Paul Mpagi Sepuya on the Inherent Intimacy of Photography

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: I tell people headshots are hard to make because anything that we know so well that we like, internalize and know how to read so well, people think that they can do it. But the moment you try, it will fail spectacularly. The best they can say is try it. Just try it. Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Isaac Butler, and I’m your other host, REMON alum, and we just heard a few words of wisdom from this week’s guest, Paul Podgy Supriya Ruman, who is Paul and Podgy Supriya, and what drew you to interviewing him this week?

S1: I’m not sure that I can pinpoint where I first encountered Paul’s work. I’m fairly certain that it was one of those small gay magazines like one of those tiny print magazines you find in a certain section at McNally Jackson. And I remember seeing these images of, you know, mostly queer men, not exclusively men, not exclusively queer, but just a beautiful young queer folks.

S3: And there was something really striking in the approach that Paul was taking to portraiture. It was very stripped down. It was very it was naked in a sort of literal sense sometimes. But there was something very honest and intimate about his portraits that felt very different in that particular cultural moment. And there was something so arresting about that work. His and he has such a beautiful name that it lodged in my consciousness. I sort of knew who Paul was. And in the years since I would have first encounter that work, which was probably twenty six. Twenty seven. Paul has established himself as a very successful fine artist.

S2: It is interesting how, you know, you can encounter work. That’s just kind of like going against the aesthetic grain and that immediately can make this like just huge impact on you as you’re looking at it.

S3: I think, you know, I didn’t really get into this with Paul because it’s not necessarily fair to take your own critical interpretation directly to the artist and say, well, what do you think? But in my estimation, Paul’s interest in simplicity kind of foreshadowed a cultural interest in simplicity. If you think about Kinfolk magazine, for example, and the ethos of, you know, a simple mason jar full of maple syrup that you’ve topped yourself or something like. I think that there was something in the culture in that sort of post 9/11 moment where we valorized honesty and simplicity. And Paul’s work feels to me of a piece with that cultural bubble.

S2: Well, I can’t wait to hear more about him and his process. Let’s take a listen.

S1: Imagine you met someone at a party and they ask you, hey, what do you do? What’s your answer?

S2: I think I what I said, maybe I would say I’m an artist. That’s probably it.

S4: I’m curious about why you would say artist as opposed to photographer.

S2: Well, when you say you’re a photographer, people think you’re for hire. Yeah, it’s different for everyone. And it’s not to it’s not like that. There’s a hierarchy, you know, in the grand scheme of things. But I think it’s very clear to say that I’m in that I’m an artist. I don’t even like in bios and things like that. For people to say photographer. I’m an artist who works primarily with photography, but there’s more to it than that.

S4: So I’m going to take a stab at describing the first work that I encountered of yours, which I think is the work that you were producing when you were still quite young, probably just after finishing your undergraduate years at NYU. What I see as sort of the prototypical work of that period of time were sort of portraits of beautiful people, mostly young, mostly people who read as queer, whatever that means to the audience, often in states of undress or sort of, you know, sometimes posed really classically, but sometimes in this sort of state of play where the image isn’t really showing their whole body. And often you, the photographer, are present in the image. Sometimes you’re wielding your camera, sometimes you’re not. And so the pictures feel very personal. And the second body of work that you were doing in Los Angeles and then you returned to New York to show takes those initial portraits as a starting point. But it has you re photographing them inside your studio, sometimes with the reflection of yourself, sometimes placed on a mirrored surface or whatever. So they become increasingly abstracted and they’re just sort of slices of body, is that right?

S2: So, yes, the I would say that the work from 2005, 2004 until about two thousand ten was pretty straightforward portraits. They were made in my kitchen and living room in the house I was living in in Brooklyn and then eventually in my bedroom, which became a recurring backdrop. And yeah, it was people close to me.

S4: I want to talk a little bit about those early portraits. I want to talk about the work you were making in your 20s, I guess. And I guess the first question I have for you is you were so very young then. And do you feel now that you’re older, the youth in that work, or do you feel that those early portraits that really first catapulted you to critical attention were your first mature artistic statement?

