In the streets of Paris, a picture challenges representations of hegemonic masculinity

Advertising poster for “Peter Hujar : Speed of Life” in the Hôtel de Ville metro station

The advertising poster for the “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life” exhibition offers an alternative to the virilistic image of men in the collective mind.

A metro station in Paris, on a November morning. On the wall is the poster of a man lying on a bed, naked. He is slightly looking down at the camera, in a way that conveys great comfort and power despite the vulnerability of his posture.

This man is David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992), an artist and former lover of late photograph Peter Hujar (1934-1987) who took the shot. And if you see his picture in the streets of Paris these days, it is because it is one of the 140 photographs which are now being displayed at the Jeu de Paume, as part of the “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life” exhibition.

Nudes, but also portraits, views of New-York, where Hujar lived, and some landscapes make up the exhibition. Through his work, the photograph played a great role in the publicising of gay life in the U.S. between the 1960s and the 1980s. In 1970, he created the poster for the Gay Liberation Front, encouraging members of the community to come out. Hujar described his subjects as people who “cling to the freedom to be themselves” and “who push themselves to any extreme.”

© Peter Hujar. “Gay Liberation Poster Image,” 1970. Gelatin-silver print. Reprinted with permission of The Peter Hujar Archive, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, NY.

“Reclining portraits” like that of David Wojnarowicz make up a large part of Peter Hujar’s work. They show the photograph’s dedication to capturing moments of life, despite – or within, perhaps – the constraints of his medium and the reclining pose: How can one be so passive and yet look so alive? Where does this presence come from? How can one really “be there” at every moment of one’s life? Those are questions the artist seems to address through its portraits, an idea that appears in the titles of his 1976 monograph – Potraits of Life and Death – and of “Speed of Life”, the current exhibition.

But if Peter Hujar’s portraits really stand out, it is also because looking in the eyes of a reclining subject is both an unsettling and a provoking experience for the public. The relationship that those shots create with the viewer is one of intimacy.

Peter Hujar: Speed of Life” will be held at the Jeu de Paume until January 19, 2020.

Mélanie Russeil

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