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As whatever is the exact opposite of luck would have it, Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s solo exhibition at Vielmetter Los Angeles, A conversation
about around pictures, opened at the precise moment that the statewide shelter-in-place order took effect. It remained open, but unseen, for 18 weeks; I visited in March, when gallery-going still felt like an appropriate early-pandemic activity. A sleek, motion-operated bottle of hand sanitizer on the front desk welcomed me, too-forcefully ejecting its liquid-y contents and spraying the neat stacks of press releases and show cards nearby.
Viewing the pictures in-person and at their intended scale, I was struck by my sense of proximity to their subjects, felt acutely because of my new distance from virtually all other people. Although they were all created pre-pandemic, Sepuya’s pictures feel like they could have been made in quarantine: they all play out within the four walls of his studio, the same equipment arranged and rearranged. The images sometimes gesture to the world beyond their frames, including things that conventional studio photographs would exclude: a pile of clothes, the jutting poles of equipment, the space outside the rectangular backdrop. But most notable is the inclusion of the subject’s iPhones, for it is their presence that opens the space of the photograph—not so much visually, but symbolically—and gestures outward to the vast circulation of images via social media, the world of pictures beyond this picture.
Characteristically, Sepuya’s work plays with the question of authorship as a means of leveling the power dynamic between photographer and subject. In past works, the presence of two “active” cameras in the scene—one wielded by each of its subjects/makers—made the origin of the photograph ambiguous. Here, Sepuya’s subjects are instead afforded agency through the use of the iPhone, the power of which resides not in its ability to make images, but in its ability to share them—and in its democratization of photography more generally. Indeed, as image-making becomes near-universal, photography’s power may reside less in its production than in its circulation. Sepuya provides his subjects with agency through their symbolic access to this power, which extends beyond the photographs to the public world of image-based social media, wherein photographs have currency through their dissemination.
By allowing iPhones into the picture-space, Sepuya shares the powerful act of looking at oneself with his subjects as they enact tender, private performances for the camera(s). In the eponymous A conversation around pictures (_1090454) (2019), Sepuya sits behind the camera as a second figure peers out from behind his shoulder, most of his face covered by his iPhone. On its screen is a second scene: a panorama-in-progress has haphazardly stitched together a 360-degree view of the surrounding studio, rendering the faces and bodies of the two men in glitchy, fragmented parts. In Model Study (0X5A4029) (2017), a seated figure in a cool, white jockstrap poses for a portrait but has turned to face away. Though he does not present himself for the camera, the voyeuristic perspective is reciprocated: he holds up an iPhone which reflects his face in miniature—visible only because he photographs it himself. He is not only seen, but is actively involved in seeing himself.
Sepuya often refers to the infinite loop, or the “closed circuit of mirror and camera,”1 in his pictures: the photographs are all shot through a mirror, so the scene is already “closed” to viewers, as they are not reflected in that mirror. The inclusion of the iPhones begins to open this circuit because the phone pictures belong to the subjects, have lives of their own beyond the photoshoot as they are presumably shared, posted, and circulated.
Given the often-toxic pervasiveness of iPhone use, it’s easy to look at the figure in Model Study as distracted or self-involved. Certainly, the prevalence of phone cameras and social media in contemporary life has produced side effects both personal and global (self-involvement being the least of them): damaging effects on mental health, the degradation of privacy, and state-sanctioned surveillance. But Sepuya’s photographs don’t critique selfie culture as vanity: self-portraiture is, necessarily, the language of the unseen. And despite its algorithmic biases (making online virality something of a myth akin to that of the American dream), social media has a similarly equalizing power.
Amidst the June uprisings, Sepuya launched a fundraiser via Instagram, offering an unlimited editioned “solidarity” print to anyone who donated a minimum of $250 to one of several BLM-adjacent advocacy organizations.2 While not technically part of the Vielmetter exhibition, the solidarity photograph, Studio (0X5A4983), is presumably an outtake of Studio (0X5A5051) (both works 2020). (Sepuya titles his works with the RAW file numbers assigned by his camera, creating a traceable lineage.) The solidarity photograph is simpler than its exhibited counterpart, and is starkly devoid of Sepuya’s usual layers of mirrors, bodies, and cameras. Instead, a single camera, sans operator, stands on a tripod at the photograph’s center against two black backdrops. On the right edge of the frame, a partially-obscured photographic print hangs on the studio wall. In it, two entangled Black bodies hold up their own camera, which points forward. Although the circuit is still technically closed, without a visible maker/operator, the viewer is implicated by the central camera—especially in the context of Sepuya’s call to action. Looking at the solidarity photograph feels, deeply, like being looked at—or perhaps more precisely, like being prompted to look at yourself. It is a picture as much about self-portraiture as anything else.
As of this writing, the initiative has raised over 215 thousand dollars, and while the Vielmetter exhibit remained largely unseen through the pandemic, one photograph, at least, will not only be widely seen, but widely owned. Through the profound circulation and collective ownership of his solidarity print, Sepuya activated the power of image-sharing as a real-time demonstration of the power that the subjects in the Vielmetter exhibition symbolically enact. The print’s vast distribution echoes Sepuya’s subject-as-collaborator model for making photographs, wherein collective ownership becomes a meaningful strategy for mutual aid. A reminder that hanging on the wall is not art’s end-all, the viral spread of Studio (0X5A4983) generated real money as a tool for furthering agency within the real communities to which many of Sepuya’s subjects belong.
Both the camera and the institutional space of the gallery/museum are mechanisms of record-keeping that have historically and continually excluded Black, brown, and queer bodies. The current movement for Black life has been propelled by the online dissemination of images of Black death. Still, it is worth considering who has the right to share these images, and what it means that a widespread outrage has seemingly relied on them. The very language used to enact photography (“to shoot,” “to take”) reveals the medium’s inherent kinship with violence and possession. If we expect a future for photography that is any different from its colonial past,3 its subjects must be—like Sepuya’s—collaborators involved in a photography that is collective, rather than hierarchical.
Erin F. O’Leary writes about and makes photographs in Los Angeles.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 21.