This interview series is produced in partnership with MATTE Magazine, a publication produced by writer and curator Matthew Leifheit that focuses on the work of a single photographer per issue.
Stephen Koch is the author of The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, The Breaking Point and Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol. He is also an educator and owns and manages the archive of the tortured, downtown photographer Peter Hujar. We spoke at length about Hujar’s life—his friendship with Fran Lebowitz, Susan Sontag, his relationships with Paul Thek and David Wojnarowicz, and even his strained relation with Robert Mapplethorpe. The interview touches on the work Koch has done over the past twenty-five years, raising the late underground hero from self-imposed obscurity to widespread recognition.
Going back to 1965, how did you meet Peter? I heard it had to do with Susan Sontag?
I was a very young writer in New York. I became Susan’s protégé. We remained friends for the rest of her life.
One day early in the friendship I had been talking to her and she said, “there’s a person coming by who you might want to know. He’s a photographer.” She was very close to Peter’s lover, Paul Thek.
So in came Peter, and he sat down, very tall, very straight. At that point, 1964, he was working in a commercial studio. Peter did not go to college, he did not ever take a class in photography in his entire life. He’d spent the day photographing Jayne Mansfield, and he started talking about her, and it was like listening to a great novelist talk. He was so observant. His exact words were, “her nipples were like crushed raspberries”.
I published my first book [Night Watch, 1970] three or four years later, and I needed an author picture. I paid him $60. He made a very nice portrait of me.
In 1975, Susan was very deep in writing her book “On Photography”.
Peter, at the same time, had had the idea for “Portraits in Life and Death”, the only book that was published in his lifetime. He asked to do Susan’s portrait, and he also asked her to write the preface to his book. Susan developed breast cancer. I was very close to her at that time, and I remember we went to Memorial Hospital, where she was to have a biopsy. We were alone, and she said to me “Ah! I forgot something! Peter’s introduction! Bring me some paper.” So I brought her some paper, and a magazine on which she could write while in bed. She curled up her knees, and started writing, and in about 25 minutes wrote the whole essay. I took the essay and folded it up, and she asked me to type it up and give it to Peter.
The next morning as she was in surgery, I typed the essay, and took it over to Peter’s loft. From that point on we developed a stronger and stronger friendship. We were very different. I was from a classic mid-western upper-middle class family. Peter came from the real grungy streets. His father was a bootlegger who abandoned his mother when she got pregnant. His mother was a waitress in a diner. She couldn’t support him, so he went to a farm in New Jersey to live with his grandparents. After the death of his grandmother, others in the house, uncles and aunts, began to abuse him. One of the keys to his personality, I later figured out, was that anyone who had been an abused child was automatically on Peter’s A list. The most celebrated of which was David Wojnarowicz.
We started a pattern that he would come to my house for dinner once a week. I would listen to the catastrophe of his business life. Peter was absolutely unable to understand how to make a career work. As Fran Lebowitz said at his funeral, “Peter Hujar has hung up on every important photography dealer in the Western world.”
Here was a guy who paid $170 for his loft, and was very often strapped for it. And I could not believe that someone of his intelligence couldn’t put together a few hundred dollars a month to live on. It annoyed me. I would say, “if I had another life, I could make you successful.”
We talked about sex, we talked a lot about art, and we talked about success. He was mesmerized by success.
No. Art world success. Successful people were endowed with magic in his eyes. When we were in the process of getting his diagnosis [he had AIDS], It was pretty obvious that the news was going to get worse. Fran, because she’s Fran, said, “oh let’s go for lunch”. We walked into the place, and we were put at a table beside Dolly Parton. Peter was happy as a pig in shit. He was facing a death sentence but he was sitting beside Dolly Parton.
What did he say about sex?
Peter slept with at least 6,000 people. I am not exaggerating. He told Fran Lebowitz that he had never enjoyed sex. I don’t believe that, but I saw there was something in him that experienced his aloneness as withdrawn from passion. He didn’t talk about relationships. But he would talk a lot about desire, what was beautiful. He once said to me, in reference to his nudes, “the sight of naked flesh for me is like a physical blow.”
His tensions with Robert Mapplethorpe… are another story.
I didn’t realize there was tension there.
Robert at first attached himself with Patti Smith to Peter as sort of a senior person. He got the idea of doing something radical with the male nude from Peter. Robert was by far the most skillful opportunist and careerist I had ever met. He was brilliant at creating a reputation.
I should add, Peter was also, with respect to sexuality, absolutely and unapologetically open. I don’t mean aggressively so, he just didn’t think there was anything to talk about. This was very unusual. Most people in the gay world had some anxiety, some strategy for dealing with their otherness. He didn’t. He was a kind of model for some people. He was lonely and unhappy and poor, but he was absolutely unconflicted about his sexuality.
Peter on Robert’s work: “the Baron de Mayer of the ’80s”.
How many years was Peter coming over for dinner?
Ten years. We would listen to Brahms or Patsy Cline, and we would sit, I with a glass of wine which he didn’t like seeing me drink, he with a glass of wine which he did not drink. He was very uncomfortable around alcohol because alcoholics had raised him.
He then became ill. My wife is a doctor. We were decorating a Christmas tree, and Peter came for dinner. He told us there was something wrong because he couldn’t get out of bed, He was sleeping sixteen hours a day. He said, “I’m sure it’s because I’ve stopped smoking.” Before he left, my wife felt the glands in his neck. She later told me she knew it was one of two things: it was either a serious depression, which he was very subject to, or “it”.
It was “it”. He was diagnosed in a bronchoscopy New Years Day, 1987. From that point on, he was dying.
Peter had to make some decisions about where his work would go. He believed (wrongly) that Lisette Model had left her entire estate to her dealer. He thought this was a brilliant idea, because here’s someone who would have an interest in selling it. Unfortunately he didn’t have a dealer. There were two candidates: Vince Aletti and me. The problem with me was that I knew squat about photography. I mean, for a New York intellectual I was reasonably, decently informed. But by Peter’s standards I knew nothing. Vince knew a huge amount about photography. Peter fluctuated back and forth a lot, but he was certain it was important to give everything to just one person. Not a committee or a foundation.
It was on the second to last hospitalization, I was helping him down the stairs, and he said to me, “oh, by the way, I decided you get the pictures.” And then he said, “you’re no good but you’re the best I have.”
So you actually own the work.
In his will he gifted me everything that was connected to his photography: copyrights, negatives, contact sheets, papers and all the prints.
I became the executor and owner of his work at a time when I did not understand it. I knew a very remarkable person had made it, but it took me a long time to understand the qualities he brought to the art that make him significant.