Viewing Pleasure: PAUL MPAGI SEPUYA

Behind the lens with the masterful image-maker

This feature appears in V139, Supermodel, Superhero issue, now available for purchase. 

As the sun rose, revealing a white light that illuminated everything it could touch, 19th-century European and North American photographers captured their subjects in Daylight Studios—what many consider to be the inception of portraiture. Subverting these beginnings with diverse, nude subjects and revealing the frame in full—including the camera and photographer—Daylight Studio / Dark Room Studio is artist Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s series that pays homage to the original Daylight Studios while examining the qualities that compose each image. Referenced through construction and backdropped by a black velvet curtain—a historical ode emphasizing the rawness of the frame—Sepuya makes it apparent that his studio is this series’ protagonist.

Existing within the same space, Sepuya utilizes red “safe lights,” allowing intimate scenes to play out. Shot with long exposure, these moody abstractions are in conversation with the more technical side of photography. Through a contemporary lens, Sepuya explores “social formation work and translating the possibilities of what can happen in a picture,” he notes. His recent offering at Los Angeles gallery Vielmetter showcased the first chapter in his series: Daylight Studio / Dark Room Studio, allowing the artist to present his meditations on 19th-century portraiture and its impact on contemporary image-making. Drawing on these constant references from subject composition to Victorian adornment, Sepuya’s imminent show will further these explorations, providing expanded insight into the Los Angeles-based artist’s mind.

His forthcoming exhibition at Deichtorhallen Hamburg is the second chapter of the traveling series Daylight Studio / Dark Room Studio. This collection will present new work that positions subjects in the frame, including on-the-fly moments with friends to objects that occupy his space and reveal relational dynamics. Allowing his models—who consist of friends, lovers, and muses—to pose as they choose and react to the environment, Sepuya creates a new visual language. “Any space that’s constructed is not natural; it’s constructed with a contention, motivation, or aesthetics,” he expresses. “In those spaces, it channels all of those aspects of friendship, flirtation, and playfulness.”

A journey marked by years of honing his craft while evoking themes of queer sexuality and race, Sepuya started using photography as an excuse to connect with others nearly 25 years ago. Blossoming into a successful career that has reached the walls of institutions like MoMA and The Getty, Sepuya balances a life of artistic creation and teaching—as a professor at the University of California San Diego, Sepuya nurtures students who mirror the very beginnings of his adulthood. “Making photos is very gratifying. There’s this immediacy, and I remember the joy of being able to share them,” Sepuya recounts. “Picking up a camera gave me an excuse to interact with people.” With a growing cultural footprint and a distinct eye that continues to impress, Sepuya remains grounded, cherishing moments with loved ones and embracing the power of artistic curiosity.

Daylight Studio / Dark Room Studio is on view at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg November 25, 2022 through February 26, 2023.

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