Peter Hujar, “Ethyl Eichelberger as Minnie the Maid” (1981), gelatin silver print, 14 3/4 x 14 3/4 inches (image), The Morgan Library & Museum, © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC (all photos courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

Are the ’80s the new ’60s?

What is it about that more recent decade of severe style and hard edges — Janet Jackson’s dance moves, fashion’s padded shoulders, the spiky-jerky sounds of synthpop and new wave, and all that extreme hair — that inspires such impassioned nostalgia in certain quarters (“Eighties Nights”!) for a period that, for many Americans who lived through it, was just as trying as any other challenging time?

The decade of the 1980s was also the era of the fake-cowboy Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” myth and his party’s evolving campaign of coded racism, feckless corruption, bald-faced mendacity, and eroding of civil rights, which ultimately led to the ascent of the Republicans’ current, lawless regime. In the collective memory of many survivors of the 1980s, not only in the Reagan-weary United States, but also around the world, that era is indelibly marked by the outbreak and devastation of AIDS. Reagan said nothing publicly about that destructive disease until well into the fifth year of his presidency, more than four years into the crisis.

Now, at the Morgan Library & Museum, along comes Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, a moving and elegiac survey of images by the American photographer Peter Hujar (1934-1987), a private, combative, and enigmatic figure (even to those who knew him) who notably became a chronicler of Manhattan’s downtown scene.

Peter Hujar, “Self-Portrait Jumping (1)” (1974), gelatin silver print, 15 1/4 x 15 1/4 inches (image), The Morgan Library & Museum, © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC

Hujar is probably best known for the work he produced during the last years of his life before dying from AIDS-related pneumonia; his photographs from that period document the effervescent creative spirit that pulsed through the East Village and its environs in overlapping fields — visual art, post-punk music-making, performance art, and political activism (which often demanded government responses to the unfolding AIDS crisis).

Joel Smith, the Morgan’s photography curator, assembled the current exhibition, which was co-organized by the museum and the Madrid-based Fundación MAPFRE. In an interview, he told me that, even though it was not Hujar’s intention, “his work as a whole” ended up recording “some things of incalculable value that have been lost.” He stated, “To name just two: a population in downtown New York, a couple of generations deep, that constituted the most knowledgeable, sensitive audience for the arts this country has ever known; and a state of affairs in Manhattan [in which] a creative lifestyle almost totally divorced from commerce lived right in the shadow of high finance. It’s possible to be nostalgic about these losses, but you don’t have to be nostalgic to recognize Hujar as the photographer-laureate of a period we could all learn a lot from now.”

Peter Hujar, “Gay Liberation Front Poster Image” (1969), gelatin silver print, 18 1/2 x 12 1/2 inches (image), The Morgan Library & Museum, © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC

The exhibition is culled largely from the Morgan’s own holdings; in 2013, from the photographer’s estate, the museum purchased 100 photo prints Hujar had made himself, as well as his complete collection of black-and-white contact sheets, job books, correspondence, audio recordings, magazine tearsheets, and other ephemera.

Hujar, who rarely revealed much about his background and sometimes said that he had been born in Hollywood to a Busby Berkeley chorus girl, was actually born in New Jersey, where he was brought up on a farm by his mother’s Ukrainian-immigrant parents. He never knew his father, who had abandoned Peter’s mother, Rose, and his child. Rose lived in downtown Manhattan and worked as a waitress. When Peter was 11, he was sent to live with his mother and her male companion. The two adults were boozers, and after Rose threw a bottle at her son, who was then 16, Peter moved out.

Tall and handsome, he already had managed to gain admission to Manhattan’s School of Industrial Arts (now the High School of Art and Design) to study photography, even without having presented a portfolio. Years later, after meeting the younger artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), Hujar would tell him that he had started taking pictures as a youngster, using his mother’s Argus C3, an inexpensive, box-shaped camera.

Peter Hujar, “Sheryl Sutton” (1977), gelatin silver print, 14 3/4 x 14 3/4 inches (image), The Morgan Library & Museum, © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC

After graduating from high school in 1953, Hujar worked as an assistant to commercial photographers until setting out on his own in the late 1960s as a freelance photographer for fashion and other consumer magazines. During the late 1950s, he traveled in Italy with a Fulbright Fellowship-winning boyfriend, the artist Joseph Raffaele (later “Raffael”), and in 1962, Hujar himself won a Fulbright to go to Rome to study filmmaking, a path which, he recognized, was not right for him. By the late 1960s, his circle of friends and lovers also included, among others, the artist Paul Thek; the writer Susan Sontag; the Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés; and the artists Ray Johnson and Ann and Bill Wilson.

By 1973, realizing that he was not cut out for a career as a fashion photographer, Hujar moved on to focus on his own fine-art photography. Nearly penniless, he lived and worked in a loft in the East Village, training his camera on the friends whose intersecting lives and loves became the subject matter of his art, along with the evolving sexual-liberation movement and the public emergence of gay life.

Speed of Life features such early images as a gentle, spontaneous-feeling portrait of Daisy Aldan (from 1955), a former child radio performer and a lesbian who had been one of Hujar’s high school teachers — and the first adult to encourage him to pursue his artistic interests. In another photo, which bears the influence of photographer Richard Avedon’s stark, figure-in-a-white-space compositions, Nude Self-portrait, Running (1966-67), Hujar captured his own gangly body in motion.

