For over four decades, Sunil Gupta has successfully weathered the often troubled terrain of what are possibly two of the most maligned genres in the fine arts -the photographic documentary and the portrait, the latter often embedded within the former. While exhibitions of documentary and portrait photography have been mounted in galleries and museums, acknowledgement of this type of work as "art" has come to be genuinely accepted only as late as the 1970s. Within this context, there is a fine line that divides the difference between what is art and what is documentary, one that is related to intention; whether the photographer considers his or her practice as one of making art, or as producing a document which serves as a study, or visual enquiry, into a place or situation. As one of Gupta's teachers, George Tice, commented about his own work in an interview with John Paul Caponigro in 1996, ''I'd say I have the sensibilities of an artist but work in a documentary style." Gupta's initial interest in becoming an artist grew out of photographing friends in casual social situations that mark a moment, like many of us do, carried out in a snap shot aesthetic that can still be found in much of his work, but now without that earlier innocence.
Gupta's initial training in photography was in 1976 when he enrolled in master classes at the New School for Social Research in New York, an institution that since 1919 has been an option for those of left leaning intellectual thought and critical European philosophy. Although Gupta's choice of this school was partially one of convenience it was close to where he lived and accepted students who had little or no formal education in the field they chose -it was also an experience that cemented his decision to become a photographer. It was a demanding time for him as simultaneous to taking these courses he was attending Pace University working towards an MBA, but eventually dropped his studies there and opted to devote himself to a career that would likely offer less financial security.
His teachers at the New School were Lisette Model, the aforementioned George Tice, and Philippe Halsman, each having worked with the documentary format in one way or another. Model was an Austrian emigre known for her tough-minded photographic aesthetic that was published in Ladies' Home Journal and Harper's Bazaar. She considered the world around her as a stage ready-made for the camera, and most of her images are of people captured in awkward, unposed moments that instil an underlying anxiety in the viewer of not knowing whether her intention was directed to ridicule or empathy. Tice, a native of New Jersey, emphasised the craft of developing quality fine art prints and was known for working in a series format of extended photographic essays, often published as books, depicting the commonplace urban and rural life in communities that were familiar to him. Halsman, Latvian born and an émigré from Austria, was the most highly recognized of the three, noted primarily for his portraits of celebrities and the staging of iconic Surrealist-inspired images that were featured in magazines such as Vogue and Life.
In the years following the late 1970s and early 80s, photography, and documentary photography in particular, received unprecedented critical scrutiny within the art world. Pioneering essays in the 1960s by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, among others, questioned the ability of the photograph to convey any kind of totality -that it was but a fragment of reality and not reality itself -fed later writings by critics such as Rosalind Krauss, Douglas Crimp, and Allan Sekula, who challenged the assumed objectivity, the assumed truth, and even the purpose of photography. Here, photography was not discussed from an aesthetic perspective but as representation; photographs, especially the non-art ones that saturate our daily visual experience, are not just images to be looked at and passively accepted, but are entangled in complex relationships between ideological intent, editorial processing, cropping and captioning, and, ultimately, reception by the spectator -who are all these images for and why? Photography was picked apart, signifier by signifier, and its inner workings exposed in new and provocative ways that resulted in a shift in the way we now understand photographic images.
During this period, Gupta was attending the West Surrey College of Art & Design in Farnham, U.K., something of an outpost geographically. But even there the new critical theory was advanced through Anne Williams who developed at the school one of the first photography degree courses in the U.K. She was also then partner of conceptual photographer Victor Burgin, himself an important writer on critical theory, with both of them deeply engaged in psychoanalytic criticism and sexuality in relation to photography and film, a tendency that, along with the work of Mary Kelly, Laura Mulvey, and others was particularly distinct to the U.K. In this learning environment, Gupta was faced with a predicament between maintaining a commitment to craft and documentary that Tice had championed, a tendency that within the art world was losing its appeal, and Williams's sceptical and astute deconstruction of the photograph.
