There is a new book out, a collection of writings by queer British South Asian photographer Sunil Gupta, mostly collections of his essays from the mid — 80’s until the early 2000’s where he theorizes about England’s Black Arts Movement, queer photography, desire, the role of funding in movement building. It’s a lovely book for me to read. I was not in London during the Black Arts movement and this is as close as I’ll get.
Through this book I’ve been introduced to a photographer, Joy Gregory, who I’ve never heard of before and to whom I immediately declare my love. Gupta writes an essay about her work in the 1990’s, noting how she straddles multiple cultural lines, making work that is of Blackness but not about it, perhaps from it, but does not point to it. She apparently had some struggle, branded as too white by some folks, too Black by others. Respected immensely for her visual mastery yet not quite legible enough for anyone to claim her as their own.
I don’t know much about her. I am only at the beginning of my journey of understanding. I look forward to learning and learning. She had just the one retrospective in 2010 at Impressions Gallery in London. Its title: Lost Languages and other voices. Fourteen pieces from a twenty-year career. She continues to make work. She’s had a solo show seemingly every year. Her Instagram is private and has fewer than 2000 followers. Her present work is masterful in that way that past masters are when it seems like they have interrogated so deeply that nothing remains but the object.
I don’t know much about photography, but I know it’s an attempt to capture an image of an object, or several objects which then becomes the attempt to capture a moment — the precise moment in which those objects were in that state. And I know that the more you try to capture the moment, the less you do. And I know that sometimes if someone is really good at capturing the object, then they are able to capture the moment and all that the moment means. This is what it feels like to look at Joy Gregory’s work for me. She photographs objects that feel like everything they mean.
Of course, it doesn’t make sense. Nothing can be captured. We can only have the illusion. Which I find truly great!
She did a series of self-portraits, or as she called them Auto-portraits. The one I see most frequently is her face in profile as she turns to look at us, blouse partially unzipped in the back, geometric earrings dangling, eyebrows prominently signaling suspicion, a hint of mistrust. If you’re going to look at me, I’m going to look at you looking at me. The artist is so present. Of course I am in love. I am dying, and being seen, and fighting for my life all at once, I don’t want to be doing that alone.
It’s far easier to love someone in a photograph than it is to love them in flesh. In flesh they hurt you. Or hurt you back when you hurt them. It occurs to me now that the reason we are enchanted by photography is the same reason we struggle with love. Because nothing ever sits still.