Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar – The Shabbiness of Beauty

Late last year on C4 Journal I wrote about my appreciation of Salters Cottages (Dashwood, 2019), a book by Gary Schneider that disassembles a short film, shot on holiday with a group of friends on Long Island in 1981, into a sequence of still images, channelling Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour but redolent of Marker’s La Jetée. The book left me thinking about the processes of translation from moving to still image; what exactly constitutes filmic pacing when still images are arranged in this way, and the ways in which “reading” still images and texts can feel like a cinematic experience.

Reading The Shabbiness of Beauty feels akin to this experience, despite the fact that the images contained within it have no direct relation to a filmic sequence and were produced across a number of years and locations by two New York artists of different generations. The book was developed from an exhibition slated to run at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin between 13 February-11 April 2020 and simply titled ‘Moyra Davey  Peter Hujar’. “I curated myself with Peter Hujar,” Davey writes in the exhibition’s text, reproduced in the book; “a risky act, but it was an invitation I could not resist.” 

Nan Goldin once said that Hujar, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987 aged 53, was the best photographer of animals she had ever met … His horses and cows and dogs peer into the lens as though hypnotized…

For the exhibition, Davey chose little-known images from Hujar’s archive, including tender portraits of less-famous friends, tentatively sensual nudes, and many animals, largely the domesticated kind: horses, dogs, chickens. Nan Goldin once said that Hujar, who died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1987 aged 53, was the best photographer of animals she had ever met, and Davey affirms this, writing “Everyone agrees Hujar was unrivalled when it came to photographing animals. His horses and cows and dogs peer into the lens as though hypnotized…” During breaks in the process of selecting images from the archive, Davey found herself photographing animals too, “attempting to channel Hujar”, and the exhibition brought these images and others from her own multidisciplinary career together with Hujar’s in sparkling dialogue. It remained open for just a few weeks, the Covid-19 pandemic shuttering galleries and pretty much everything else. 

Fortunately for the many who did not find themselves in Berlin in February of 2020, the exhibition images and text were reproduced in a book published this spring by MACK. But rather than functioning as a catalogue of sorts, The Shabbiness of Beauty takes the cross-generational (cross-dimensional?) dialogue and abstracts it further, incorporating new voices and new locations, including the poet and writer Eileen Myles; Gary Schneider, Hujar’s friend and printer; Stephen Koch, executor of Hujar’s estate and director of the Archive; and the East Village of 2020 as well as the East Village of the 1970s. The incidental locations relevant to the exhibition – the gallery in Berlin, the archive in Queens, NY – become crystallised into filmic locations in the book, as the narrative arc of the publication moves from Myles’s East Village apartment to Buchholz, to the surface of the Hudson from the west side piers in the 70s (“Dirty as fuck” according to Myles) and then rural Quebec; New Year’s Day on Elizabeth Street at the dawn of 1984, and back to the Peter Hujar Archive in Queens in 2019, a year that seems now to have been riding on the crest of a wave. 

It is in this way that The Shabbiness of Beauty holds some of the cinematic qualities of Salter’s Cottages, in which Hujar – one of Schenider’s companions that summer – featured heavily. “They are film –” Myles writes of Hujar’s images; “I could say that in general Hujar seems to be creating neo-realist stills”. To me however, the cinematic energy of the book goes beyond the sense of suspended animation in much of Hujar’s photography (and Davey’s, too); it is more to do with the ways in which the book’s texts – Myles’s freeform essay which opens the book, Davey’s exhibition text reproduced after the images, a short reflection from Stephen Koch on Hujar’s lexicon, and Hujar’s own typewritten letter to David Wojnarowicz deep in the middle, around which everything else revolves – interact with the photographs to create main characters and a supporting cast, and evoke filmic devices such as voiceover, flashbacks, dissolves and bridging shots which collapse past and present tense. 

Myles’s text does much of the work here, as well as giving us the book’s title, referring to one of Hujar’s images of a horse. Myles establishes the narrative in their East Village apartment as New York is under the pandemic’s first lockdown. A neighbour has died, Covid is suspected, and Myles is printing out images from the Buchholz show on their home printer: “It looks lousy but you get the graphic thing of it.” In a kind of intimate reincarnation of the Berlin exhibition, Myles pastes and tapes the images on the walls and ceiling of the apartment they have lived in for 44 years, some directly above the bed, others in the kitchen and elsewhere: “I’m pasting cocks up in the hall.” As Myles studies the images, we hear the laughter of their neighbours and the bleats of a dying battery in a smoke alarm, carried across thick and humming New York air. This exercise of printing, shuffling and arranging has generated a text that shifts across various registers and modes of address, confusing Myles’s direct relationship to the subjects of the images. Describing one of the few colour portraits of Hujar’s in the book, Myles writes: “In the kitchen (mine) Paul Thek cheats towards us a bit […] his damp eyes feeling like the melancholy Russian poet Yesenin”. It takes me some time to realise that Hujar did not, of course, photograph Thek (his one-time lover) in Myles’s kitchen in 1967, but that Myles is contemplating the image, printed out and pasted up, in their own kitchen in 2020. The writing nonetheless offers us a bridge back to Hujar and Wojnarowicz’s Manhattan (Myles and Hujar had mutual friends) whilst also situating the whole project very specifically mid-pandemic as the world dawdled in a state of near-suspension. Reflecting on the genesis of the project as an exhibition, Myles writes: “It opened for a few weeks last February and then the thing happened. I keep thinking of the living woman and the dead man. Like a forest.” (I find it interesting that Myles’s text was later reproduced in the Paris Review, more rigorously copy edited, and interspersed with a small selection of Hujar and Davey’s imagery, in another example of The Shabbiness of Beauty’s cross-contextual creep.)

The photographs here are wonderful, laid out singly per double page spread with no author credit or page numbers. Two lists at the back of the book catalogue the works of each photographer  respectively, and both artists’ proclivity for black and white film and the square format of the Hasselblad make it often impossible to deduce Hujar’s chickens from Davey’s, and so on. This approach to design and layout, in which the photographs hover just outside of time and the sincerity of authorship, was a decision specifically taken for the publication; in the original exhibition at Buchholz, Hujar’s prints were hung elegantly framed within a deep white mat, whilst Davey’s images were unframed, unmounted, and lightly tacked to the wall. A specific distinction was made between the work of each artist, the heavier frames of Hujar’s images reinforcing a canonical legitimacy, whilst the modesty of Davey’s prints casting her almost as an ingenue or protégé – or perhaps just simply, still alive, and therefore able to side-step the archive’s hagiographic tendency.

Moyra Davey makes photographs like a cat might, and like a writer might, with a gaze that oscillates between intense curiosity and dignified restraint, playfulness and measured control …

The decision to collapse these unnecessary distinctions in the book is part of its magic, but spending more time with the images one finds that there are particularities to each artist’s work that eventually allow the eye to begin to sort each image into its category. Gary Schneider printed much of Hujar’s work, which is known for its rich, contrasting tones and formal intensity. There is a lack of self-consciousness to Hujar’s subjects which is testament to the patience and nuance of his approach. He was a photographer who rarely gave directions, spoke little, and according to Davey simply “waited for [his subjects] to give to him whatever it was they were going to give, and then he took it”. A technique honed, perhaps, on the dogs and chickens he shot in Key West in his early twenties (the earliest images that appear in the book), when still a photographic apprentice.

Davey’s photographs feel somehow more proactive, more sprightly. Contemplating the fact that Davey’s practice has expanded to incorporate writing, Myles suggests: “Writing’s like a cat. I would say Moyra’s a cat photographer.” It’s obvious that Davey isn’t a photographer who specialises in cats, although it’s ironic that one of the most striking and commercially potent images in the book is her shot of a naked female pelvis with two especially fluffy kittens clutched to the groin area, in which the pressure of tiny claws against skin is tangible. Rather, Moyra Davey makes photographs like a cat might, and like a writer might, with a gaze that oscillates between intense curiosity and dignified restraint, playfulness and measured control – “surgent” in Myles’s words, responsive and resourceful. Her photographs rest lightly on the page, ready to leap at any minute. And so Moyra the cat photographer wends her way through the relics of Hujar’s life and work, “rustling through it all, entering his archive with hers, staggering the experience”.

I wonder whether Eileen Myles is a cat poet. Certainly in their work there is a sense of devotion, but also a commitment to the independent and unrestrained pursuit of pleasure. They have a territory, and it is passionately defended, and yet in The Shabbiness of Beauty we are permitted to cross the threshold. “The space became a photograph, or a repetition”, they proposed in a Zoom panel after the book’s release, referring to their East Village apartment, the halfway house for this series of images, in between gallery and publication. “I can only write about my world, the vanishing building, and slowly install the memory of this show on my walls.” Few photography-focused books triumph as gestalt artworks to the extent that The Shabbiness of Beauty does: the memory of a show, installed in a vanishing building, reanimated through text, and immortalised on the page.

Moyra Davey & Peter Hujar
MACK, 2021

All Rights Reserved: text © Lillian Wilkie; images © MACK; book spreads © Eugenie Shinkle