But critical theory doesn't appear to have impacted Gupta's work stylistically in any obvious way; that is, although he was introduced to these ideas, he did not use his work to illustrate them as so many other photographers attempted to do. Gupta has stayed a consistent course, and from what I sense, has never claimed to propose objectivity within a documentary practice in the first place; instead, his work tends towards the highly personal, and employing critical theory isn't a particularly useful way of experiencing it. What was conspicuously absent for him in the critical theory discourse, as well as in his subsequent schooling at the Royal College of Art, was a place for the discussion of race and sexual orientation that lay at the core of his South Asian and gay identities. This he found in the openly gay work of artists such as Arthur Tress, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Duane Michals.
Over the years, Sunil Gupta has built up a series of photographic suites that represent collectively a kind portrait of himself, his lovers and friends, as well as those who endeavour to find their place within an often hostile and unforgiving society. The cities of London and Delhi serve as the main backdrop, although other places he visited during his extensive travels make appearances as well. And then one can not overlook his home, or rather homes, his domestic space where the private becomes a site of respite and reflection. This space is where the social subject is at his or her least self-conscious, most safe, and as a psycho-sexual environment holds an ongoing presence within his work.
His has been alifethat has taken some unexpected turns. He was raised in Delhi, and moved with his parents during his teens to the completely different culture of Montreal then to the post-teen excitement of New York, after which he spent many years in London, and returned to Delhi half century after his birth. This unchosen and conscious diasporic movement is deeply embedded in his experience of the world, and in his art. And then in 1995 with the diagnosis of being HIV positive, his life took on new dimensions, as did his photography, especially in terms of the role that autobiography would come to play.
These kinds of complications run parallel to Gupta's political engagement. He was an active participant in the Black Arts Movement in the U.K. during the 1980s and 90s, a period when artists of various ethnicities and sexual orientations aggressively challenged the art world status quo and lack of inclusiveness towards the specificities of marginalised or diasporic communities. Gupta's involvement was as a gay artist of Indian descent - he not only had to his gayness in the Indian world but also his Indianness in the gay world -and while the status quo appears to remain for the most part unmoved, the Black Arts movement did result in the establishment of several organisations that provided a platform for these artists: Institute of International Visual Arts, Autograph, Chinese Arts Centre, Gasworks, and Gupta’s own organisation of Visual Arts in which he curated and organized numerous exhibitions and projects locally and internationally. In the 1980s, he had already been involved with the AIDS community and co-edited with Tessa Boffin, the book Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology. And as a gay activist he has belonged to many organisations over the years and, without pause, has brought its issues forward into Indian society where he believes his work is now most beneficial and where he can forsee some of his social goals reaching fruition.
This politic is evident though not always obvious, in Gupta's artwork. It is clear in Gay Memorials (n.d.) which documents discreet, personalised expressions commemorating gay men who have been brutally attacked or murdered, but in other work it can be much more subtle; indeed his self-portraits as a gay Indian man in representations that skirt the exotic in favour of often remarkably mundane is a political statement in itself. And he does this without resorting to anger, didactism or victimisation, strategies that are all too common, specially with respect to representing AIDS, and a direction he could justifiably pursue. Instead his work focusses more on communities and empowerment in the gay world, an empowerment that might at times be in a highly personal and unpublic way.
In thinking about his overall practice, I see it as encompassing three streams that are not mutually exclusive of each other and at times they intersect: his early street- influenced work, which tended to focus on social and sexual milieu; his portraits, although he may not think of them so much as portraiture but more as simply images of friends and acquaintances; and his autobiographical work.
The 1976 series of photographs Christopher Street, among the first he produced as self-conscious artworks, were taken when Gupta was living in New York and during his time at the New School. It was seven years after the Stonewall riots, a turning point in the rise of gay liberation, and a heady period when being gay could be, and was, openly paraded. In these images, men confidently move through the city or stand on street corners; they are a visible presence in society and signifiers of a new and public gay self-consciousness. In London Gay Switchboard (1980) the projection of gay identity is even more apparent, and while the title references a 24-7 helpline in which most calls were enquiries about where to meet other men -and at that time disco culture was at its height -it has moved to a more hermetic environment where the public is not witness, and where making social and sexual connections can proceed unhindered.
