Peter Hujar’s arresting, ambiguous image on the front of Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel encapsulates the pain and joy of the book - but the author’s relationship with photography goes much deeper

Written by Vanessa Peterson

Publication date and time: Published

December 1974: writer Linda Rosenkrantz invites her friend, photographer Peter Hujar, to her apartment to participate in a project. It is simple in intent: she asks her friends to make notes about what had occurred in their day. When Hujar arrives, Rosenkrantz asks him to narrate the day’s occurrences while she records the audio and, besides dropping names of peers and friends, such as Susan Sontag and William Burroughs, and chasing money from various magazine commissions, he recounts his experience of taking portraits of Allen Ginsberg for his first New York Times project. 

He expresses his trepidation about the part of New York Ginsberg lives in, as well as Ginsberg’s apartment, which was ‘the most rundown tenement’. Hujar also recalls Ginsberg’s scepticism or disdain for him by telling Rosenkrantz that he was ‘suspicious and cool to me’, as they embarked on a journey to find a place to shoot Ginsberg’s portrait. Ginsberg had insisted they take photographs next to or in front of ‘burned-out buildings’ and ‘boarded-up windows’ in New York’s Upper East Side. 

The experience was seemingly uncomfortable for both parties, and Hujar notes, in the transcript which eventually becomes a book, Peter Hujar’s Day (2021), that the portraits didn’t turn out the way he wanted them to. Rosenkrantz asks whether they’re suitable for the NYT, and Hujar responds, ‘Probably, but he gave out nothing […] it was that we didn’t connect.’ 
In portraiture, whether photographic or painted, a connection is often required between artist and subject; an intimacy and a feeling that you are both on the same side. By the time of his exchange with Rosenkrantz, Hujar had been taking photographs of friends, lovers and acquaintances for several years, depicting a dazzling constellation of writers, artists, musicians and queer life, predominantly in the Lower East Side in a classic black and white signature style. 

Many are now well-known figures in culture, but at the time many were young and starting out in the city, trying to carve out their careers. In 1973, Hujar photographed Candy Darling, an actress and Warhol muse, on her deathbed; white flowers visible on a tableside close to her. A year later, he photographed Fran Lebowitz at home, leaning upright in bed with a duvet covering her body; bare shoulders exposed. During a talk at New York’s Kasmin Gallery in 2016, Lebowitz said: ‘I hate having my photo taken, and none of the times that Peter took my picture was it an arduous experience.’  
Earlier in the 1960s, in an embrace of visualising eroticism, Hujar embarked on a series of photographs depicting men in various states of sexual release. One photograph in the series features a tight crop of the head and shoulders of a man with his eyes scrunched closed, hand resting close by. The expression on his face is unclear - at first glance, it looks as if he is in physical pain, or perhaps as if he is about to burst into violent tears. It’s only when you learn the title of the image, Orgasmic Man (1969), that you learn that the man in the photograph is in sexual ecstasy, and on the verge or process of orgasming. 

Peter Hujar, New Jersey, 1986

I really hung on for the cover. I love the intimacy, the emotion, what looks like anguish. There’s something so visceral about it

— Hanya Yanagihara

This line between pleasure and pain makes the photograph one you return to time and time again. The image by Hujar - who died in 1987, aged 53, 10 months after being diagnosed with AIDS - became a topic of public discussion and discourse upon the release of the novel A Little Life, with author Hanya Yanagihara insisting that the photograph had to be on the cover of the novel. In a Wall Street Journal interview, the author said, ‘I really hung on for the cover. I love the intimacy, the emotion, what looks like anguish. There’s something so visceral about it.’  

In another interview, she again referred to the uncertainty of the image as being what makes it so alluring, the pendulum swinging between ‘ecstasy or agony’ with viewers unclear as to whether they are ‘witnessing or trespassing’. This bears striking similarities to the novel itself, where, as a reader, you feel uncertain as to whether you should have the ability to read and experience so much of the protagonist Jude St. Francis’s suffering, and the many difficult things which happened to him, stretching from childhood to adulthood where he attempts to navigate the world after experiencing the depths of emotional and physical suffering and trauma. The tone struck by the book cover’s ambiguity stretches across the novel itself, where occurrences and important details reveal themselves, unfurling slowly but surely across decades.