Peter Hujar, “Daisy Aldan, June 18, 1955,” (1955), gelatin silver print mounted on board, 11 x 14 inches (sheet, image, and board), The Morgan Library & Museum, © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC

In 1967, Hujar took part in a master class led by Avedon and Marvin Israel, a photographer and former art director of Harper’s Bazaar. (Years later, Avedon would write to Hujar, “If you ever have new work that you’re interested in selling, please call me[,] as I am your collector and admire the photographs I have of yours enormously.”) On one occasion during the master class, the photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971) appeared as a guest speaker. While Hujar was familiar with Arbus’s photographs of nudists, circus entertainers, psychiatric-institution residents, and other marginalized persons, it turned out that Arbus, who was more than ten years his senior, was aware of Hujar’s work, too; she stunned him by remarking, “I know who you are.” Years later, he told Wojnarowicz, “She thought I was ripping her off.” In fact, as Smith notes in his essay in the exhibition’s catalogue, Hujar had been using a square-frame, medium-format camera since 1955, whereas Arbus turned to such a model seven years later.

To some degree, did Hujar find refuge in photographing the people in his immediate orbit? After all, about his commercial work, he told a newspaper reporter in 1974, “You know, you felt as though you always had to charm people […]. And when someone would say that they saw one of my photos in Bazaar, I felt embarrassed.”

By contrast, as Speed of Life demonstrates, when Hujar focused his camera on one of his friends or associates — the black dancer Sheryl Sutton, leaning forward with a diagonal thrust; the photographer Gary Schneider, naked and contorting his body; the drag performer and playwright Ethyl Eichelberger ( James Roy Eichelberger, 1945-1990), in makeup and frou-frou; the writer-artist Gary Indiana, wrapped in a veil; or, much earlier, in 1958, the fur-collared Marchesa Fioravanti, padrona of the house in Florence where he and Raffaele had temporarily resided — with directness and little affectation, he seemed to be in command of an in-the-moment sense of exactly what he was after.

Peter Hujar, “Gary Schneider in Contortion (2)” (1979), gelatin silver print, 14 3/4 x 14 3/4 inches (image), The Morgan Library & Museum, © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC

As the 1980s began, Hujar met Wojnarowicz, who was 20 years younger, at an East Village gay bar. That encounter led to a brief sexual affair and then to what Wojnarowicz, who had survived a painfully hardscrabble childhood and worked as a hustler before pouring his energy into writing journals, and making art, would later describe as “a very complicated friendship/relationship that took time to find a track to run along.” Wojnarowicz referred to his mentor-comrade as having been “like the parent I never had, like the brother I never had.”

Portraits of Wojnarowicz are here, including one of the artist reclining, one of Hujar’s favorite positions for his subjects. This pose, which can convey a range of vibes, from the relaxed to the mildly perturbed or the vulnerable, often found Hujar’s acquaintances lying in their own beds. They include Sontag; the writer Fran Lebowitz; the actor, director, and playwright Charles Ludlam (1943-1987); the John Waters film actress Cookie Mueller (1949-1989); and the Warhol Superstar Jackie Curtis (1947-1985), caught out of drag in an affectionate cuddle with a sheepish-looking Lance Loud (1951-2001), the television personality-turned-magazine columnist whose coming-out as a gay teenager on national television in 1973 (in the PBS documentary, An American Family) became a media milestone. One of the best-known of these images is Hujar’s Candy Darling on Her Deathbed (1973), in which the transgender Warhol Superstar, in tragic-fabulous demise, commands her last big scene, surrounded by flowers and lit, like Dietrich, from above. Many of the subjects of such portraits, like the photographer himself, died of AIDS-related illnesses.

Peter Hujar, “Candy Darling on Her Deathbed” (1973), gelatin silver print, 14 3/4 x 14 3/4 inches (image), Collection of Ronay and Richard Menschel, © Peter Hujar Archive, LLC

“Hujar crafted the portrait of a city in free fall, complementing Wojnarowicz’s dark vision of Reagan-era America,” the exhibition’s wall text points out, summarizing an overarching theme and maybe also the portent of the photographer’s oeuvre. In the catalogue, Smith writes that, when Hujar died in 1987, at the age of 53, “[t]o a small, AIDS-ravaged downtown constituency, [his] was a name to conjure with, but it would take decades for a wider culture to come around to him. […] If Hujar can be said to have finally hit his stride, it was in the 1980s, as a mentor to Wojnarowicz and an inspiration to other young artists in the exploding East Village art scene.” For them, Smith continues, Hujar “epitomized a commitment to remaining underground.”

“One thing I won’t answer is anything about why I do what I do,” Hujar told Wojnarowicz. Separately, he also remarked, “My work comes out of my life. The people I photograph are not freaks or curiosities to me. I like people who dare.”

Maybe that observation holds a clue to understanding why the period to which Hujar’s work notably bears witness has become so nostalgia-worthy today. Could it be that, what’s really enticing about the ’80s is the recognition that, in that time before the triumph of corporate homogenization, soulless branding, and banal social media, there were communities of ambitious, talented, fearless people who plugged in their synthesizers, picked up their brushes, slapped on their makeup and dared to dance, make art, and make love — inventively and joyously, even in the face of death?

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through May 20, 2018.

Edward M. Gómez is a graphic designer, critic, arts journalist, and author or co-author of numerous books about art and design subjects, including Le dictionnaire de la civilisation japonaise, Yes: Yoko...