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Lying truth

Peter Hujar photographed life in death.

By Johnny Ray Huston

PHOTOGRAPHY'S FUSION OF vitality and mortality has been contemplated by many writers, but even Roland Barthes's key theorizing on the subject in the book Camera Lucida doesn't match the profundity of Peter Hujar's photos. In the most widely circulated Hujar monograph, Peter Hujar: A Retrospective, more than one contributor notes that Hujar's portrait subjects are frequently posed reclining; using this approach, Hujar doesn't just evoke death beds (in 1975's Ray Johnson and 1981's Sidney Faulkner), his most famous photograph – Candy Darling on her Death Bed, in which Darling seems to swim, glamorously, of course, into the darkness – depicts one.

Yet posture is just a surface element of Hujar's portraiture. In his 1975 photo William Burroughs, currently on exhibit at the Fraenkel Gallery, Burroughs is lying down, but his attire – or, more accurately, Hujar's presentation of it – provides the photo's depth. In a sartorial representation of his fiction, Burroughs wears a houndstooth blazer over a decoratively embellished Moroccan tunic, with a businesslike suit and tie beneath (almost like a bizarre form of underwear). Hujar lights the photo so the dark fabric of the tunic becomes a black void where Burroughs's body – his chest – should be.

A biographical time line in Peter Hujar claims Hujar met David Wojnarowicz in 1981, but the 18 Hujar photos at Fraenkel include a 1975 Wojnarowicz portrait. The playful sexual menace in Hujar's later portraits of his friend, lover, and fellow artist (in one, a gaunt, shirtless Wojnarowicz dangles a thin snake) takes on an ominous quality when one realizes that they date from the year (1981) that AIDS – which killed both men – was first medically "reported." In contrast, 1975's David Wojnarowicz Reclining has a languorous autoeroticism: a sleepy-eyed Wojnarowicz's right nipple peaks out from under his left arm, which reaches across to caress a shoulder.

The male nudes at the Fraenkel highlight Hujar's differences from his notorious contemporary Robert Mapplethorpe. Paul's Leg (1979) is the closest Hujar comes to Mapplethorpe's truncated body representation, but whereas Mapplethorpe quests for superhuman ideals, Hujar seeks out marks of individuality, replacing Diane Arbus's pitiless abjection with ambivalent attraction. Unlike Mapplethorpe's, Hujar's nudes emphasize the mystery and individuality of faces. The subject of 1976's Bruce de Saint Croix has a cherub's visage, but a melancholic one that Hujar partly shadows; de Saint Croix's stance is stuck between feminine sashay and masculine strut. Daniel Schook Sucks Toe (1981) ups the autoeroticism of the 1975 Wojnarowicz pic: as Schook – looking like a less sinister late-'60s Mick Jagger – sucks on the big toe of his left foot, his head forms the upper left corner of a square formation (head, shoulder, elbow, and knee) at the picture's center.

"Looking at [Hujar's] photographs of nude men, even of a naked baby boy, is the closest I ever came to experience what it is to inhabit male flesh," Nan Goldin writes in Peter Hujar. Goldin and Hujar were friends, and they sometimes chose the same portrait subjects: most notably Cookie Mueller, an actor in John Waters's early films and a writer whose storytelling is singularly direct and funny. The undated Mueller portrait in Peter Hujar is, typically, black and white (a trait that the book's essays neglect to mention), and it has a reflective tone that's at odds with – a challenge to – Mueller's active presence. In contrast, Goldin's numerous photographs of Mueller capture her liveliness, until death: her final picture of Mueller is an open-casket shot indebted to earlier Hujar photos, such as his postmortem portrait of Warhol star Jackie Curtis.

There are no Cookie Muellers to be found in Goldin's recent work, also currently at the Fraenkel; the people in her newer photos are comparatively bland as personalities, and they occupy what look like stills from a contemporary Parisian film (a comparison I don't intend as a compliment). The one self-portrait is more compelling, if only for its consistency – decades after her Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Goldin still faces the camera with a stubborn solemnity. Though she's best known for an almost diarylike approach to portraiture, Goldin's standout Fraenkel photo might be the most ephemeral, a New Year's snowflake shot that isn't postcard prosaic. Viewers have to pass through Goldin's room to get to Hujar's, and the effect is bracing. Her approach has grown diffuse, but his remains focused and penetrating.

Famous and semifamous personalities can be found in the Hujar room, but his photos subvert their public images, achieving intimacy. "Luscious lips," commented a writer with whom I looked at Hujar's monograph; the lips belonged to Fran Lebowitz, a woman I don't associate with sensuality. But Fran Lebowitz (1975) breaks the writer out of caricature mode and into a more vulnerable zone where her butch and femme characteristics aren't boundaried. Conversely, a strength emerges from her physicality; she seems badass. The same goes for 1975's Susan Sontag: with the first strands of what soon became a white stripe in her dark hair, Sontag is tough and aware that she's sexy, but her eyes are focused on something far away. In his 20s when the 1975 John Waters was taken, Waters – like Lebowitz – isn't safely contained within his current desexualized-aesthete facade; he's presented in a casual, seductive guise.

The Fraenkel show arranges these "celebrity" images interestingly. Lebowitz is placed beneath a Diana Vreeland picture that illustrates why Hujar (even with Richard Avedon's support) was never quite successful as a fashion photographer: he's more concerned with Vreeland's face than her clothing. Waters is placed below 1975's Divine, an image that parodies Manet's Olympia, with a skin-hugging white pantsuit taking the place of nakedness. Wigless and mostly without makeup, Divine – belying the title – is actually closer to her out-of-drag roots as Harris Glenn Milstead. The fabric she reclines on is plush in comparison with the Spartan bedwear usually found in Hujar's boudoir settings, where blankets and walls often form gray horizons.

At Fraenkel, Susan Sontag is hung next to 1981's Great Dane, whose subject possesses a similar but superior pleased-with-itself physicality and dignity. Great Dane isn't as tactile as my favorite Hujar animal portrait, 1961's Untitled, in which a dog's sweet, aged, yet energetic personality leaps forward from a shadowy soft-focus background to almost 3-D effect. (Still, the Fraenkel show does include 1982's similarly direct and tactile Horse, Germantown, in which the horse seems to be smiling.) Hujar was obviously a friend to his animal subjects, just as strongly as he was to some of his human subjects. The relationship between subject and photographer is spontaneous in his dog and horse portraits, whereas William Wegman's dogs seem to be suffering through the flesh-doll scenarios he inflicts on them. Photographing animals, Hujar discovers beings that aren't so self-conscious about the vulnerability his camera unerringly reveals. The result: a great documentarian of human mortality creates still images that are alive.

'Peter Hujar' and 'Nan Goldin: Recent Work.' Through March 2. Tues.-Fri., 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary, S.F. (415) 981-2661.