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.’