Peter Hujar, ICA, London

Shallow smiles of the deadpan
Click to follow

The little known photography of Peter Hujar he was born in 1934 in New Jersey to parents of Ukrainian origin engages with the fashionably seamy world of New York City over a span of about 15 to 20 years, from the 1970s through to the Aids epidemic of the 1980s. Hujar, alas, was one of its victims in 1987, as were some of the friends of his whose faces and bodies we see on the walls of the downstairs galleries at the ICA, which is presenting the first ever retrospective in this country of Hujar's work.

When we think of those years we retrieve from our minds images contrived and composed by Mapplethorpe, Warhol and others. And it is Mapplethorpe in particular, with his raunchy, risk-taking, sadomasochistic glamour that we are mainly thinking about, in order to compare and contrast, as we look at Hujar's images of alternative lives lived on some dangerous edge.

Hujar is patrolling similar territory when he wanders around the Lower East Side and shows us the kind of people who are hanging out down there, many of them with names as flashily memorable as their lives were brief and raucous: Candy Darling; Divine (made famous by the films of John Waters), for example. These were lives re-invented to please the eye of the camera.

The image of Candy Darling is the most memorable in the entire show. Here she is, lying posed in her bed, with heavily lidded, seductive eyes, and surrounded by such an abundance of flowers. Her arms are thrown back; her body seems to be almost squirming amid the overwhelming presence of so much white bed linen. And yet the truth of this photograph is the chilling opposite of what it appears to be. This picture was taken when Candy was dying of bone cancer, at the tender age of 28. For all its desperately sexy posturing, this is the throw of the dice before the lid comes down.

Mapplethorpe doesn't go in for this level of ghoulishness just as Hujar, generally speaking, doesn't go in for the kinds of showiness that was generally Mapplethorope's stock in trade. There is much nudity here, but it is seldom glorying in itself. If anything, the mood seems to be one of hesitation, coupled with a muffling veil of self-absorption.

For all that, what is so interesting about so many of these subjects is how readily they seem to be staring back into the camera's eye, as if almost pleadingly. They have mortality written all over them, even in the way Hujar deploys shadow, as if shadow is a kind of premonitory and admonitory stand-in for the engulfing force of death itself.

We are not even sure they want to be quite as naked as this. With very few exceptions, these are highly introspective pictures, which, for the most part, lack any element of almost crazed, hubristic celebration.

In fact, the underlying mood of Hujar's pictures of New York is summed up in five photographs that line the walls of the corridor which leads from the ICA's entrance to the caf on the ground floor, and are therefore somewhat separated from the rest of the exhibition. Each one has its own segment of wall, and each one feels like the tolling of a bell. These five photographs form a part of an entire series he took in the catacombs of Palermo in 1963, and they show us the dead many of them are children and even babies ranged in, and often physically supported by, their niches, and all dressed up in their everyday clothes. The clothes they once lived in they have been dressed up to die in. In some instances look at the children, for example the clothes have survived better than the flesh itself.

Return now to the main galleries, and we see how stark Hujar's images are, how little smiling goes on, how little sense of real play there is amid all this seeming play. That's the bell of mortality, fresh up from the catacombs, tolling inside his head.

To 27 January (020-7930 3647)