S2: You know, OK, so when you’re when you’re twenty three and you’re making portraits and they’re getting seen and published, everyone wants to you know, there’s a whole kind of like world around that stuff. There’s the there’s the twenty five hundred twenty five list. Yes. There’s the, you know, features on new artists. There’s a lot of writing around youth that youth was the idea about it. And I always and 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 that we will all get older together. And the work, you know, at that time, most of the portraits were people in my in my social circle. We were in our early 20s, but there were also friends who were in their 30s and 40s and even up to their 50s. And that work, like you said, the image is read as queer. I mean, at the time, the language I was using was gay, you know, but that doesn’t mean that the subjects themselves, all are or were. What I could say about it is that everyone in the work had some connection to this New York, Williamsburg of the Post, September 11th, gay, largely gay scene. And so that also includes people who are not. But we are in the same orbit, if that makes sense.

S4: So when you look at a portrait by Avidan or Annie Leibovitz and you can’t necessarily identify the subject, but there’s an authority or a sense of celebrity or sense of power inside of those figures, the presentation of the figures, everything about the composition of the photograph implies to you that this is you’re looking at a portrait of a powerful or celebrated person. And in your early portraits, there’s a sense that the subject is not something you’re looking at on a pedestal, although sometimes you sort of literally are on an object in your studio, but that there’s an interplay between you behind the camera and then in front of it.

S2: Those are good examples like Richard Avedon and Annie Liebowitz, our photographers, they’re not artists. And again, it’s not to knock it, but it’s like those are commissions they’re paid to to those people. And so the thing with those early portraits was we’re not doing anything except having a conversation either at my kitchen table or in my 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. I mean, because also it’s like if thinking about like all like a lot of the photography from the late 90s, early 2000s, even the stuff that was really influenced by, you know, when I was a teenager in the 90s was like super dramatic, like hyper dramatic. You know, it’s like, you know, all of the sort of like David LaChapelle stuff that I just, like, loved back in the mid 90s. And so I was trying to make work like that. I was like a young little homosexual in my teens and early 20s. And so, you know, I when I began that work, I realized, OK, you know, I really had to throw everything out because I had to say, well, I just want to reduce this to the thing that to figure out why I’m making pictures that in that moment of being young and in New York and having a first group of queer friends, it’s organized, is that that space is organized around this sort of like unfixed or sort of like very open to potential set of attractions and curiosities. And so, you know, we kind of have this thing where all of the work was photographed as if we were dating or flirting or were in a relationship or could be it was basically removing a hierarchy between platonic or romantic or flirtatious and erotic photographs. I just wanted to put that at the forefront and then, you know, and then it’s just for having a conversation. So we’re just not doing anything except being present.

S4: You’re also removing a traditional barrier between model and artist, even if you talk about sort of like portrait painters, like by putting yourself within the frame or by establishing a sense of play between yourself and the subject, I think that’s why those photographs feel so striking, because they feel like documents of an intimacy that we can’t entirely understand. But we’re trying to read.

S2: Yeah. So in those early ones, you know, I’m I’m making the portraits in the same place that we’re hanging out maybe two days before having dinner. And, you know, friends are for beers. You know, it’s not like a lot of those early work because they’re cropped to they’re pretty much head and shoulders busts a few years. And I sort of like pull back and start to reveal the edge of a table that we’re sitting at or the edge of or the horizon of the bed. People thought they were studio photographs because I was using cheap strobe Mottershead that I got from Abderrahmane 18th Street and I was making and part of that was because all the photographs were being made in odd hours around jobs, day jobs. But so it was a way to remove the uncontrollable factors of lighting, you know, by like to make portraits at like 9:00 p.m. on like a February in New York where it’s pitch black, you know. But then around 2005, I began working in a more structured arts nonprofit. I work for Creative Capital off and on from 2005 to 2009, I think. And then I went to the Joni Mitchell Foundation and I was approached. I became a program director there working on them on some programs to increase their engagement with their grantees. At the time, I don’t know if they still have this MFA grant program for recent MFA graduates, as well as we were beginning a program for older artists who were documenting to begin process of documenting their work and their legacies, which I found really interesting. Thing, I’ve always been like archives, databases and things like that was something that I worked on for both organizations and then there was a lot of post-Katrina support programs going on in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. And then the last years, maybe the last three years in New York were really, really hard.

