Reviewed: Linda Rosenkrantz, Peter Hujar’s Day, Magic Hour Press
Magic Hour is an interview podcast series about photography founded by Jordan Weitzman in 2016. Magic Hour Press, a continuation of the project, began in 2021 and has published two books, one of which is Peter Hujar’s Day by Linda Rosenkrantz. Peter Hujar (1934–1987) was a photographer who lived in a milieu of now very famous artists in New York City, although Hujar himself didn’t have huge success in his lifetime. Linda Rosenkrantz is an unusual author whose 1968 ‘novel’ Talk (re-released by NYRB in 2015) comprises the conversations of three friends over one summer. In much of her body of work to date, Rosenkrantz’s writing technique is recording hours of tape—she is concerned with or deals in ‘reality’, that is, recorded reality, and her work highlights the extreme labour involved in trying ‘really’ to capture life in art.
But I say ‘unusual’ because Rosenkrantz’s great post-Talk success was co-writing (with Pamela Redmond Satran) Beyond Jennifer and Jason, Madison & Montana (1988), which took the baby-name book beyond mere dictionary to something far more talky (and ‘revolutionary’ and cool). Since then, she has co-written many other baby-name books and invented Nameberry, the ‘most popular’ baby name website.
Rosenkrantz’s work is all about expressing taste and not much else. This is not a critique, but a matter-of-fact statement about the author’s self-imposed, fruitful constraint. In all her work she applies a conceptual constraint, from Talk to today. It’s a workhorse approach to creating: she sets herself arduous, dry tasks that would be considered boring to most people. Even in her short, autobiographical book, My Life as a List: 207 Things about My (Bronx) Childhood (1999), she nods to precision, mechanically looking at life. We see an obsessive recorder and maker of lists in Rosenkrantz’s body of work, an artist who seeks to reproduce a time we share on earth, to take a snapshot of our shared language. (‘We’ being the anglophone American world; she records with absolutely no cringe from inside the imperium.) This is serious, almost sacred work: recording, choosing (and being American).
Rosenkrantz has good taste in people: ‘I choose my friends carefully,’ she tells Michael Silverblatt on the radio show Bookworm. The vivacious and neurotic voices of her friends shine on the page. In Talk, she relied on editing to produce a narrative, which she subsequently expressed ambivalence about, in a reflection on that book in the Paris Review after it was republished, stating she had abandoned ‘the book’s mandate … to present raw reality’. But the work benefits from whittling, and I am happy it is not like Warhol’s Empire and other ‘raw’ artworks from this era in the United States. Rosenkrantz’s pleasant work causes me to wonder: what is so good about deliberately unconsumable art? The conversations in Talk among its three characters are lively and reflective, making references to therapy and the power of talk to reveal the self. It is a well-cooked book. Rosenkrantz’s next concept was to record people telling her everything that had happened on a day of their choice—a more maximalist (‘raw’), less interventionist (‘cooked’) project.
Participating in this project, Peter Hujar chose 18 December 1974, and Rosenkrantz the author-recorder listens and prompts him into speech. The ‘authorship’ is almost solely in her choice of subject, but we mustn’t forget the significant labour of transcribing these conversations, the mechanical-like labour the author-recorder undertakes to produce the final object’s simple form. Rosenkrantz has spoken to other people, including the artist Chuck Close. Of these recordings, Peter Hujar’s Day is the first to be published as a book.
At times Hujar’s voice (and the concept of someone describing a day in the life) reminded me of Frank O’Hara’s ‘I do this, I do that’ poetry. There is a grace O’Hara achieves when talking about his day (a decade earlier) that feels similar to Hujar’s speech. Could we consider this ‘mid-century modern talk’? The way O’Hara does it—despite writing of and living in an earlier era and milieu—mirrors Rosenkrantz’s fascination with specificity, the magic of noticing a simple moment: ‘Everything / suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of / a Thursday’ (‘A Step Away from Them’). Similarly, Peter Hujar’s Day produces a certain allure and grace through detailing minutiae:
P: Ok now what happens? Glenn is there. He stays for about ten minutes, then he leaves. So it’s just Vince and me and I say I have to get back to work and he says he’s going home. Oh, I mentioned your book and there are things like Patrick says it would be great to have a sofa.
