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Moyra Davey channels Peter Hujar in The Shabbiness of Beauty

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The spheres of Hujar’s and Davey’s coalesce in an intimate visual dialogue that speaks from this world to the next

Before the photographer Peter Hujar became a fixture of a downtown bohemia that bloomed in New York City between the late 1960s and the onset of the AIDS epidemic, he was, for a time, a farm boy. Abandoned by his estranged mother, Hujar grew up with his Polish grandparents on their plot of land in the semi-rural town of Ewing Township, New Jersey. It was here that Hujar realised his affinity with animals. They were amongst his first photographic subjects, and would become his most enduring ones too. 

“Everyone agrees Hujar was unrivalled when it came to photographing animals,” says New York-based artist Moyra Davey. “His horses and cows and dogs peer into the lens as though hypnotised, sometimes in pairs. And, there is an immobility to these images that is truly novel. Animals don’t hold still, except for Hujar, who talked to them.”

Moyra Davey, ‘Jane’, 1984, from The Shabbiness ofBeauty by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

“I’ve never more appreciated Hujar’s photographic genius than in these flawed attempts of my own to commune with equines, as he apparently did, coaxing the animals as he took their picture.”

In 2019, Davey was granted access to Hujar’s archive in Queens. “It was an invitation I could not resist,” she admits. After emerging with an idiosyncratic selection of prints that had rarely, if ever, been shown before, Davey began “attempting to channel Hujar,” as she puts it. It was an endeavour which necessitated a hard-fought balance between making and being made, feeling and being felt. Hasselblad in hand, there was only one place to start. “It was August and baking hot,” Davey recalls. “I’d limbo my body through an electric wire fence to reach the horses, covered in flies, some of them standing in pairs, mane-to-tail in a lovely ritual of mutual fly-swishing. I’ve never more appreciated Hujar’s photographic genius than in these flawed attempts of my own to commune with equines, as he apparently did, coaxing the animals as he took their picture.”

The Shabbiness of Beauty, published with MACK, pairs Davey’s experiments with her findings from Hujar’s archive. Here, their spheres do not so much collide as coalesce, giving rise to a constellation of shared subjects. Legs, New York City, horses, young men, shoes, tattoos reveal themselves like reshuffled cards. A photograph of Hujar’s model fondling himself against the backdrop of the austere studio wall teases out the primal pleasures harboured by Davey’s dog, Rosie, as she lolls in the warm sunlight. Another spread in the book steers us towards the mystery of farm chickens scurrying across a muddy patch of earth on the verso, and the waters of the Hudson River on the recto. The ripples are oily and smooth, but take on a solid form not unlike that of the soil.

Peter Hujar, ‘Colt with Mother, Italy’, 1978, from TheShabbiness of Beauty by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.
Moyra Davey, ‘Cisco (Landscape)’, 2019, from TheShabbiness of Beauty by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

These enigmatic yet easy harmonies, however, are offset by tensions which run deeper than the tonal schisms between Hujar’s sumptuous blacks and Davey’s simmering greys. “I came of age artistically in the postmodern era,” Davey explains. “We are all self-consciously trying to signal what’s going on behind the camera – the emotional register, the labour register, the thinking register, the mechanical register, the risk factor. Hujar was the opposite,” Davey remarks. “Without self-regard, he gifted it all to the subject and the image through patience, framing, razor-sharp focus and crystalline lighting. He apparently gave no direction and spoke very little to the human subjects in his studio. He waited for them to give to him whatever it was they were going to give, and then he took it. And, after the wizardry of the darkroom, gave it back.” 

Peter Hujar, ‘Wave, Sperlonga’, 1978 from TheShabbiness of Beauty by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar (MACK, 2021). Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.
Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.

Davey moved to “The Big Apple” in 1988, a year after Hujar died of AIDS-related pneumonia. The blank pages punctuating The Shabbiness of Beauty are ultimately representative of the incommensurable chasms between “living woman” and “dead man” (as poet Eileen Myles dubs them in the book’s foreword), and function in the same way as Hujar’s sporadic black frames which he sometimes preserved in the darkroom. “This negative has an edge,” Hujar once declared. “It’s an honesty thing.” Likewise, the honesty we find in Davey’s savvy sequences – which culminate in a jolting final flurry of Hujar’s colour photographs of his lover, Paul Thek – is the honesty of an artist who knows that without distance there is no probing, and without probing there is no truth within the frame, nor outside of it.

Since the pandemic hit, Davey has been isolating in her home in Sullivan County. She wakes early each morning and patiently observes an apple tree through her telescope. First came the birds: blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees, goldfinches. Next, the wild deer, and then a family of frolicking black bears. The impulse behind such a ritual is the same when peering into the camera’s viewfinder, to catch a glimpse of something – or indeed someone – beyond one’s knowing.

For Davey, the presence of Hujar is most palpable in his photographs of the Hudson River. “A man standing on a pier, with all the connotations of that locale, looking out and taking in the river at his feet,” she says. “I wonder if he knew when he took the pictures that the resulting images would be so sensual, so corporeal and unearthly at the same time.”

The Shabbiness of Beauty is published by MACK and is available here.

Peter Hujar, ‘Diana and John McClellan’, 1981, fromThe Shabbiness of Beauty by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar(MACK, 2021). Courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive LLC.
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