Pushing the Limits of Photography

Playing With Mirrors

Two artists push the limits of what cameras can do.


Photographs, and photographs of photographs; cameras, and cameras pointing at cameras; models, and models posing as models: A kind of brooding over these—and the conundrum of whether, by distancing and framing portions of reality, photography thereby deconstructs itself—typifies a technical formalism that has become widespread of late. Artists in this cohort are not so much concerned with making photographs as with examining them in their manifold and contradictory capacities as objects (sheets of chemically treated paper), manifestations of social praxis (ways of relating to other people and the environment), and immaterial entities circulating freely in the world (as digital information).

Rather than offering viewers immediate access to information about the world or simply how some given portion of it looks, artists working in this mode see the techniques, conventions, and history of photography as an interpretive grid that makes some things harder to see and other things easier. They consider that their work can only reflect on the world by looping back on itself—by rendering visible its photographic character as a pre-interpretation of the world that it claims merely to show. Only by pinpointing the fact of its own fictiveness does this kind of work gesture toward some significant aspect of the world beyond. That’s how it happens that an artist like Paul Mpagi Sepuya, whose photographs are as insistently reflexive and formally refined as any being made today, can nonetheless proclaim that in his work, “the sum total of content lies outside of the conversation about art. It’s better served by gossip and friendship.”

Sepuya’s work almost too perfectly encapsulates the current tendency to see photography as a game of mirrors. Its conceptually self-questioning strategies and fastidious-almost-to-the-point-of-finicky aesthetics account, in part, for why he seems to be a must-have artist of the moment. He’s got a track record, having exhibited his work regularly since 2005, but he’s new as well, having only completed his MFA (at the University of California, Los Angeles) last year. Aside from “Figures, Grounds and Studies,” a recent solo exhibition at the Yancey Richardson Gallery—the Californian’s first one-man show in New York since 2010, when he also had a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem—he’s been featured in a three-artist show with Deana Lawson and Judy Linn at another prominent Chelsea gallery, Sikkema Jenkins, as well as a group show curated by fellow artists Moyra Davey and Jason Simon for Callicoon Fine Arts on the Lower East Side. He is also included in the reopening presentation of works from the collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in its newly renovated and expanded quarters in SoHo.

Maybe the best place to start trawling through the sudden abundance of Sepuya’s work in New York this winter and spring was his single piece in the group show at Callicoon, “Compassionate Protocols.” Its curators’ intention was to display various forms of photography’s “desiring gaze,” as suggested by Hervé 
Guibert’s observation of “the difference between the stance required of a Nikon, for instance (upright, potentially confronta­tional) versus a Hasselblad (bowing over).” The latter, according to the remarkable French writer and photographer, who died of AIDS in 1991, is comparable to a “deflected gaze that is passed from one window to another in the subway for example—when cruising someone. Filtered through its reflection, the gaze loses some of its brutality, gains in impunity.” But I wish Davey and Simon had quoted the conclusion of Guibert’s sentence, the observation that this filtered gaze “especially gains in complicity, in perversity.” The gaze at one remove is no less yearning or intense for that. 

The piece that Sepuya showed in this context, Studio Work (excerpt) (2010–11), was not, after all, a photograph, but a small installation whose relation to photography is—to borrow Guibert’s vocabulary—deflected. The gallery lists its components as 

various material from artist’s studio: Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, original 1958 edition, with notes and pages removed; Mapplethorpe, by Patricia Morrisroe, with found signed photograph from Fire Island Pines, 1995; 6×8 digital c-print work-prints from Studio Museum Residency, 2010-11; 8.5×11 color laser work-prints from Studio Museum residency, 2010-11; Unsolicited letter and bondage photographs addressed to the artist, 2011; Broderie Anglaise, by Violet Trefusis, originally published 1935, 1992 edition; Paul Outerbridge Jr, monograph by Schirmer/Mosel 1996; FIRE!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists, originally published 1926, contemporary, reproduction.

