Appropriation is a postmodern idea and approach whereby artists acknowledge that too many images exist already out there and there is no need for new ones to be created. The possible permutations of all different pictures is truly mind-boggling - something that Erik Kessels, for example, explores with great wit. It could take many different forms - collage, dialogue, juxtaposition - the possibilities are endless. Two sets of pictures that were never intended to share a page when they were conceived, yet this is what is happening, and why not? There is no particular reason for it, apart from the photographers’ shared visual interests, but they somehow elevate and enhance one another.
The Shabbiness of Beauty, published by MACK, is a lovely object with subtle design hints such as the line running between Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar’s names, connecting them between two back-to-back pages. The paper is uncoated with a matt finish, producing rich blacks and close to no light reflections. It’s a small, easy to hold book. The viewer may initially wish that the pictures were bigger so that any tiny detail could be examined, but soon it becomes clear that they evoke intimacy and make one look closer, similar to the way a contact sheet is experienced. After all, not all photo books have to be big.
What do we mean by beauty - a Western ideal or something more profound? Is it learned and ingrained in us by society or part of our DNA? I have noticed my own ideals of whom I find physically attractive change drastically year to year when I look back so beauty is a fleeting concept. Is a beautiful horse the same as a beautiful ocean or a beautiful face? How about beautiful design, or perhaps it’s interchangeable with “functional”?
The pictures in the book can be neatly put into a few categories, although generalisations like this defeat the purpose of the overall project. There are people and animals, waves of water, cityscapes and Hujar’s letter to his lover. The latter is its own category as it is written language among the imagery - it’s a poignant artefact written on New Year’s Day of 1984, the year Hujar turned 50. Typewritten and corrected by hand, it’s imbued with affection towards its recipient and it provides a glimpse of who the man behind the camera was. On the following page are Paul’s Legs, a picture that I simply cannot stop looking at - it’s exquisite. The man’s torso is excluded from the frame and it makes one wonder what’s happening there. As Hujar would say, “This is not a painting. This negative has an edge… it’s an honesty thing.” - the picture is a slice of his world. It’s incredibly hard to describe the image as it’s so simple and there’s barely anything going on - the title is perfectly sufficient, yet it’s such a striking photograph. Soft, tranquil, ever-so-slightly erotic and beautifully presented scene of what appears to be a nude man on white linen sheets - domestic bliss.
The book is about more than who took which picture, although it can certainly be turned into a very fun game. Serendipity - pictures that were never intended to be shown or experienced together have somehow, through the sharp eye of photographers and designers, achieved just that - seamless, uninterrupted cohabitation. Yes, some may argue that Davey has an easy ride because Hujar, being dead, cannot disagree or express an opinion, but this is not meant to be an equal collaboration. I beg to differ and suggest that the fact that he is not around makes Davey’s take on their images together a much more daunting and responsible task, akin to creating a movie based on the book of a deceased author. One wonders what Hujar’s thoughts would have been had he been still alive. Perhaps this is beyond the point as we will never know for sure, and why should we care? Moyra Davey must have seen herself and her own work reflected through the prism of time in Hujar’s pictures and perhaps he would have felt the same had he seen her photographs. The purpose of Davey’s pictures isn’t to look as closely as possible as Hujar’s, she is not trying to deceive us. In fact, it’s a dialogue which benefits from the differences between the two image makers and it points at the various possibilities and sensibilities that photography as a medium can offer. The work poses questions on solid notions such as authorship - does it matter who took which photograph or should we be looking at the images for their own sake, regardless of their maker, and allow ourselves to experience the feeling of complete immersion in the pictures? This is about so much more than pure style or visuals and a far cry from claims of plagiarism - the two photographers are kindred spirits separated by the gulf of a generation and this is a precious, rare find.
The Shabbiness of Beauty does not tell a story. In fact, it is a window providing a brief glimpse into the photographers’ outer but also inner worlds. The lack of a linear narrative is unarguably one of the book’s strengths as there is no plot to follow. It provides the viewers with enough visual cues to enable them to draw their own associations and conclusions, if any. Allow me to express a personal opinion here, which I don’t venture often - the animals, and the chickens in particular, felt like a filler. Undoubtedly good and technically stellar pictures, but be that as it may, I would swap them for more sublime nudes and powerful waves. On the other hand, perhaps this is the definition of a book that is well put together - it leaves you yearning for more.
The text is a double-edged sword. Some argue that Eileen Moyles, the poet, is the third collaborator and an integral part of the book. It’s positioned right in the beginning of the book and I suggest that the experience of the work would be better if the text was substantially shorter and more to the point. I am a strong advocate for pictures combined with language as when done effectively it reveals the true possibilities of both creative outlets, but the lack of commas and the at times colloquial nature of the text made it feel clunky. It provided beneficial context and otherwise the images would be like free radicals floating around unanchored, but overall I found it to be a distraction. Moyles coined the phrase which ended up as the title of the book - two words which are antonyms in the collective imagination (how can beauty be shabby?), hence the title is so pertinent to the work. Beauty, but not the kind of beauty we have been conditioned to expect from magazines and advertising. Images and language can work absolute wonders in collaboration if deployed creatively and there is a more historical and matter-of-factly body of text towards the end, which was a joy to read. It gives the backstory of how many of the photographs came to be as well as plenty of anecdotes; it invites the viewer to go back and look, but this time for longer.
Overall, The Shabbiness of Beauty is one of those books that require to be leafed through again and again and present their viewer with something new each and every time. It could be an interesting detail from a picture that one has missed at first glance or perhaps an unusual image pairing or a play of words within the text. It’s a small treasure-trove full of gems and there is something even for people who are not photography fanatics - the book as an object is simply lovely and it’s worthy of appreciation by anyone. Last but not least, it’s refreshing to see two photographers side by side with their images in tandem rather than in competition and I hope that we get to see more of this.
The Shabbiness of Beauty by Moyra Davey and Peter Hujar is available to purchase here.
Zak Dimitrov is a photographic artist, lecturer and writer. He received an MA from the University of Westminster and BA (Hons) from The Arts University Bournemouth. Zak’s work deals with memory, the passage of time, mortality and the physicality of photographic materials. He is the Associate Editor at American Suburb X.