This is easy-breezy, stripped-back, functional talk enjoying recalling how the time passed. What’s exciting, as with O’Hara, is the lightness of delivery, yet the weight of each detail increases due to its being recorded: ‘Then I come back and I did 27 push-ups and I turn on the television.’
Or am I saying this because he is describing life in a cool and liveable New York, when cigarettes were 56 cents (‘My God! They are?’ Linda interjects) and Hujar was selling his work to the Village Voice for $300? Times were not so bad for artists then, and even though you can infer some stress in the photographer’s voice when discussing money, Hujar luxuriates in a cheap lifestyle that allows him to make art. He has a darkroom, a harpsichord, some lovely rugs, and incredible natural light (but no couch) in his loft at 189 2nd Avenue.
The text—which includes two photographs of the apartment’s beautiful lighting—invites nostalgia for the ‘lives of the artists’ in 1970s New York. But the dominant emotion that Rosenkrantz (and, tangentially, Hujar) evokes is awe at life—anyone’s life—as it glitters amid daily routine, in wondrous space and time. I am talking about the project considered as this miraculous whole. In this way, Peter Hujar’s Day is a work of art, not ‘just’ a recording of two people conversing, or a tool for understanding life in a particular historical period. Whether you feel nostalgia or outright jealousy will say more about you than it does about the text.
I was drawn to the description of food in Hujar’s recollection of his day. Attention to what people consume, like O’Hara’s ever-fascinating ‘glass of papaya juice / and back to work’, feels to me like a window into our earthly souls. I love itemisation of food in conversation and literature—food as a mark of time in one’s day, as pleasurable literary image, ornament, time capsule, character trait and the thing that literally keeps you alive, fills you with light, more talk, more work. And Hujar doesn’t disappoint: he buys for lunch some absolutely perfect-to-say Oscar Mayer Braunschweiger liverwurst (89 cents) to make a sandwich on a sprouted wheat bread he loves. He washes it down with some ‘Pep-up … that Adelle Davis drink. With yeast and stuff’. Like a good photograph, the language-iness of this talk is titillating, a delightful surface that can be enjoyed without further investigation, as we hear the sound of its name in Hujar’s mouth—‘that Adelle Davis drink’. For those of us reading today, we can google his lunch if we care to, or not. It doesn’t matter. It’s the vibe of the thing.
Work is the main feature of Hujar’s talk and day, although he bemoans, ‘I didn’t do anything.’ Well, he was visited in the morning by a French editor from Elle wanting to buy his photographs for the magazine. Then Hujar went out to photograph Allen Ginsberg for the New York Times in what is quite a funny story and offers a slice of Ginsberg’s day too. The Ginsberg narrative forms the majority of Peter Hujar’s Day; the two interlocutors lightly mock him (‘L: He’s a compulsive chanter’), as Hujar describes his difficulty charming the very famous poet into accepting a portrait. We also find out that Ginsberg, rather dorkishly, has a Bob Dylan poster in his bedroom, which is good to know. Plenty happens on 18 December 1974: Hujar spends a large chunk of time working in the darkroom after his outing with Ginsberg. He eats, he naps.
Nan Goldin’s blurb calls Peter Hujar’s Day Hujar’s ‘sexiest self-portrait’, which is to say there is life and charge in recorded speech, more than in most photographs. The contemporary desire for podcasts affirms this. Speech—especially if it is unedited or seemingly unedited (‘raw’, ‘real’)—is held in higher esteem. Of course it is never truly ‘raw’, as the speaker knows they are being recorded. But Hujar’s raw performance, the clear intimacy he has with Rosenkrantz, his forthrightness and keen participation in the project of listing everything from the day make us like him. His way of talking, like a podcast, is intimate, sexy, cool.