It seems important to give the dry, objective accounting of the work’s components just as they are neatly laid out on a round white table in the picture. Sepuya’s basic stance is to convey a “desiring gaze” by way of gestures that are cool, restrained, undemonstrative—­and thus perfectly embodied in the form of a list. As Sepuya told an interviewer about his approach more broadly, “It’s like the story that you overheard but that’s never you outright.” More important, perhaps, is that in this work, test prints (nominally unfinished, ongoing efforts) co-exist with the books that contain fragments of histories that are continually being unearthed: queer histories, black histories, art histories—but not only those. The somewhat surprising appearance of the mostly hetero-oriented (and now somewhat unfashionable) Alexandria Quartet in this context can be explained by something Sepuya told an interviewer in 2015: He claimed the book as a primary influence, specifically “in terms of structure, due to [the] shifting subjective point-perspective across the four novels” and how different discursive modes are juxtaposed: “Journals, letters, memoirs, autobiography and poetry—­Durrell plays with these translations of one genre into another to organize the narrative of his main character and that character’s relationship to the beloved who haunts him.”

I can’t know if any of the men who appear and reappear in Sepuya’s photographs is his beloved, but I find it hard to imagine that, collectively, they don’t stand in for some haunting, possibly unrealizable desire, or for what the critic Wayne Koestenbaum has called “never-ending anticipation.” Koestenbaum admits to having bought one of Sepuya’s prints “because I felt sexual desire for what the photograph seemed to represent”—­which is not exactly the same as saying “because I felt sexual desire for him,” i.e., the model. Koestenbaum prefers to keep “what” the image represents and “who” it depicts deliciously undifferentiated. In any case, Immanuel Kant wouldn’t have approved: This was distinctly not a disinterested aesthetic judgment on Koestenbaum’s part. But it fits very well with Sepuya’s declared interest in using art to sidestep art and broach the realm of gossip. And, I’d add, that of daydreams.

But daydream too much in front of Sepuya’s pictures and you might miss a lot. With some of them, at least, if you don’t start out a little confused—if you don’t feel the need to puzzle out what it is you’re really looking at, that is, to intellectualize—then you’re not really looking. At the center of Mirror Study (_Q5A3505) (2016) for instance, you can see a young man’s right arm and hand and just the tiniest slivers of his naked torso and blue track pants. This is part of a picture within the picture, a photograph whose right side has been casually cut off; we can see the white border at the left and top of it, and a piece of tape that affixes it to another surface. Is that surface another photograph, or is it the mirror of the title? Hard to tell. What I see in this mirror/photo, mostly blocked out by the taped-up image of the arm, are the naked arms of a black man and two of the three legs of a tripod. So this could well be the photographer using the titular mirror to take a picture of himself—or, for all I know, of the same young man whose arm I see in the taped-up shard of a photo. It could also be, not the mirror, but the photograph that was taken in the mirror. 

But whether pictured directly or through a previous photograph, the mirror in which Sepuya photographed himself is not the only one in this picture. Look again at the inset picture of the model, and you’ll notice that behind the curtain he’s sitting in front of, there’s another mirror, or another photograph of a mirror, or both—what’s going on there is really confusing. Why has Sepuya introduced all these layers of ambiguity into the picture? It must have something to do with what Guibert called the “deflected gaze” that is “filtered through reflections.” What counts is how the photograph’s many deflections serve to frame its two crucial points, namely the two hands it shows, one representing each of its two faceless, nearly bodiless protagonists—hands not involved in any overtly “expressive” gesture yet full of expression for all that: expressive of the concentration and tension involved in making a photograph, whether as photographer or model.

Not all of Sepuya’s pictures are quite as complicated as this one, but even the relatively simple ones are more complicated than they seem. Portrait (0083) (2015) shows a hunky young man in a white T-shirt and bleached jeans staring blankly at the camera. He’s leaning against a white background, which quickly reveals itself to be, again, a mirror. One hand is held out just in front of his crotch, as if to say: Yes, this big. There’s a beige cloth behind him on our right, which one would assume is covering part of the mirror—until you notice that his arm and leg are reflected in front of the cloth, which means that the cloth isn’t really behind him but in front of him, next to the unseen photographer—and yes, there’s a bit of the tripod leg one hadn’t noticed before there, too. A narrow bit of another mirror—or could it be a photograph of a mirror?—can be seen at an angle to the young man’s left (our right), and through the narrow aperture between the two mirrors one glimpses a typical set of studio flat-file drawers and another man’s arm—and then the binder clip that proves that the files, the arm, and (yes) the narrow section of mirror are all elements in a photograph that’s hanging next to the young man.

