Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar – The Shabbiness of Beauty

Review by Gerhard Clausing

Peter Hujar was a photographer who chronicled the cultural scene of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. He was also known for his magical ways in photographing animals, as well as for his focus on what was then called ‘figure studies.’ He seemed unwilling or unable to play the gallery and museum game, and thus came into his own in major ways only after his death, and has remained quite relevant into our present. In many ways his work can be compared to that of Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe, although Hujar’s approach shows a more supportive, perhaps less detached approach to his subjects.

Moyra Davey, herself a successful photographer, writer, and video artist, was recently given a chance to survey the Peter Hujar Archive, and she selected mostly unknown images by Hujar, many of which also resonated with her own practice, in order to ‘channel’ Hujar by combining the work of Hujar and herself into the current project, which also includes some images she newly created.

There is much to study and admire in this melded production. As you survey the pages of the book, it is hard to separate and decide who is the photographer of which image, since they are intermingled, and you can only tell for sure by consulting the index in the back of the photobook. For the sake of our discussion here, I have sorted the sample photographs as shown below: first five images by Hujar, then five images by Davey. You can see many correspondences, as well as some differences.

The images by Hujar reflect his connection with animals; they are marked by the same respect and heroic treatment that he afforded human subjects in creating portraits. Davey’s images follow suit in an admirable fashion. Whether horses or chickens, there is a certain calmness that the images exude – a pleasant treatment of everyday detail that invites repeated contemplation. One can also note an awareness of togetherness that transfers over to human subjects, shown elsewhere in the book.

The images representing bodyscapes are also very interesting. Hujar’s images are very classic, along the lines of Weston and Mapplethorpe, while Davey’s responses exhibit a more contemporary approach – more closeups, and a move toward greater abstraction, the latter of which Hujar primarily achieved in his images of water.

There is much more to discover in this exchange across time, gender, and generations; this review has the function of getting you started. We get a sense of belonging and longing in this project presenting excursions in personal narration. The essays and explanations by Eileen Myles, Moyra Davies, and Stephen Koch provide many additional insights about the work and moods and particulars of the times. Letting the many other images complete the picture will add further to your understanding.

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Gerhard (Gerry) Clausing, Associate Editor of the PhotoBook Journal, is an author and photographer from Southern California.

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Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar – The Shabbiness of Beauty

Photographers:  Moyra Davey (born in Toronto, Canada; lives in New York City) and Peter Hujar (1934-1987; born in Trenton, NJ; died in New York City)

Publisher:  MACK, London; © 2021

Texts:  Eileen Myles, Moyra Davies, Stephen Koch

Language:  English

Hardcover, embossed and illustrated; 128 pages, paginated; 7 x 9.5 inches (17.5 x 24.5 cm); printed in Italy; ISBN 978-1-913620-20-2

Design:  Morgan Crowcroft-Brown

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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