Subversive, impulsive, personal and political, photographer’s retrospective presents a rich and powerful picture of an artist’s life…
By Suman Bhuchar
THIS is the first time photographer, Sunil Gupta has had a retrospective of his photographic practice and you feel an omission has been corrected.
‘From Here to Eternity’ is an exhibition of his photographs taken over five decades and comprise a collection of 200 photographs of his work from his early days in the US to his most recent work in London. The exhibition closes on May 31.
There is an accompanying book, ‘From Here to Eternity’ which has just been jointly awarded the Krasna-Krausz Book Award celebrating excellence in photography (along with Maria Kapajeva’s ‘Dream is Wonderful Yet Unclear‘ about the artist’s personal experience and memories of childhood in Estonia leading up to the transition of independence from Russian state control).
Gupta’s book is a historical record and an archive.
It’s a contemporaneous account of the artist’s political, personal and quotidian life and many of the pictures in the book appear in the London exhibition.
The book features an essay by the curator of the show, Dr Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP London (a charity that highlights artists work on identity, human rights and social justice) and the publication is designed by Fraser Muggeridge Studio and supported by the Bagri Foundation.
“The book is meant to go with the show,” Gupta told www.asianculturevulture.com. “It is a visual story of what happened while I was taking the pictures.
“It covers the same period but you might enjoy it as it has the context.”
The book is inspiring, beautiful, and unique, featuring images, letters, newspaper cuttings of subjects as varied as gay politics to black activism in the UK during the 1980s and features Gay Switchboard (a call line), protests against Clause 28 (Margaret Thatcher’s government made it an offence to discuss homosexuality in schools), lesbian and gay community groups, supporting the miners, London Against Racism (an initiative created by then leader of Greater London Council Ken Livingstone in 1984), Reflections of the Black Experience exhibition, as well his curatorial work and personal and family photographs.
“Heartfelt, moving and fun,” is how Patrizia De Bello, photography book award judge and professor of History and Theory of Photography, Birkbeck, University of London describes it.
“This book charts intersectional histories of migration, gay liberation and how one survives in the photography world – a rich volume of personal and political archival material,” she concluded.
The exhibition itself is thematically curated and is a selection of his work from a particular period.
“The exhibition is chronological and quite edited because the physical space is limited.
“So basically, we looked at a series of projects,” he explained to acv, speaking from his home in South London.
The retrospective is across two floors of the Photographers’ Gallery, off Oxford Street, and begins with his images of ‘Christopher Street‘ (1976), documenting the gay experience in Greenwich Village, New York, and includes images from his other work including, ‘From Here to Eternity’ (1999) which documents his own diagnosis of being HIV Positive through a series of intimate autobiographical images and community reaction to what was a taboo subject at the time. Gupta spoke about his HIV status very publicly as a way of challenging the stigma.
Other photos include ‘Exiles’ (1986-87) looking at gay experience in Delhi when it was illegal; ‘Pretended Family Relationships’ (1988) which explored the effects of ‘Clause 28’ and ‘The New Pre-Raphaelites’ (2008), in support of the legal battle against Section 377 in India – which forbade sexual relations between men. In 2018, homosexual relations were decriminalised in India.
For the Retrospective, as Gupta was looking through his vast portfolio,he realised how some themes were continually present in his work, for example, his interest in gay narratives, identity and liberation politics.
“The most important thing that occurred to me looking back when I see the show is that my main concern of being Indian and gay has just been very consistent throughout it – that hasn’t changed,” he observed.
Gupta was born in Delhi to a Tibetan mother, Penny, who was adopted by Christian missionaries and a father, Shree Ram, who was in the army. He is youngest of four siblings with a sister and two half-sisters. He grew up in Delhi, but the family migrated to Montreal in Canada, when he was 15.
Gupta originally studied business management at college in Canada, but somehow ended up picking up a camera and printing his own images which ignited a life-long interest in photography.
Gupta always knew he was gay and this was an ongoing conversation with his parents, whose way of coping was never to discuss it.
“My parents kind of decided we would never talk about it and that’s how we stayed.”
In the 1970s, he followed his then partner to New York and onto London (1977) where he studied photography at Farhnam University and later, the Royal College of Arts, whilst also working in the nascent black arts and cultural sector, taking photos for organisations like Tara Arts, Bazaar magazine, and photo-articles for New Statesman-New Society and developing his own photographic practice.
His activism is apparent in the exhibition section, ‘Reflections of the Black Experience’.
“I did Asian images for the Black Experience show in Brixton (March 1986) there are 10 pictures and I did take a picture of a writer who happened to be Hanif Kureishi, artist Saleem Arif, and a general activism image from the Newham 7 (an anti-racism organisation) and then the gay person was me, ‘cos I couldn’t find anybody else to be in it,” he laughed.
Gupta took a picture recreating that famous publicity image from ‘My Beautiful Launderette’ but instead of Daniel Day Lewis and Gordon Warneke in front of the launderette, he posed with Steve Dodd (his boyfriend at the time) and the photo has been acquired by the Tate. (See above picture).
He met and married photographer Charan Singh in 2011 and the couple have a home in London.
His life is documented on social media and to paraphrase Sealy’s essay, Gupta’s is a life lived in politics and filled with love.
Main picture: Image 4, Untitled, ©Sunil Gupta
Listing (Exhibition and book).
‘From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta. A Retrospective’ is on display (May 17) – May 31 at The Photographers’ Gallery, 16 – 18 Ramillies Street London W1F 7LW. You will need to pre-book because of covid regulations ( Exhibition admission £5/£2.50 concessions).
The exhibition is curated by Dr Mark Sealy MBE (Autograph ABP, London) in collaboration with The Photographers’ Gallery, London and the Ryerson Image Centre (Toronto).The exhibition will be travelling to the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto for January 2022 (delayed opening due to Covid 19). The publication is supported by the Bagri Foundation and the education activities by the Durjoy Foundation.
‘From Here to Eternity’ (£25) Published in association with The Photographers’ Gallery, London; and Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto. Supported using public funding by Arts Council England. Also supported by The Bagri Foundation, London.https://www.sunilgupta.net/store/p4/Sunil_Gupta%3A_From_Here_to_Eternity.html