On the 70th anniversary of the birth of Warhol Superstar and muse Candy Darling, and near the 27th anniversary of the death of photographer Peter Hujar, Amelia Rina offers this meditation on the final public photograph of Darling, just prior to her death from cancer, a little more that 40 years ago.
In 1973, Candy Darling invited the photographer Peter Hujar to her hospital room at Columbia University Medical Center. She was dying, and she wanted him to take her picture. The resulting photograph, the last taken before her death, appears very still. The velvety blacks and satin whites of the gelatin silver print render a glamorous woman lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by flowers. It is, in a word, beautiful. After the initial captivation of Darling’s gaze and the sensory pleasure of the photograph loosens its grip, this aesthetic quality, however pure, quickly begins disintegrating into an image saturated with contradictions.
Born in 1944 as James Slattery, her youth was filled with the banal tyranny of the suburbs in Long Island, followed by several experiments with different transsexual identities in New York City, Candy Darling entered the world in the early 1960s. The duality of Darling’s identity gave her no shortage of discrimination and misunderstanding, yet there are countless stories of people overcoming their close-mindedness because of her undeniable beauty and femininity. When Darling’s mother, Theresa, first confronted James about the rumors she heard of him cross-dressing, he left the room and returned fully transformed into Candy Darling. Theresa later recalled, “I knew then… that I couldn’t stop Jimmy. Candy was just too beautiful and talented.”
Through Darling’s early realization that she was destined for something more important and more fantastic than the paths of her bucolic peers, she idolized classical Hollywood starlets. She was fascinated by Kim Novak and her piercing presence; in a home video of Darling reciting Novak’s lines from a scene in the 1955 film Picnic, Darling morphs into the character with total commitment, then says to the others in the room, “She was so strong, that’s what I liked about her. Something stable and so strong… but Kim was also vulnerable.” The combination of strength and vulnerability defined Darling throughout her short life. She filled pages of her diary with manifestos of tenacity: “I will not cease to be myself for foolish people. For foolish people make harsh judgments on me. You must always be yourself, no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.” As well as descriptions of her despondence and hardship: “I feel like I’m living in a prison. There are so many things I may not experience. I cannot go swimming. Can’t visit relatives. Can’t get a job. Can’t have a boyfriend. I see so much of life I cannot have. I am living in a veritable prison.”
Despite consistent poverty and frequent homelessness, Darling’s determination carried her to the stardom she so desperately desired, albeit briefly. In the five years during which she starred in several of Andy Warhol’s films, and in Tennessee Williams’ play, Small Craft Warnings (1970), Darling got a taste of the life she always wanted. But it all fell apart when Andy Warhol lost interest in her, claiming he did not want to use “chicks with dicks,” instead, he wanted to use “real women.” When Warhol made his film Heat in 1972, he did not invite Darling to play any roll, which left her devastated. Two years later, Darling was diagnosed with lymphoma. Those close to her suspect it was caused by the hormones she took to grow breasts — at Warhol’s suggestion. In the ultimate tragedy, it may have been her effort to transform into what she believed was her true self that killed her.
As she faced the last days of her life, she received one final, perfect tribute in the photograph, Candy Darling On Her Deathbed (1973) by her friend Peter Hujar. Fran Lebowitz — a friend of both Darling and Hujar — recalled the day they visited Darling in the hospital, and that she was too scared to see her friend so close to death, let alone photograph her. But Hujar was uniquely suited for the act because he had an innate understanding and appreciation for subjects in liminal states of contradiction. Lebowitz said: “No one else could have taken that photograph. Peter never thought of Candy as a freak… I think that’s why Candy responded to Peter. He thought of her in the way that my mother thinks of her best friend or anyone she would meet, the most usual kind of person. Candy loved that.” That was typical of Hujar in both his life and his artistic practice; subjects that existed outside the norms of orthodox culture fascinated him, but they were not abnormal to him. They were mysteries he wanted understand, and knew that the camera could help him reveal their enigmatic secrets. In both his portraits of humans and animals, Hujar captured an unconcerned openness and intimacy; there is an understanding and collaboration between the photographer and his subjects. Candy Darling On Her Deathbed, considered by many to be the apotheosis of Hujar’s career, contains everything that made Darling’s personality and Hujar’s photographs so alluring.
Technically, the photograph is masterful. Hujar expertly rendered the high contrast between the darkened room, Darling’s alabaster skin, her dark shirt, the white hospital bed sheets, and the fluffy white chrysanthemums floating on a darkened back wall, recalling the classic Hollywood glamour she loved so dearly. If the photograph were in color, the sconce above her would cast the room in a sickly florescent light, but in black and white it glows softly. The title of the photograph, despite being purely descriptive, carries a lyrical quality when spoken aloud; it is almost impossible not to sing it. Mirroring the content of the image, the sweetness of the title’s cadence and of Darling’s name fractures with the inclusion of her dying state. In her reclined pose, common to Hujar portraits, Darling looks as though she could be relaxing in her own bed if it were not for the strange sterility of the hospital room décor. With her perfectly applied make up and famously blond hair, Darling looks ready to go to a party, but upon remembering her illness, her dark eye make up and angular physiognomy turn her face into a skull, prophesying her impending death. The image complicates its viewing — continually shifting between seducing with its beauty and repelling with its morbidity. Darling lived and died in that space; when John Waters compared Darling to other transsexuals at the time he said: “The others were freakish and she was beautiful in a way that really put people off and drew them to her because she confused them.”
Hujar captured this confusion of expectation, reality, and fantasy that permeated Darling’s entire life with an eloquence that no one else could have matched. The combination of Hujar’s open-minded inquisitiveness with Darling’s undeniable magnetism infuses the image with a charisma worthy of them both. There is something magical that happens when a photographer and his or her subject share a generosity and willingness to be honest; it’s something ineffable that can only be felt, like the haunting sense of déjà-vu.print