These images appear unstaged and spontaneous, qualities that would remain in Gupta's later work although in a less overt way as he became more personally invested in his subjects and their immediate lives. Here, he is photographing everyday people in their everyday environment, people he most likely doesn't know, but even this early on in his work, one can detect that these images are not just the objective meanderings of a flaneur, but carry inflections of the subjective desire of a gay man in his twenties who is celebrating -and documenting -social advances that at the time were unprecedented in the twentieth century.
With the series Exiles (1986-87), his interest in exploring images of the gay scene shifted according to geographical and cultural site. During the 1980s, Gupta returned to India several times, and Exiles presents an exploration into its gay scene yet is much more subdued in tenor, even melancholic at times, a reflection of the status of gay men who had not achieved the liberation of those in New York or London. In this context, Gupta exercises discretion; the camera is a tool of tremendous power, and he acknowledges the freedom of photographing people indiscriminately as exercised by street photographers in the West was not necessarily appropriate in India. In some images the subject is photographed at iconic Delhi sites such as Haus Khas, Humayun's Tomb, or India Gate, but often he has his back turned to the camera so as not to reveal his identity -it's also as though he exists in a state of subliminal isolation, longingly imagining a somewhere beyond. In public spaces in India, expressions of affection between men, such as holding hands, is part of the culture, and in Gupta's images those gestures are ambiguous. But overt demonstration of gayness is not, especially at the time these photographs were taken; while physically present in public spaces, these men are also burdened with a kind of invisibility. The series also includes images of indoor scenarios, which, like London Gay Switchboard, social interaction is more open -there is sexualized physical intimacy and cross dressing -yet these individuals remain relegated to private not public environments when expressing their uninhibited sexual identity. And beyond what may seem like straight portraiture, narrative is seeping its way into his work; although each image stands on its own, together they make a compelling statement, and in Exiles, the bottom of each photograph carries an extended caption that concisely conveys the frustrations, the complacencies, the contradictions, and the desires of gay men in India.
Portraiture and advocating visibility of the gay world in society, both in its differences and affinities, was now solidifying into an ongoing project for Gupta. WhileChristopherStreet was about proudly parading oneself in public, Ten Years On (1984-85) represents love and stability in gay relationships, with each of the couples photographed having sustained a ten-year relationship. These are straightforward portraits showing couples posed in their domestic environs, in various forms of embrace, and self-consciously looking at camera lens projecting the confidence of "I am here." There is nothing remarkable about these people, they are not celebrities nor are they oddities, and while they clearly convey a sense of comfort with each other, this series was completed during one of the most devastating periods of AIDS, when research was at its infancy and the uncertainty of its impact within the gay community was an unknown.
'Pretended' Family Relationships (1988) portraits of male and female couples, who appear in a more relaxed demeanour than those depicted in Ten Years On, with images of demonstrations against Britain’s Clause 28 that prohibited the representation of gay couples as "pretended family relationships" This absurd proposition demanded a challenge as to what that proposition actually meant; these images include a poetic text about love, and the connotation of what family, or the potentiality of family, is embedded in the fact that these are not simply portraits of two people, but two people who in some way share their lives.
Most subsequent work includes this blending of portraiture, a documentary format, and a politic and since the mid-90s, many of his photographs have included self-portraits -thus nudging towards autobiography - often presented in a diptych or triptych or montage format. Gupta now frequently juxtaposes images of himself with other fragmentary aspects of the world -signage, media headlines, architecture, lovers, friends, landscapes, cultural icons -that have caught his attention or come into his life in one way or another, placing himself into a kind of conversation with them. In his use of juxtaposition, the certainty of one image is destablized by the presence of the other, and I liken it to encountering metaphorical mirrors of himself in things and experiences that do not always carry a rationale but that convey ambiguity and, at times ambivalence. While with most documentary photography there is a supposed disconnect between the photographer and the subject, a so-called objectivity, in Gupta's work it is all about the connection with his own life. Autobiography and narrative -not one has a storyline to follow but one that is implied and indefinite -is evident in Trespass 1 (1992) and Trespass 2 (1993), in which his personal relationships were the primary subject matter. Trespass 3 (1995) placed images of travel and transport against those representing South Asian life both in England and India, a way of visually exploring the cultural clashes and contradictions that permeate the world. But it was his diagnosis of HIV that this kind of self-examination assumed more urgency and poignancy.
