These objects are nearly impossible to find, and if found, they are almost always financially out of reach for the average customer; out of print books hinder numerous possibilities. Discovering an artist’s work is a journey, one wants to start at the beginning and follow his or her entire body of work; seeing how the artist has evolved is an essential part of understanding him or her. When a photographer’s first book is out of print, his or her audience is left with a fragmented history of their work.
Peter Hujar’s Portraits in Life and Death was published in 1976, that’s well before his current audience was born. Consider how Hujar’s photography influenced the field, his stark black and white portraits admired for their intimate style. Portraits in Life and Death is the only book Hujar was alive to oversee, we can see each image in the order that he intended. Isn’t that how we should see art? Shouldn’t we have the chance to look at a time that doesn’t belong to us and see the world through the artist’s eyes?
In this case, the photographer has not been forgotten; in fact Peter Hujar’s Night is being exhibited in Cologne, Germany right now. My friend travelled from Amsterdam to see it. There are retrospectives in New York, San Francisco and across Europe. Hujar’s work is revered all over the world. Portraits in Life and Death is in demand, so why not reprint it? Seeing Hujar’s work is possible but visiting galleries in New York City and San Francisco isn’t a possibility for everyone, some of his audience will have to be content with his books. Shouldn’t those people have an opportunity to trace the haunting themes of time and death that permeate through Hujar’s work?
Arts education is severely underfunded, especially in the public education system and most students are only taught an overview, they are left to explore artists on their own time. Photographers like Peter Hujar and Diane Arbus are routinely overlooked in curriculums; those students eager to learn more may not have access to Hujar’s book. Portraits in Life and Death is one book that would provide a more comprehensive examination of Hujar’s photography.
I learned of Hujar as a teenager and then in greater depth at university while studying cityscapes photography. They told a complicated story…a story of a city decaying… a disappearing landscape. Maybe I saw traces of sadness, but I couldn’t fully see Hujar. I wanted to. I’ve been chasing Hujar’s ghost for years, always wanting to see more of his work. This search led me to The Stedelijk in Amsterdam just to see Divine from Portraits in Life and Death.
Time and place: those ephemeral qualities that Peter Hujar captures in his work should reach audiences in the smallest corners of the world. One way to make that possible is keeping his books in print. It’s my hope that Stephen Koch considers reprinting Hujar’s first book. Portraits in Life and Death could find a second home with a publisher. Almost four decades have passed and there are at least two generations who never experienced Hujar’s first book. Shouldn’t we have a chance to see the world as Hujar saw it?