Before the photographer Peter Hujar became a famously irascible, and famously loved, fixture of bohemian New York, he was, for a time, a farm boy. Born to an alcoholic mother in Trenton, New Jersey, he was put in the care of his grandparents, who raised him, in the semi-rural Ewing Township, until he was eleven. It was on his grandparents’ farm that he developed a deep love for animals, who were among his first, and most enduring, photographic subjects.
Hujar’s pictures of animals are a lesser-known element of his richly varied oeuvre, which is just now getting its full due, partly thanks to a travelling retrospective organized by the curator Joel Smith, of the Morgan Library. (Peter Schjeldahl reviewed the show in this week’s magazine.) Stacked up against his deeply felt, often sexually charged portraits of bohemian East Village habitués—exuberant drag queens, brooding writers, rough-edged artists, pose-striking dancers, and anonymous hustlers—his subjects in the animal kingdom seem, even at their most well-groomed, somewhat glamour-deficient. But the best of these pictures have an undeniable power.