After his diagnosis and the subsequent management of an unwelcome virus, thinking about making art was not necessarily at the forefront of his concerns. Yet, at the same time, he questioned whether his art making and curating would slip into some forgotten zone -thus his legacy came into play -so the need to continue making artwork was reignited and actually served as a form of creative therapy. From Here to Eternity (1999), a series of five diptychs, was the first body of work he produced that directed addressed being HIV positive, and the diptychs and triptychs in this series reveal an even more self-expository return to photography. It is an exploration into how the virus was affecting his world and it is unsettling in its frankness; his body was not just a sexualised one, but also a medicalised one. These photographs juxtapose himself with his doctor, at the hospital, at home, in hotel rooms with entrances to sex clubs and bathhouses that were expanding in number in spite of the rise in HIV infection. However, Gupta expresses no judgment on what could be a morbid irony, and while his body is exposed -he came to accept that images of himself, in whatever form, are not to be shied away from -the entrances are anonymous, like most of the sex that takes place within them, except for a discreet sign that would have meaning only for the initiated.
It is in the first decade of the twenty-first century that this story returns to romanticism, to desire that was part of Gupta's earlier life and that has been embedded in much of his work, although now it has different facets, ones that I sense are deeper, that arrive through a life lived, and that convey a more pleasured world. Love and Light (2004-09) is a series of diptychs pairing images of Gupta with landscapes from around the world, in some of them it seems as though he is on holiday. In one Gupta stands at a beach with his back towards the viewer, his arms akimbo, looking out at the ocean, his body language more optimistic than those depicted in Exiles. Here he is not longingly looking out, but is connected, a feeling that is reflected in the image it is paired with, one of an empty bed, but one that clearly was inhabited by two people, not one.
From the ages of twenty to forty-five Gupta had always been in a relationship with someone. Then there was a disruptive gap and a kind of regrouping. But with this regrouping the meaning of a relationship is no longer taken for granted, and in the series Love, Undetectable (2009), a gentle and loving sense of intimacy is expressed, once more within a domestic space, not a forced domesticity but one where relationship-building can be at its most productive, where no one has to prove anything to anyone. The images show two couples, Gupta and a friend, as well as two women. The focus is less on faces than on physical gesture, especially the hand, and suggests the possibility of gay relationships within India that are now not necessarily fraught with anxiety and alienation.
Gupta has also explored the realm of staged portraiture with The Body Positive (2004), The New Pre-Raphaelites (2008-10), and Sun City (2010). Each of these series were commissions, as much of his past work has been, but he relinquished the snap shot effect that typifies so much of his work for one in which the intention is to make images that are clearly more refined aesthetically. The Body Positive is a mapping of an HIV positive body that possesses beauty; in keeping with the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite period, The New Pre-Raphaelites have backdrops, costumes, professional lighting, and there is a self-consciousness of the sitter in relationship to the camera, whose pose has been directed by the artist. These contemporary renditions of actual Pre-Raphaelite paintings merge a subconscious eroticismbetween the past andpresent, and share a sensitivity of gesture that echoes those in Love, Undetectable.
The series of photographs for Sun City turn more towards a narrative format; there are identifiable characters and even an imagined story to follow. It is loosely based on a film, La Jetee (1962), by Chris Marker, which is composed of a constantly morphing series of still photographs and a transitory voice over, and in which the lead character time-travels from a post-apocalyptic present to the past and future. Sun City, on the other hand, travels from the everyday world to the exotic and sexually charged environs of a Paris bathhouse.
Gupta's work possesses a politic, an eroticism, and, in spite of some challenging periods in his life, pleasure. While this journey appears to be a document of the artist's personal life, it is not a narrative in any traditional form, and it is not all about him. He is generous in that we are not presented with self-importance - many of the works reveal his doubts and vulnerabilities. But this is also part of his politic; that he invites us into his world and lets us experience his world, as fragmented, unstable, and loving as it may be at times, but we as viewers can use that experience to reflect upon our own understanding of the world.
From a publication by Prestel (2011).