Legendary Photography Critic Vince Aletti on His New Book, Peter Hujar, and the Last Days of Disco
Without a printed word, the book assembles the vintage images of a single cabinet drawer.
The concept for the indomitable curator, collector, critic, and cultural arbiter Vince Aletti’s new book is simple: assemble and lay out the contents of a single cabinet drawer.
The Drawer is a pastiche of mostly gallery invites and magazine tear sheets. The compiled images touch upon art and fashion with plenty of (super-hot) homoerotic flourishes. An avid collector, Vince lives among his ongoing curation. He’s been in his East Village apartment since 1976 and it’s filled with towers of vintage magazines that have fueled his past books (such as the magnificent Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines). The walls are adorned with his art and photography collection, the arrangement fluctuates like a gallery.
At first glance, The Drawer is like flipping through the scrapbook of an adult with fine-tuned taste. But it’s more than that, Aletti’s assemblage captures a portrait of the man himself. It’s a window into his tastes and passions, and a look at what moves him. It says so much about the writer, despite containing no words (there are no captions and no introduction).
“I didn’t realize how revealing it was,” Aletti said, “until I saw it all together, and then saw it through other people’s eyes and realized what they were seeing. I just did it very quickly and this is all the stuff that I think about and look at and process in various ways.” He continued, “I didn’t want to censor myself in any way. I didn’t want to think about how people would receive it. I just wanted to do it.”
Aletti’s selections are often more personal than meets the eye. For instance, the late photographer Peter Hujar makes a cameo (a self-portrait in a jockstrap) as well as one of his images of Susan Sontag. Hujar was an intimate friend and Aletti posed for him.
Aletti has been at the forefront of New York’s cultural vanguard since moving there in 1969. He wrote about disco before it had a name and went on to have a weekly Record World column covering the discotheque beat (he donated his vast vinyl collection to what’s now the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle). He served as the Village Voice’s art editor and photo critic and contributes photo exhibition reviews to the New Yorker. In 2005 he won International Center for Photography’s Infinity Award for writing. He’s still moved and driven by art.
We talked to him about a couple of zeitgeist moments he was a part of that geeked us, and what he’s collecting now.
On Peter Hujar (and the portrait that accompanies this story)
“It’s one of those things where I’m sorry that I didn’t go home and take notes afterward. I just was glad he asked me to sit for him. I was his neighbor at that point. This was the East Village, it was a much rougher neighborhood than it is now. There were prostitutes and pimps on the block at night. It wasn’t threatening particularly, but it was seedy.
“It was fairly straightforward. I don’t remember him giving much direction. My sense with Peter is that in general, he waited for someone to relax enough that you weren’t self-conscious. It wasn’t a long session, but it was a long enough for him to have me relax and sort of give up trying to please him.
“Recently, a friend who works at the Hujar archive showed me all of his contact sheets that included me. There was much more than I realized. There were times when he photographed me on the street that I didn’t remember. And apparently he photographed me in my apartment lying in bed. I could see why it didn’t work for him. It didn’t work for me either.”
On the last days of disco and birth of house
“I lived down the street from the Saint, but I rarely went there. It was too white and gay. It was not very mixed at all. I wasn’t excited by the music, but It was a beautifully designed space. I could understand why people were drawn to it. I went to the Paradise Garage and the Loft for the most part, which were more mixed racially and many more women, just much more comfortable for me.
“The first club that I went to regularly was the Loft. Paradise Garage was very influenced by the Loft. Larry Levan was very influenced by David Mancuso and they were friends and, and there was a real relationship in terms of the kind of music that they both played. Larry was a little more pop. It was very similar in terms of mixing and the crowd was super.
“I tended to go almost every week because it was the one place I knew all my friends would be. I usually went very early, if I went at like three or four in the morning, which most of my friends did, there was no space to dance anymore. I would go as early as I could, because I was always really interested in what DJs play to warm up the crowd. It was things that they might not play later, but that were creative and unusual where they would test out records before the floor was filled.”
On Bob Mizer’s photos
“Bob Mizer was the most eccentric of the physique photographers. He kind of did everything and had much more variety than anybody else, and seemed to be having fun. He certainly got his models to do just about anything. I’ve been collecting them for years and I have hundreds of them mostly late 1950s to ‘60s. There was a place near me that sold physique material only to private customers, and I started buying pictures there in the ‘70s when they were $1 each. It would be like a rainy afternoon visit to this place where I could paw through boxes. Now I mostly buy them on eBay.
“This group of models is all dressed up. It’s another kind of revealing to see how these guys looked before they took their clothes off. I find it fascinating to see the models just being real people. They’re also fashion pictures. This is my favorite. You see the socks? It’s got everything. I think these would make an interesting small book.”
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