” and was included in the compilation film The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys. In 1967, Peter Hujar quit his job in commercial photography, and at great financial sacrifice, began to pursue primarily his own work. What followed was a dramatic expansion of his output. In 1969, with his lover the political activist Jim Fouratt, he witnessed the Stonewall riots in the West Village. In 1973, Peter Hujar moved into a loft above The Eden Theater at 189 2nd Avenue, where he lived for the rest of his life.
In 1975, Peter Hujar published Portraits in Life and Death, with an introduction by Susan Sontag. After a tepid reception, the book became a classic in American photography. The rest of the 1970s was a period of prolific work. In early 1981, Peter Hujar met the writer, filmmaker, and artist David Wojnarowicz, and after a brief period as Hujar’s lover, Wojnarowicz became a protégé linked to Hujar for the remainder of the photographer’s life. Peter Hujar remained instrumental in all phases of Wojnarowicz’s emergence as an important young artist. In January 1987, Peter Hujar was diagnosed with AIDS. He died 10 months later at the age of 53 on November 25 at Cabrini Medical Center in New York. His funeral was held at Church of St. Joseph in Greenwich Village and he was buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.