PAUL MPAGI SEPUYA
words by Ellie Brown
It’s the small details that capture attention in the work of Paul Mpagi Sepuya – the evidence and lasting presence of human encounter, finger prints and smudges on glass, for instance. Though the photographer works only with a digital camera, there’s a certain tactility that lingers in his work.
Relationships come to the forefront; Sepuya’s work centres around friendships, intimate encounters, muses and himself. The notion of the ‘dark room’ (which has been referenced both in titled works and in solo installations) lays claim to ambiguity - it both refers to the place in which the photographer creates, documents and develops, and it is also the space of homoerotic sexual exchange. The lines are, at once, blurred and clearly demarcated. In the absence of interpreting the dark room in terms of its analogue definition and purpose, Sepuya ‘develops’ his photography through a process of collaging, layering and re-production. A photograph becomes a multi-layered image, further distorted by the presence of mirrors that are often the focus of the camera. It’s difficult, at times, to ascertain what is what: within a single work, fragments of figures and moments in time are often combined. None of which is accidental; such an amalgamation of displaced aspects come together as a multifaceted study in portraiture. Throughout Sepuya’s work there’s a critical awareness of the role that his camera plays in capturing time and its implications on human interaction – something that is quantified by the inclusion of his work at MoMA’s distinguished ‘New Photography’ exhibition under this year’s theme ‘being’.
NR MAGAZINE: Some of your photographs address individuals by name in the title, others refer to a figure or figures; is there a logic behind the distinction?
Paul MPagi Sepuya: My earlier portrait projects, beginning with Beloved Object & Amorous Subject (Revisited) from 2005 - 2008, and the other portraits up until 2014 were all titled by the name of the individual or subjects. I don’t photograph models and there are friendships, collaborations and at minimum social acquaintances with everyone at the beginning of or working together, it was important for me to ground the work in that social space. As the individual portraits moved into the world, and into various studios I was working in (the earlier works were photographed in my home), the titles came to include the date and location of the photograph. Those photographs could be portraits, or me re-photographing materials in my studio which gave way to a “collage” type style, though the work was never collaged.
Figures came into the work when I returned to Los Angeles for grad school at UCLA. Reconstituting materials through arranging them on the surface of mirrors that I would photograph in front of my tripod-camera allowed me to create compositions *about* subjects more loosely, and so the number of figures noted corresponded to the number of subjects in the fragments that made up the complete picture. Currently, I have left behind names from my titles. Each work is titled by the project that it inhabits (Mirror Study, A Portrait, Studio, A Ground, etc…), and the name given the file capture in camera. I’m interested in emphasizing the inside-outside aspect of recognition within this “dark room” space where, like all of my work has been positioned, it is the meeting points of queer and homoerotic creative, social, and sexual exchange.
NR: How do you relate to the people in your photos, when their bodies appear fragmented and abstracted?
PMS: I know every fragment, sliver of space or edge of a table that relates to a figure not present. That’s to say, they are never fragments or abstractions because, indexed alongside them in a larger project, are the notations that tie them to the full portraits. I make a point of saying that no subjects are left to fragmentation and abstraction in my work; there is always a full portrait of each subject.
NR: What is the appeal of digital photography for you?
PMS: It’s efficiency for my process, that’s it. I am strongly against the digital manipulation of my pictures, or creating/assembling pictures through digital collage, etc. The material that is arranged, cut, and affixed on the surface of the mirrors comes from the in-process materials in my studio. So to be able to photograph, print and re-photograph within a single space is important to me. It’s a method that began during my residency at the Center for Photography at Woodstock in 2010, and I have used in various forms since then.
NR: If taking a photograph can capture a specific moment in time, how does your practise (from taking a photograph to reworking and collaging it) relate to notions of time and memory?
PMS: I am less interested in moments in time (which I associate with the outside world) than with the “collage of compressed time” - or something to the effect that Brian O’Doherty speaks of in Studio and Cube: On The Relationship Between Where Art is Made and Where Art is Displayed. He describes studio time as placing all material in the present, within the reach of revision and remaking by the artist’s hand. That is how I associate the process of portrait-making with the real-world relationships that make that production possible.
NR: Can the context of viewing your work as part of a wider exhibition influence the way the pieces are perceived? And add to their development as ‘works in progress’?
PMS: Yes, indeed. All of my work is made toward the consideration of a grammar and visual rhythm, whether it’s content, formal elements or scale, in relation to my larger body of work.
NR: What is the allure of the physicality of photography (when it’s printed out to be used for collages, or when it’s featured in zines or books)?
PMS: Images can’t just free float. I am invested in the handling pictures, having to contend with them physically. I started by making zines and books, and with the current “collage” works, it is important that I am inherently a part of the image during the process of their making. While I work, I am within the reflected space of my studio.
NR: What, if anything, do you want the viewer to take away from your work in regards to queer and black identities?
PMS: Absolutely nothing as far as identity may be proscribed. But everything as far as the materiality and sociality of queerness, homoeroticism, and blackness as requisites for a kind of knowledge and experience otherwise obliterated by whiteness and heteronormativity.
NR: Your photographs often allude to the presence of people no longer present in the frame, from fingerprints n the mirror to abandoned orange peel; what is the significance of the documenting these aspects?
PMS: Whether a subject is represented through pictorial representation in a straight-up portrait or not, I want the images to include an indexical mark of the social world from which it comes. These traces of real people can’t be faked. They are like smoke to fire. Funnily (or frustratingly?) enough, someone once asked me about the “smoke” in the photographs and I had to correct and say, no they are *another* kind of trace. They are the smudges of bodies - my own and others - as we work to make the images.
NR: The photographer’s studio connotes a sense of purpose and control over the subject and the outcome, is this something that you consider or navigate through your work?
PMS: Since I first started working in a studio and became fascinated by the possibilities therein, it’s become a site for me that really amplifies my presence, in thinking about the history of that control asserted by the artist along with the loosening of social and sexual morality that becomes permissible in that space. The permission that, within the world of the artist, is given to re-arranging and representing desire.