Wide Angle

Why Paul Mpagi Sepuya Describes Himself as an Artist, not a Photographer

“I’ve always primarily made photographs, but there’s more to it than that.”

A casually dressed young black man is taking a photograph. The camera is on a tripod.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya. Paul Mpagi Sepuya.

On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with artist Paul Mpagi Sepuga about photography and the evolution of his career. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rumaan Alam: What do you say when someone asks you, “What do you do?”

Paul Mpagi Sepuya: I would say I’m an artist.

I’m curious about why you would say artist as opposed to photographer.

Well, when you say you’re a photographer, people think you’re for hire. I’ve always primarily made photographs, but there’s more to it than that.

I want to talk about the work you were making in your 20s. Now that you’re older, do you feel the youth in that work, or do you feel that those early portraits that first catapulted you to critical attention were your first mature artistic statement?

When you’re 23 and you’re making portraits and they’re getting seen and published, there’s a whole world around that stuff. There’s the 25 Under 25 lists. There’s the features on new artists. There’s a lot of writing around youth. I remember saying at the time, “My work is not about youth.” I’m young, I’m making work with the people that are around me. I imagine as I get older, we’ll all get older together.

When you look at a portrait by Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz, you can’t necessarily identify the subject, but there’s an authority or a sense of celebrity or a sense of power inside those figures, the presentation of the figures. Everything about the composition of the photograph implies that you’re looking at a portrait of a powerful or celebrated person. In your early portraits, there’s a sense that the subject is not something you’re looking at on a pedestal, although sometimes you literally are on an object in your studio, but there’s an interplay between you behind the camera and them in front of it.

Those are good examples. Richard Avedon and Annie Leibowitz are photographers, they’re not artists. And again, it’s not to knock it, but those are commissions. They’re paid to take pictures of those people. The thing with those early portraits of mine was that we weren’t doing anything except having a conversation, either at my kitchen table or in the downstairs living room of that place in Brooklyn where I’d taken everything off the wall so we’d have a clear space, or sitting on the edge of my bed.

You left New York to pursue your MFA.

Yeah. I knew I had to get out. The last years in New York were really hard. It came as a shock when I left New York. Everyone said: “Oh, I thought you were doing so well. Everything is so wonderful.” And I was like: “I’ve been broke. I can’t afford to pay for dinner and groceries. And I’m biking around everywhere.” I still have my trusty bike with me. It’s the one thing that’s gotten me through. Yes, it was fun, but it’s also because I couldn’t afford a Metro card.

So the period that we’re talking about when you were freelancing around and producing your early photographs, you had had quite a bit of early success. So I guess there is a gulf really between the perception of “Oh, that’s an artist whose name I know; he must be doing all right,” and reality?

I graduated undergrad in 2004. The years following that were when all the art news was talk about collectors, like, going to grad studios at Columbia and Hunter and buying up everything. There’s this really unhealthy idea, “At any moment, the next thing that happens, I’m just going to be supporting myself as this artist.” And then the crash happened in 2008. A lot of friends who were working for big-name artists got laid off. That that was a really interesting moment. It’s helpful for me right now to remember that these highs and lows are so tenuous, ideas of monetary success are so tenuous.

To listen to the full interview with Paul Mpagi Sepuya, subscribe to Working on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or listen below.