Peter Hujar’s East Hampton Connection

An image of Dianne Benson in Issey Miyake silks from 1982 from her collection of Peter Hujar photographs, some of which are in this week's photography sale at Christie's auction house and on view through Thursday. Peter Hujar Photos

The street photographer Peter Hujar is having a moment in New York City, and Dianne Benson couldn’t be more pleased.

At the Morgan Library there is a solo show celebrating the artist’s achievements and its own sizable archive of his photographs, “Peter Hujar: Speed of Life,” through May 20. Hujar was a portraitist and chronicler of downtown life in the period between the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the AIDS crisis before the disease took his own life in 1987.

Included in the Morgan show is a photograph, “Blanket in the Famous Chair,” from the collection of Ms. Benson, who now lives in East Hampton. She collaborated with Hujar over several years for images for her Dianne B. stores in New York, which she owned and operated in the 1970s and 1980s. 

“I was fortunate to be in the business of fashion when the mixing of it and art was noncommercial and combusted spontaneously,” Ms. Benson said this week. She first worked with Hujar in 1979, she said, and “although he was particular and moody, he liked our exchange because, I think, he had total freedom.”

In the following years, “as a way of differentiating — now one would say branding — my Dianne B. stores,  I worked with many great artists in the same sort of exchange.” She paid $500 to her artist collaborators and ran the ads in Interview (“when it was the real thing”). These included up-and-comers of the time such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman.

“Of course, not with Cindy, but with the others, sometimes I was the subject in the pictures, and other times they decided the scenario. But I always went back to Peter because his ideas excited me the most and I loved his unpredictability coupled with his sense of beauty, his rigor, and his insistence on quality.”

She is the consignor of all of the Hujar photos (some considered to be unique) that are featured in this week’s photography auction at Christie’s. An image from her collection is on the catalog cover and the lots are featured in a special “spotlight” section inside. The sale is on Friday and the photos are on view in Christie’s galleries through Thursday. Included are two photos of Ms. Benson herself in Issey Miyake silks. Other images include portraits of her design assistant at the time and a number of notable people in the downtown creative fields of the day.

In one photo in the Christie’s sale, “Ethyl Eichelberger for Dianne B. in Jean Paul Gaultier,” from 1981, Hujar chose the drag performer to wear the outfit Ms. Benson wanted to feature in an Interview ad. “I said, ‘Peter, this is the outfit. Put it with my ivory bracelets. Put it on anyone you wish in any way.’ This was Gaultier’s early early career, notice the printed legs, etc. This was not the norm in 1979.”

“I loved it. He loved it. At that time no one knew how famous or iconic these artists would become. It’s nice to think I put myself in the right place at the right time. I call them the great old days.”

The Philip Glass Ensemble outfitted in clothes from Ms. Benson's Dianne B. store from 1984
"Ethyl Eichelberger for Dianne B. in Jean Paul Gaultier," 1981
" 'If Only I Spoke French' (Greer Lankton in Jean-Charles de Castelbajac sheets)," from 1983, is a lot of two images. The one on the right is featured on the cover of the Christie's auction catalog.
"Blanket in the Famous Chair," from 1983, from Ms. Benson's collection, is part of the "Peter Hujar: Speed of Life" exhibition at the Morgan Library.Peter Hujar Archive, LLC/Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco