Understudies and interpolations: Moyra Davey on curating Peter Hujar

Moyra Davey, 'Plymouth Rock', 2019

I curated myself with Peter Hujar; a risky act, but it was an invitation (from Galerie Buchholz, Berlin) I could not resist. I began by listing categories of images I wanted to see: animals, water, young men, body parts, NYC, babies. I’ve long been familiar with Hujar’s work and chose images I knew I could be in conversation with, but I also tried as much as possible to select from amongst his lesser-known works, in particular ones that have rarely, if ever been shown. Together with Nicolas Linnert and Nick Irvin we visited the archive in Queens — and as we sifted through prints, Stephen Koch, trustee of the estate, told stories and anecdotes of Peter Hujar, and approved of my selections, saying that in terms of my stated goal, to choose from the unreleased prints, I was “batting a thousand.”

I knew I wanted the close-up of the tiny baby (John McLellan) latched onto his mother’s breast, his little hand right there on the breast as well, and her hands supporting his head and lower body. You can tell he is actively sucking and pressing his fingers into the breast. He wears an old-fashioned terry ‘sleeper,’ the kind I recognize from childhood. In a second photo, Hujar pulls back and we see the full dyad, John’s mother, Dina, beatific, lit like a Madonna. John is still on the breast but his mouth is slack and now he’s sleeping, and Dina’s eyes are cast downward and her left hand takes the measure of her infant’s small frame.

But it’s the close-up of John that really gets me, makes me think of his utter vulnerability and dependence on caregivers and makes me remember my own tiny baby when I had one, and how difficult it was, and how people can tell you it will be hard but you have no idea until it is happening to you. Dina could be feeling all of this in the photo, or not. We have no idea.


Peter Hujar, 'Diana and John McClellan', 1981; 'John McClellan with Diana', 1981

It was not on my list, but while at the archive Hedi Sorger was leafing through prints and came upon “Two South African Actresses.” I guessed they were from the Market Theater in Johannesburg, an institution founded by my partner’s uncle, the playwright and director Barney Simon. I showed the image to Jason, who immediately recognized the older actress, Sophie Mgcina, and the play, which he’d seen and worked on in NY, titled The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena.

But he didn’t recognize the younger actress in the photo, and so some sleuthing began and he and a former student of his working in the archives of the New York Public Library eventually uncovered her identity, via a listing of a London production of the play which used the Hujar image as a promotional poster. The younger actress in the photo is the understudy, Thuli Dumakude.


Peter Hujar, 'Sophie Mgcina and Thuli Dumakude - South African Play "Poppie Nongena"', 1983

Everyone agrees Hujar was unrivaled when it came to photographing animals. His horses and cows and dogs peer into the lens as though hypnotized, sometimes in pairs, and there is an immobility to these images that is truly novel, as animals don’t hold still, except for Hujar, who talked to them and connected with farm animals in rural Pennsylvania, and chickens and a rooster in Key West in the 1950s, where he made images that are surprisingly reminiscent of the famous FSA photographs.

I unexpectedly photographed chickens at the home of the political theorist Dalie Giroux (from my film ‘i confess’), in the woods of La Pêche, Quebec. I’d gone there to photograph Dalie, but ended up shooting her animals instead. There wasn’t much light, it was early June and mostly raining, and voracious mosquitos swarmed us from all sides, which meant I was focusing the already difficult-to-focus Hasselblad wearing a mosquito net over my face, and of course the animals never stopped moving.


Moyra Davey, '3 Chickens (Smoke)', 2019; 'John & Goya', 2019

We visited her neighbor, the painter John Eaton, and I photographed him together with his magnificent white Percheron, Goya, who wore a custom- made, black-studded halter and roamed the yard like a dog.

Back in New York I continued to photograph horses, attempting to channel Hujar. It was August and baking hot, and I’d limbo my body through 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.

Peter Hujar, 'Colt with Mother, Italy', 1978

Excerpt from Moyra Davey’s text in The Shabbiness of Beauty by Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar, published April 2021.

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