In Candy Darling on her Deathbed, Hujar’s visual representation appears to defy reality. Pictured is a made-up young woman on a hospital bed surrounded by bouquets of roses. Darling’s beauty is almost ghoulish; her dark eye-makeup is heavy and, although beautifying, the gauntness under her cheekbones makes it appear she is wasting away. The suggestion of dying, as referred to in the photograph’s title, paired with the beautiful and preened subject, defies the photograph’s hospital setting, likening it more to a “movie set” than its tragic reality. Markers of illness exist throughout the image, most potently in the hospital bed and the sheet which covers Darling. But the clinical whiteness of the hospital is subverted in the way the room is softened by perfectly ruched sheets and the absence of machines or medicines. The importance of fabric and texture, paired with the contrasting black and white scene, draws on the classical technique, chiaroscuro, to enhance the sense of drama and narrative. Hugh Manon suggests that “it is important to account for chiaroscuro not solely in terms of affect or mood, but as representing a specific kind of optical structure … as well as a particular brand of criminal deception.” Manon is drawing on uses of the technique specific to film noir; however, Hujar’s photograph is coyly alluding to the hidden truth of Darling’s situation. Pictured is a beautified version of the dying woman which appears to sexualise and aestheticise the act of dying. It is only by understanding the context in which the image was taken that a sense of radical representation is impressed. As the photograph was taken, Darling was being treated for lymphoma and was so severely ill that she died several months later. With this understanding, the most poignant visual element becomes one of tragedy, rather than of drama or vanity. The image attests initially to something unreal and unbelievable, so much so that it subdues the threat of Darling’s illness. As the viewer comes to understand Darling’s medical context, a heightened sense of tragedy bleeds into the frame.
This photograph of Darling offers the chance to posit a fantastical version of reality, without the messiness or ugliness associated with serious illness. Susan Sontag writes: “Whatever their degree of ‘realism,’ all photographs embody a ‘romantic’ relation to reality.” The success of photography as a medium for artists interested in queer representation can further be understood due to its roots in representing social deviance and capturing the marginalised. Hujar was a prominent figure among creatives operating in downtown New York and his career saw photography emerge as an overwhelmingly popular medium for artists representing the AIDS crisis. The photograph gives physical presence to queer communities facing underrepresentation. During the AIDS crisis, some representation of those dying of AIDS was used to attest to presence and offer space for mourning. However, Hujar’s photograph of Darling does not allow us to mourn in a typical sense. By employing a likeness to cinematic aesthetics, the image is entrenched in ominous drama. The unreal and the dramatised arise from the black and white film, mimicking film noir from the 1940s or ’50s, as the shadow from the back wall creeps across Darling’s starkly lit face and bed. The genre was known for its contrasting light and dark scenes as well as its theatrical melodrama, which is shared with this image. However, picturing death marks a departure from film noir, in the sense that Gorer, author of Pornography of Death (1955), suggests that he cannot recall any recent (to 1955) death bed scenes from television and film. Darling, the gaunt subject with darkened eyes, appears like a corpse. The implication of this dramatisation appears to make the image of death more palatable. Gorer goes on to suggest that by nature of its taboo in Western society, death has become “unmentionable” and its status as such categorises it alongside sex, thus making exposure to death in film and television appear a kind of pornography in its incurred intrigue. Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, thus, becomes shocking in its representation of the dying. However, due to the sense of drama, the “deathbed” is not explored completely literally. Therefore, Hujar is able to defy the taboo of death by containing it within a recognisable, albeit eerie, cinematic aesthetic. By marketing Darling’s death as if it were a movie, Hujar brings the privacy of the hospital into popular culture and the realm of the social. With the popularity of photography as a medium for asserting queer presence, this defiance of taboo is presented with such vigour, through the inclusion of Darling’s “deathbed,” that it likens itself to the politically militant and heart-breaking images circulated during the AIDS crisis.
The militancy of defying death’s taboo goes hand in hand with Darling presenting a hyper-feminine aesthetic, even while seriously ill. She appears to sustain a high-maintenance physical appearance, alluding to the importance of her visual representation. Douglas Crimp theorises the politics of mourning and representation during the AIDS crisis, suggesting that despite all the social and political activism taking place in order to reconstruct lives, healthcare and sexual relationships, “the dominant media still pictures us only as wasting deathbed victims; we have therefore had to wage a war of representation, too.” Although an entirely different representational war, there is a similar intersection of death and queer identity experienced by Candy Darling, where queerness is socially constructed either at the root of illness or as the direct cause. The example in Crimp’s text is the notion that AIDS spread faster amongst gay men and was sexually transmitted. Here, gay sex is conflated with illness, a sentiment which was used to further problematic discourse around homosexuality as an illness. In a similar way, it is incorrectly speculated that Darling’s lymphoma was caused by her ingesting carcinogenic hormones, and so, in a similar sense, her desire to present as an alternate gender to the one assigned at birth, thus her queerness, is what was recorded in the media as having caused her eventual death. Where Crimp suggests AIDS activists had to “wage war” on their appearance as dying victims, Darling does similarly, by being photographed as critically ill and still exerting control over her image. The notion that Darling does not allow critical illness to overcome her is echoed in the final letter she wrote, which describes death as a welcome thing. In adopting this attitude, Darling asserts that focus must not be on the idea that her queerness led to her death but rather, if anything, it led to her escape.