P: Then I get my camera stuff together and I have to decide what coat to wear to the Lower East Side. I think I’ll wear my long whatever it is coat, then I decide no, it’s wrong … I just didn’t feel it was the coat for the Lower East Side, to meet Allen Ginsberg … I’d be much snazzier in my red ski jacket.
L: Better choice.
P: Oh, before I leave, I water the plants …
L: Do you have a watering can?
P: No, the coffee pot, which I fill up in the tub, because the pressure’s much quicker. Then I walk over to Allen Ginsberg’s, down Second Avenue and straight across 10th Street. Past Fred and Simona Tuten’s and those other people, that writer-critic?
L: John Gruen?
P: Yeah …
In comparing Rosenkrantz’s projects to podcasts, we must note the major technological difference between Hujar’s world then and ours now, which informs our relation to this book. As recorded speech becomes more accessible, its value changes. Today, New York podcasts are a dime a dozen. And yet this is a book, which costs about $20. What does this mean? You can’t read the book while you do the dishes, as you might with a podcast. So it forces our attention to the drive to record the sacredness of that drive. The proliferation of recorded speech in the form of podcasts, so much of which are superficially about how people spend their days, hasn’t changed the erotic thrill with which many of us—like Rosenkrantz—are driven to seek it out. Rosenkrantz’s small and beautifully designed book is a special object that pays homage to that drive (and perhaps a way to make money for Magic Hour to keep on recording conversations, given that their podcast is free to access).
I’d like to say that Linda and Peter’s conversation has aged beautifully, but how do we measure the goodness of ageing in such rare products as these conversations, given the uniqueness of Rosenkrantz’s project in the first place? You publish more—maybe there are better ones. And this mid-century modern talk, as I am trying to call it (after today’s trend for mid-century modern furniture), produces a simple, light, easy-going ‘world’ for us to inhabit in our tumultuous and often unpleasant present. It’s nice to LARP in Hujar and Rosenkrantz’s world; both the literal world of NYC in 1974 and the aural delight of their talk. I cling to his conversation as a historical document, advice on how to live, and as a spell to enchant the places we inhabit in our own days, but mostly as a treat, a luxury commodity whose value has been added (we’re not certain why!) by the years it spent maturing in the archive. What causes the cling, and makes it a treat, is Hujar’s casually self-regarding style of talk, a talk that lives well, takes pleasure in its own movement, the little details, and which we do well to live with.
The pleasant, quiet ending reminds us of the project’s constraints. Blithely introducing new characters (‘the whores are out in the street downstairs’), it is clear that the conversation revolves around the pair’s friendship, reflecting Hujar’s activities on that ‘randomly’ chosen day. Peter Hujar’s Day is not so much a conventional narrative, but has more similarities to a photograph.
P: And I fall asleep almost immediately, but then within a few minutes, the whores are out in the street downstairs and … they talk so loud …
L: What are they talking about? The trade? Just shop talk?
L: Did they keep you awake for a while?
P: No. I got up and I looked out the window, I watched them to see what they looked like and one of them was putting on makeup in the mirror of a car, an outside mirror. Actually, it wasn’t a car, it was that blue truck that comes from the junkies’ detention place up the block and it has a small rectangular mirror. And then I went back to bed and fell asleep.
This last fragment works like the final corner of a painting filled in; an image described in detail but serving no metaphorical purpose. It’s a pure image caught in the speech of the photographer, impersonal, yet tender and loving. I went back to bed and fell asleep. •
Gareth Morgan is the author of When A Punk Becomes A Spunk and Dear Eileen, and co-director of Sick Leave.
Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems, City Lights, San Francisco, 1964.
Linda Rosenkrantz, Peter Hujar’s Day, Magic Hour Press, New York, 2021.
‘Linda Rosenkrantz: Talk’, Bookworm, KCRW, 23 July 2015.
Rosenkrantz, Talk, NYRB, New York, 2015 .
Rosenkrantz, ‘Sex, Lies, and Audiotape’, Paris Review, July 2015, accessed online 28 April 2022.