In a Guardian interview published in the run-up to the release of the book in 2015, Yanagihara spoke of her process of writing it and the important role that photography played in carving out the emotional depth she was seeking to relay over 700 pages, keeping a Pinterest folder to collate photographs across the decades depicting similar feelings of loneliness, estrangement and desire. Those who entered her digital scrapbook were photographers such as Robert Adams, whose monochrome photographs depicted the barren landscapes and eerie unoccupied buildings in America with significant emotional effect, and Nan Goldin, whose landmark series and film The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985) depicted the lives of those close to her and those who were strangers in a haze of drugs and sex, at parties and clubs, and at home in the form of a visual diary spanning several years. All of the artists chosen by the author were those who ‘use their medium not just to storytell but to do psychological plunder’. 

Significantly, photography was a discipline Yanagihara continued to engage with after A Little Life was released. In 2016, the author curated a show at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery, a gallery specialising in exhibiting photography and representing some of the most influential photographic artists, including Lee Friedlander, Carrie Mae Weems, and Peter Hujar. Yanagihara’s show, How I Learned To See: An (Ongoing) Education in Pictures, came to fruition after 17 years of visiting the gallery’s various exhibitions, perhaps training herself to understand the ways of looking intimately at different kinds of photography. The 2016 show revolved around six key themes or chapters, as in a novel: ageing, beauty, discovery, love, loneliness and solitude. In the press release for the show, Yanagihara noted that these themes, and the photographs themselves, were instrumental, stating that the ‘work […] has, in ways both direct and not, influenced [her] own fiction’. 

Photography… converts the whole world into a cemetery… Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death

— Susan Sontag

In the loneliness section, Yanagihara selected a photograph by American photographer Alec Soth of a seemingly empty and desolate motel, free of human presence (Riverview Motel, 2015), as well as Adams’ square black and white image of a solitary figure in shadow through the window of a bungalow, with perfect composition and framing. The fact that you cannot see the face of the woman, perhaps a housewife, and the perfection of a manicured front lawn feels somewhat unsettling and foreboding (Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968). 

Yanagihara wrote her own captions alongside the photographs on display, again drawing connections between the written word and the visual, noting the powerful combination of ‘character’ and ‘setting’ visible in her curatorial selection. Striking photographs by Hujar, such as Joseph Raffael at the Botanical Gardens (1956), are included in the exhibition, highlighting the photographer’s lingering influence on her way of seeing the world, and others. In a conversation with Soth for the photography publication Aperture, both artist and writer noted how pivotal the work of Hujar is in their creative lives. Yanagihara observed how Hujar imbues all of his photographs, no matter the subject, with a sense of ‘gravitas’.  
For me, alongside Hujar, a particularly poignant connection to the novel in Yanagihara’s show was visible in work by photographer Nicholas Nixon, in the third section, ‘Ageing’. Over a period of more than 40 years, Nixon shot a series of portraits, The Brown Sisters, featuring his wife and her three sisters. Starting in 1974, Nixon continued to shoot the sisters as they grew up, family get-togethers, moved away, married, had children and experienced illness and grief. In these photographs, Nixon manages to illustrate not just the familial bond between the four subjects, but the ways in which photography can offer us as viewers a glimpse of a life, not in its entirety; but enough to learn about the lives of others. 

This inclusion felt notable, as it draws on themes in A Little Life, where JB, a figurative artist, paints portraits of his three friends, Willem, Malcolm and Jude, on several occasions over many years, based on photographs he takes. They are blurry, hazy and intimate at first, when they are young and figuring out the direction of their lives as students and new graduates, at parties, at home, in fits of pain and moments of joy. JB’s debut show, The Boys, ends up being the site of conflict and a major disagreement between the four friends. JB continues in this vein later in his career, by following each of his three friends for the day, in different cities and contexts and taking photographs of them, again translating them to painted portraits. This narrative, a melancholy minor note throughout the novel, marks the passing of time, and the powerful impact of particular photographs on memory and loss.  
Whether it’s in the use of Orgasmic Man on the front cover, or her curatorial work after the release of the novel, Yanagihara constantly emphasises the lasting influence of the medium of photography, and how alongside the written word, a photograph serves to tell many stories. But as the author said in her Aperture interview, it ‘captures something, it does, but it doesn’t capture everything. Nor should it be expected to.’   
Perhaps, most poignantly, the sentiment of Susan Sontag’s introduction to Hujar’s book, Portraits in Life and Death, juxtaposing portraits of his peers alongside images depicting symbols of death, such as skulls and catacombs, rings true: ‘Photography… converts the whole world into a cemetery… Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death.’ 

Hanya Yanagihara