S4: And then you left you left to pursue your MFA, is that right?

S2: Yeah, I had I knew I had to get out. I mean, because this is the thing I think that’s always really important to say, is that because it came as a shock when I left New York because 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 for dinner and groceries. And I’m biking around everywhere and I still have my trusty bike with me. So the one thing that’s gotten me through. But, you know, yes, it was fun, but it’s also because I couldn’t afford a Metro card.

S4: So the period that we’re talking about, when you were sort of freelancing around and producing your early photographs, you had had quite a bit of early success. I mean, that’s certainly when I would have first learned your name like. So there is it. I guess there is a gap, a gulf, really, between the perception of somebody is like, oh, that’s an artist whose name I know he must be doing.

S1: All right. And your state you’re telling me today, two decades later, oh, I couldn’t afford to buy dinner.

S2: Yeah. I mean, and so those early porches that we’re talking about, I was like working. But at that time, you know, that was all I graduated undergrad in 2004. You know, in the years following that, it’s like you’re seeing fellow like people with buffets or, you know, getting solo shows. And Chelsea like this is the moment when it’s like when you when all the art news is talking about collectors going to grad studios at Columbia and Hunter and buying up everything, there’s this really unhealthy idea that that like, oh, 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 and a lot of friends who are working for big name artists are getting laid off. And so I think that was also a really interesting moment to kind of to see, which is helpful for me right now, keeping in mind that these highs and lows are all are just so tenuous or ideas of monetary success are so tenuous.

S4: But also, I would point out that the early work, which I think remains really interesting and is clearly foundational for the work that ensued, was born in some ways, as you’re saying, out of privation, out of the necessity to be imaginative, that it’s 9:00 p.m. on a February night and you’ve got to figure out how to light a room to take a picture of someone who you happen to have an hour with them. So I think sometimes. An artist might yearn for freedom, but actually require some kind of constraint on that freedom to produce something.

S2: Yes, and I maybe at some point I wanted to be able to rent a photo studio and to shoot stuff there. But when I realized I was limited to my space and a very sort of like simple form of lighting and set up, I was like, OK, what can I do with that? And I pushed and I pushed it. And I think and I sort of lost track of why I was bringing up the sort of over top glamour, late 90s type photography. Is that when that work first got out, it’s because people were saying, what is this really strange sort of pared down photographs? And people often describe that we looked a little bit sad, but like comfortable and intimate. And I remember this, a feature in the New York Times Style magazine. And it was and it was really just talking about how suddenly these images got out and people started it like marked a turning point in which sort of like simplicity was the thing. But for me, it wasn’t just sort of like an aesthetic. It may have come out of me wanting to kind of get rid of the things that were distracting or just seemed like piling on top. But it was really an opportunity to go much more deeper in terms of lack of thinking about just that connection. We’ll be back with the second half of Remans conversation with the artist Paul Podgy Sapulpa after this.

S3: One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a bigger question about inspiration or discipline. Send them to us at working at Slate Dotcom if and when we can. We’ll put those questions to our esteemed guests.

S2: Ruman, before we go back to your interview with Paul Podgy Sapulpa, there’s a few artists you’re talking about in this episode quite a bit. So I thought maybe we could just pause for a moment. And in case our listeners aren’t or don’t think they’re familiar with one of them who looms kind of large, we could talk about him. And that is, of course, David LaChapelle. What is distinct about Chappelle’s work and what makes it quite different from carpoolers, even if he’s a kind of influence at the same time, if you don’t know his name, you probably do know his work.