This sense of escape is encapsulated when Darling’s queer identity also alters the parameters of mourning. A focal element setting Hujar’s image apart from others is the queer figure as the dying subject. Freud classifies mourning ritual as a “grave departure from the normal attitude to life” and states that mourning “leaves nothing over for other purposes or other interests.” Michael Moon suggests “mourning presents a difficulty for gay people, insofar as it promises a return to normalcy that we were never granted in the first place”; in other words, queer lives are inherently abnormal and so too is their mourning. If mourning is not directed towards a return to normalcy, it takes on a different role entirely. For people experiencing loss during the AIDS crisis, activism took place alongside mourning, going against the idea that one is unable to explore “other purposes” when experiencing grief. Hujar’s photograph, which arguably begins the process of mourning, equally seeks “other purposes”: it attests to Darling’s beauty and seeks to maintain a feminine representation. One potential reason for this is that funerals and memorial are often focused on the family of the deceased, yet for queer people who have experienced a breakdown or separation from their family unit due to homophobia or transphobia, there is a departure from the focus being on grieving relatives. Instead, memorial can exist more for the dying person and the purposes they deem to be necessary.
An exemplification of how mourning is an altered but sometimes violent space for queer people is the threat imposed on some trans people of being detransitioned after death. Karol Kovalovich Weaver creates two case studies of trans women, Jennifer Gable and Leelah Alcorn, whose “gender identities were negated after their deaths” and who were memorialised as men with their deadnames. Weaver explores the violence enacted on the trans person and the trans community when someone is detransitioned, and how the subsequent outcome is “contentious memorialisation and disenfranchised grief, which together prompt activism.” This activism often takes the form of mourning being re-enacted by trans communities to reaffirm the trans identity of the deceased. Hujar’s photograph avoids the need for such re-enactment by utilising self-memorialisation. Darling wrote in her final letter, “I have arranged my own funeral arrangements,” taking autonomy over how she is to be remembered. In doing this, Darling takes over the role of family and friends. Whether due to her own independence or a lack of trust, this points to the idea that memorial and posthumous representation were a site for Darling to enact control, as part of a community heavily affected by social interference.
The need for this control can be seen in Hujar’s photographs of Jackie Curtis: Jackie Curtis in his Coffin (Fig. 2, 1985) and Jackie Curtis in Hospital (Fig. 3, 1974). Of the four photographs of Curtis in the Peter Hujar Archive, these two explore the illness and death of another of Andy Warhol’s superstars. Curtis’s face and gender change throughout Hujar’s photographs (in life) for they presented as genderqueer. While representing gender unfixity dismantles the visual structure of binary gender, the final photograph taken of Curtis solidifies a fixed memorialisation of them as a cis-passing man. In Jackie Curtis Dead, Hujar photographs Curtis in an open coffin, wearing a suit and positioned alongside a photograph of Curtis as a woman with dark makeup. The photograph next to Curtis stands out in that it could be read to show a division of queerness or femininity from the body in death. For someone with a limited knowledge of Curtis, the photograph set aside from the body could signify the “purification” of the body or its return to “naturalness” in its appearance. If this understanding is affirmed, the feminine is conflated with the unnatural or that which must be removed from the body in death, as if a kind of costume. Subverting the defeminisation of the body in death is a pivotal action taking place in Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, for Darling forgoes the sense that her body must be desexualised or stabilised. Unlike Hujar’s photographs of Jackie Curtis, Darling begins subversive action from within a single gender category. As Darling presents as cis-passing, in some ways Candy Darling on her Deathbed is recognisable within a cis-normative framework. By visually conforming to the category of “woman” and being trans, Darling begins to queer the gender category, by process of engaging with the normative feminine aesthetic with difference. In spite of the reportedly abnormal circumstances with which Darling died from lymphoma, the photo narrative is normalised by its visually accessible cinematic aesthetic, and as such, the severity of Darling’s illness is dulled. The power of this image as a subversive tool appears greater due to its engagement with cisnormativity, for Darling begins to embody, control and reorient the category of woman.