Photographs, in short, make it hard to tell what’s a photograph and what’s not. And the photographic studio, as I understand it from Sepuya’s images (and from his installation in “Compassionate Protocols”), is a place where what desire represents can be elicited precisely through this strategic indistinction between a represented reality and a re-represented image. In other words, he is not indicting the camera’s ability to construct illusions any more than he is simply indulging in it. He’s playing with it, observing it, and taking note of how much such mechanisms of willful distortion have to do with how our minds and hearts and eyes already work. 

Another artist using images of images to talk about more than just images—to find an oblique way of indicating a subject outside beauty itself—is Jason Loebs (like Sepuya, in his mid-30s), whose exhibition “Private Matters” was recently seen at Essex Street, a gallery on the Lower East Side. The exhibition consisted mainly of a video installation: two projections showing fixed views of urban construction sites and a third traveling shot, presumably taken from a car, of a mostly undeveloped suburban terrain. As much as the rather banal imagery, what catches the eye are the peculiar setups that Loebs has jury-rigged to showcase them. In each case, he has arranged a kind of feedback circuit between two smartphones, one of which contains the video footage, while the camera of the second is fixed on the screen of the first, transmitting its imagery to a projector that casts it on the wall—a live feed of a prerecorded loop. Not only is the quality of the image thereby degraded—as the artist explains, “The camera’s image-processing flow can only capture linear fragments of its digital origin, leading to the contingent, abstracted glint and color banding visible in the projection”—but the second phone is positioned to cast its shadow over the projected image.

The nondescript activity shown in the projections, recorded with something of the creepy neutrality of surveillance footage, could be going on just about anywhere. So ordinary is it, in fact, that I didn’t realize at first that until a few months ago I lived kitty-corner to one of those spots: Essex Crossing, formerly an unsung but perfectly useful parking lot, now the site of a large-scale mixed-use development that seems to be making rapid progress. (The parking lot, in turn, was the accidental consequence of a mid-’60s urban-development project that never came to fruition.) The implications of Sepuya’s deflected gaze always feel patent, though only indirectly indicated; those in Loebs’s work are occluded, like whatever portion of the image has been eclipsed by the shadow of the smartphone that is one of the way stations on its journey from code to visibility. You need to be clued in by the artist’s statement in the gallery press release to understand that what these three places (two in New York City and one in Connecticut) have in common is that they were all appropriated by means of eminent domain, thanks to a 2005 Supreme Court ruling, Kelo v. City of New London, which allows private land to be taken for public use—even if that “public use” involves transferring the same property to a new private owner—as long as the result is of “public benefit.” In effect, as Loebs believes, there is a peculiar paradox at work here, in which “the system cannibalizes itself—undermining ownership, its foundational principle.” The mannerist convolution of the phone-to-phone-to-projector system that Loebs has set up here mimics this self-cannibalization. Different as his work may be from Sepuya’s, it likewise sends me back to Guibert’s fundamental insight about the camera and its direct and indirect, coercive and contemplative uses. Speaking again of the photographer using a camera that requires him to look down into the viewfinder rather than at his subject, Guibert says: “His gaze ricochets off a series of mirrors toward his model; a form of desire has replaced the predatory nature, the directional brutality of the 35 millimeter camera.” In the economic domain, if not in the amorous one, desire and predation may not be so easily distinguished. The strategies by which a piece of land is wrested from its owner by another may take place by way of a temporary or nominal transfer to the public, but this deflection loses none of its brutality for all its impunity. 

That different relations of property are possible seems to be the idea behind another work in “Private Matters” (a title that would be as apt for Sepuya’s reflections on the studio as for Loebs’s observation of the street, just as “Figures, Grounds and Studies” could as easily have tagged Loebs’s show as Sepuya’s). This second piece—a phallic object made of earth, ornamented with indented designs across its surface—is a replica of what the artist says is a Paleolithic artifact, “presumed to have been carved for ritualistic use by the earliest nomadic Europeans. As migratory peoples, they had no loyalty to territory or land…. The work presents the mutability of the dirt, dust, and mud on which buildings are erected in the symbolic form.” Presumably that form, whatever might be done to preserve it, will eventually crumble; dust to dust.

Editors note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the ethnicity of a subject in the photograph Mirror Study (_Q5A3505). The text has been corrected.

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