From the Singular to the Indexical in Contemporary Portraiture, by Courtney Malick
For the past 14 years Paul Mpagi Sepuya has lived in New York and worked as a photographer whose focus was pinned tightly on portraiture. Not only did Sepuya think of his photos as portraits, he was, in the beginning, serious about shooting “straightforward” portraiture, as in taking a singular image of a person as a way of, at least within that moment, fully capturing their exterior and even their identity. However, unlike other portraitists, Sepuya found himself returning over and over again to the same subjects at different points in their lives. Not only that, but his process seemed as much based on happenstance as it did on investigation. He would rarely organize a shoot or a sitting within a particular place, but instead would randomly run into people he hadn’t seen in a while and arrange for a shoot on the spot. In this way, a fluidity that is not very characteristic of much portraiture seeped more and more into Sepuya’s practice, until it eventually became clear that to take one picture of one person and present it as conclusive was not only false but futile.
It proved far more intriguing and generative to begin to cultivate an ongoing lexicon or index of sorts through which many lingering stories and personal narratives might or might not reveal themselves over time. His practice, at least conceptually, drastically shifted from singular images to an ever-developing, meandering string of recurrent faces, interiors and objects that one, if they paid close enough attention, could read like a novel.
Another, more recent shift, has been Sepuya’s move from New York to Los Angeles in 2014 to begin graduate school at UCLA, where he currently lives and works. As school often does, this time (and the critiquing eyes and viewpoints of his fellow classmates) has allowed Sepuya to look at the massive body of work that he has produced over the past decade from a newly macro perspective. This, he says, has allowed him to see, and begin to respond to, the varying degrees of legibility that run throughout his work as it spans many of the layers of subtext, which have either purposely or inadvertently been inserted into his photographic archive of people and places as their image recurs over time. It has also taken much of the daily bumping-into-a-subject type of process out of his current ways of working, as L.A. unlike New York, rarely yields these kinds of coincidences. Instead, Sepuya has found a renewed significance for the studio space, where he returns to older material and configures new images from fragments, some of which have formed the works that are now on view at DOCUMENT gallery in Chicago in his most recent solo exhibition, aptly titled, Figures/Grounds/Studies.