PRINT March 2019


Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Self-Portrait Holding Joshua’s Hand, 2006, C-print, 14 × 11".

POWERS IS A QUIET, tree-lined street in residential East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s sometimes called “Gay Powers,” a cheeky moniker bestowed by certain denizens to honor the fact that, at the dawn of the new millennium, it became a home to artsy queers escaping the sanitization and escalating prices of the city’s more conspicuous gay meccas.

From 2003 until 2014, Paul Mpagi Sepuya lived at 144 Powers, an unassuming, four-story row house with vinyl siding, just off the L train’s third stop in Brooklyn. The multifamily home was built in 1910, seven years after the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge, amid a development boom, as first- and second-generation immigrant families fled crowded Lower East Side tenements. Today, the building is a brisk six-minute walk from Metropolitan, an inclusive gay bar with a living-room vibe whose opening in 2002 felicitously coincided with the new wave of postcollege queers attracted to the area’s affordable rents and easy access to Manhattan’s cultural heat.

I know I met Sepuya at Metropolitan, but I can’t tell you when. In my mind he was there every night, a charismatic young black man, ebullient and erudite, toward whom the swirling crowd inevitably bent. I knew him first, as many did, through his photography, which appeared in places that meant something to me, most memorably at Printed Matter, which, under A. A. Bronson’s stewardship in the early to mid-2000s—during that marvelous and fertile bloom when the internet was captive to the desktop—incubated an efflorescence of queer zines: LTTR, BUTT, Pinups, and Sepuya’s own SHOOT, 20052008.

It was these zines that led Michael McKinney to Sepuya. McKinney found Sepuya in the early days of SHOOT, and they shared coffee and then a photograph. Sepuya met Joshua Thorson at FUN, a brief bar by the owners of the Cock, Metropolitan’s sleazier rival across the East River. Thorson and McKinney appear in the first and sixth photos of this portfolio. In Michael (Excerpt from Dialogue), 2006, McKinney is the ostensible subject, greeting Sepuya’s bright, cropped grin with a coy smile. In Self-Portrait Holding Joshua’s Hand, 2006, Sepuya, shirtless, engaged with the camera, cups Thorson’s fingers, which barely appear in the frame; in his left hand Sepuya clenches a remote shutter release. The photo has the symbolic economy of a tarot card, an ideal portrait: The figure stolidly central, his hands divided between the action of making the image for us and the quiet, amorous support of some other.

When I invited Sepuya to do a project for Artforum that followed a single subject over many years, he suggested his self-portraits, many of which also contain friends and lovers. So we get the best of all worlds: the single, repeating subject of Sepuya amid the constellation of his peers.

His early pictures fix their slouchy subjects, often pale and hirsute boys courting manhood, with a tender precision atypical of other “gay” photos I saw at the time. Sepuya first worked with his roommate’s expensive Acute lighting kit, then, later, with a cheap monolight strobe he bought at Adorama, both of which gave his images a cool, crisp vibe, the visual equivalent, I thought, of drinking a glass of milk. His duvet is a repeating horizon, evincing a cozy bedroom warmth and expressing Sepuya’s self-conscious departure from traditional studio and environmental photography, even as he uses a conventional vernacular, the portrait, as a springboard for his charged investigations of his world and of the act of photography itself. Many have located Sepuya in the lineage of gay portrait makers, from Carl Van Vechten to Jack Pierson to Peter Hujar to the cameramen behind the beefcake coffee-table books decorating the lairs of executive queens. This genealogy isn’t exactly wrong, but it is superficial. I also think of him alongside the work of Zoe Leonard, another queer photographer who lived on Powers Street and who around the same time was botanizing the neighborhood to build her ardent, epic “Analogue,” 1998–2009, a series of 412 daytime shots, made with a Rolleiflex, that began as a record of waning local commerce and expanded to engage global economic chains. If Leonard was exploring her streets and their facades to tell the story of a swiftly tilting planet, Sepuya was letting us inside, enlarging his bedroom and intimate worlds to address a void in the canon.

These are postapocalyptic photos. Like all great photographers, Sepuya uses his camera to figure something out. He is of the generation of gay men who grew up in the immediate wake of the death frenzy of AIDS. We inherited safe sex, we inherited our lives; scared shitless, with so many mentors dead, we found our own paths. And so it’s a blessing that the kids are all right, hanging out in Sepuya’s bedroom. If there is other action, it’s implied, a serene counterpoint to the splendidly staged and captivating voyeurism Ryan McGinley popularized then and in the years just prior.

By 2010, Sepuya had largely traded his professional lighting kits for available light. Partly this had to do with moving from shooting in his bedroom at night, after work, to photographing in the daytime in a larger studio, attuned to the mercurial dominion of the sun. In 2014, he moved back to his native Los Angeles, and soon after into a space with a skylight, a whole new domain of luminance in which to play. There he made many mirror studies, illustrated here in the third and eighth photos, complex tessellations of previous portraits and found images that delight in their theatricality.

Sepuya wants to withdraw from the promises of clarity, lucidity, lightness. He likes to think of all the things that happen in darkness, in back rooms, after hours, away from the beguiling curse of transparency. This is a space that queerness has earned hard. Sepuya also thinks of it as the space of photography, which he considers a craft of negotiating light in the dark. The “Darkroom Mirrors,” 2017–, represented by the second image here and by this month’s cover, are taken in humble, makeshift portrait studios created by constructing a hanging tent of black or brown velvet, leaving a small aperture for sunlight. The mirror is doubly indexical: It reflects its subjects, but the camera also picks up the traces—dust, fingerprints—of activity on its surface.

Though the “Darkroom Mirrors” feature friends and intimates, they seem a long way from the candent early photos. They foreground the instrument itself—the camera is frequently visible—and vividly synthesize the medium’s vital tensions: dark versus light, mimesis versus negative. But the strobe-lit white bedroom wall and those velvet curtains do share one thing: They are shadowless.

—David Velasco