New York’s downtown drag scene as seen through Peter Hujar’s lens

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A new exhibition of Hujar’s work at Maureen Paley, London, showcases the photographer’s exquisite portraits of performers backstage during the 1970s and early 80s

New York in the 1970s was wildly different to the iconic city we know today. Rising crime, urban decline and economic stagnation plagued the metropolis, which was buried in a billion-dollar operating deficit and facing the prospect of declaring bankruptcy. However, this was also a period of artistic possibility and sexual liberation. Queer art and intimacy were finding public expression, both on the streets and in the art world. Peter Hujar captured the flourishing queer culture during the historic and generative period between the Stonewall riots and the AIDS epidemic. His photographs reflect a disarming vulnerability, lensing the lives of drag queens, queer artists and intellectuals, employing the camera to call a community into being. “He had an ability to inhabit another being’s flesh,” said his friend and peer Nan Goldin, “and there’s almost no photographer you can say that about. The more you look at his work, the deeper it goes.”

Maureen Paley’s new exhibition Backstage brings together a series of Hujar’s portraits of New York performers. Crafted in the dressing rooms of theatres, nightclubs, private homes and his understated studio on East 12th Street, the images synthesise a cultural moment: the emergence of an artistic vanguard steeped in queering performance of all kinds. Hujar cherished the underground drag scene. The element of transformation and how its participants unravelled the performative and artificial nature of gender captivated him. In Backstage, we see photographs of psychedelic drag troupe The Cockettes [below], playwright Charles Ludlam [below left] and Warhol superstar Mario Montez [below right], many of whom were Hujars’ close friends. The photographer actively avoided the fetishisation of queer culture that has become all too familiar in contemporary photography. Instead, Hujar animates the possibility for desire, connection and expression outside the realm of heteronormativity. The result is a celebration and commemoration of the downtown art scene manifested by a true insider’s tender vision.

Drag Queen in Fashion Pose (Cockette Link Martin). 1971 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive and Maureen Paley, London.
Cockette [Bearded Cockette]. 1971 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive and Maureen Paley, London.
Charles Ludlam backstage at “Galas”, Ridiculous Theater Company. 1984 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive and Maureen Paley, London.
Mario Montez backstage at the Palm Casino Revue. 1974 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive and Maureen Paley, London.

What unites Hujar’s sitters is their refusal to be defined by the institutional expectation of the art scene as it was. Similarly to the photographer, these performers operated on the fringes. Alexis Del Lago [below right], the actress and costume designer who lived hard and refused to compromise, sits alongside the radical filmmaker and writer John Waters [below left] known for his transgressive cult films. Among them, we see a young Fran Lebowitz [below centre], Hujar’s friend and confidant, reclining nude under blankets in her childhood bedroom in Morristown, New Jersey. “Nothing was as exotic to Peter than middle-class domestic life. It was the one thing he had never seen.” Lebowitz said in 2018 during a talk at the Morgan Library and Museum. The photograph is possibly the only time we see Lebowitz exuding such direct sexuality on camera, emphasising that Hujar did not make his portraits in passing. There is a genuine love and connection on both sides of the lens. 

Unlike many of his contemporaries (such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Diane Arbus), Hujar’s vision never overpowers his sitters. His photographic approach is a dialogue: a two-way exchange at its best when the boundary between photographer and subject collapses entirely. Hujar’s portrait of Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) [below centre] — an infamous drag queen and actress known for her intoxicating combination of filth, glamour and body positivity — is one of the exhibition’s most emotionally charged pieces. Divine was, and still is, an icon of gay culture who reimagined a new paradigm for camp. Still, here we see her stripped back, reclining on the couch in his studio, holding space for introspection and a type of fragility to which Hujar was profoundly attuned. 

Ultimately, the work on show is remarkable for helping call a community into being. However, it is also significant because its breath-taking candour played a part in laying the groundwork for generations of queer culture, highlighting that cultural production is a collective phenomenon. 

Fran Lebowitz [at Home in Morristown]. 1974 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive and Maureen Paley, London.
John Waters. 1975 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive and Maureen Paley, London.
Alexis Del Lago backstage at the Palm Casino Revue, 1974 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive and Maureen Paley, London.
Divine. 1975 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC, courtesy The Peter Hujar Archive and Maureen Paley, London.

Peter Hujar: Backstage is on show at Maureen Paley, London, until 13 June 2021.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.