S3: David Chappelle’s photographer, whose celebrity work from the 1990s was really kind of emblematic of that period in the popular culture. If you think about a photograph he took of Britney Spears that appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, she’s holding a telephone and cradling a stuffed Teletubbies. LaChapelle also took a photograph of Eminem for the cover of Rolling Stone. Eminem is nude. He’s cradling a little stick of dynamite sort of at his crotch. While Chappelle’s work was all like that, it was really stylized and elaborate. There was a lot of color and often there were large casts of people, lots of models and these really elaborate sets. And you hear in this conversation, Paul and I, bonding over a particular set of photographs from 1995 that LaChapelle shot for the English magazine, the face of a really beautiful young Leonardo DiCaprio. It was a cultural touchstone for gay guys my age.

S2: Amazing. Well, let’s rejoin your conversation with Paul and energy supply and learn more about his creative process.

S4: So you mentioned, like in your youth, like looking at those David LaChapelle photographs, David LaChapelle is a photographer who was very active in when you were probably in high school. Right. So you would have seen those images, very, very stylized images, usually celebrity portraits, but often like fashion shoots with, you know, a big cast, a very complicated set up. And there was some sort of digital manipulation in play. Your photography kind of rejects manipulation.

S2: That’s true. Yeah, there’s I don’t do any digital manipulation. Everything is in camera the most. And I’ll probably do is make sure that image is color balanced. And and if my hand was askew or I didn’t set up the tripod correctly, I’ll just sort of like tilted a little bit. But that’s, you know, I would do the same thing in the darkroom. Right.

S1: And what’s and so there is something queer about David LaChapelle pictures because they’re big and broad, you know, they’re like beautiful. I like seminal moment for me is Leonardo DiCaprio in the face when I was like 19 years old?

S2: You know, I think he is a black shirt on and it’s unbuttoned and his hair is a little bit where I think there’s a surface and there’s even a knife in it. I like will never forget, you know, getting Rolling Stone in in the mail and that first portrait of Britney Spears and that or like those portraits of Lil Kim. I mean, when I was 16, fifteen or sixteen, there was a show of Paul’s work at Tony Shifra gallery. And when it was still in Soho and we there was a family trip to New York. And the one thing I wanted to do was to go see that show. And that was when those portraits of Amanda Lapore as Warhols Marilyns and we’re up. Oh, my God. But, you know, it’s like it’s I feel like LaChapelle also when those Matthew Barney sort of like grand scale works were also happening in the thousands. They’re really seductive. And as a young photo student, I kind of internalize that as the goal of making work, that it required all of this production, you know, like Gregory crude’s and all of this stuff. And and like you said, the limitations. It’s like I have to look at what I had, what was close to me and what I could work with and make the best of it rather than, you know, I had my attempts at making over the top photo shoots and they were not good. I’m glad I had some really good scripts from and feedback from my fellow students and some of my undergrad professors who I’m really good friends with now. But, you know, I’ve been trying to think about that a lot now as being a teacher, you know, being an associate professor and working with students this past spring quarter during covid, you know, and it’s we all had been, you know, forced to retreat to these very limited circumstances and places.

S4: And we really just have to look at what do we have to work with the current work, the work that you’re producing in this moment or the work that you showed in Los Angeles earlier this year at an exhibition that was unfortunately derailed by by covid-19 is work that interrogates the studios of physical space. And there’s still the presence of the body is still felt sometimes in a full figure portrait sometimes than just the presence of the artist’s hand. But you seem to be talking very specifically about something that may not be immediately evident to the audience, which is a queer legacy of a different kind, a different kind of queer photograph than the kind of David LaChapelle was producing that had such an effect on both of us when we were teenagers. Can you talk about what that sort of queer history is that’s bound up in these photographs that are talking about studio space?

S2: It’s the photographers sort of privileged, intimate position of looking, you know, the 19th century going underneath the dark cloth, there’s this like genre of French little. I think they’re like collectivists visits or something, you know, some little things like that from the 19th century that I that I came across years ago that are really playing on that. There’s this there’s it’s like a scene where there’s a man who was a photographer and a woman who was the subject being photographed because that’s the way it always was. And she says to him, If my husband is pleased with the photograph, I’ll let you take a picture of my cat. And there’s a cat next to her. But you for those who know French, last shot is, you know, and so that, you know, the photographer going under the dark cloth was always, you know, from from its inception was kind of playfully analogized with a man being able to look up a woman’s crinolines and voluminous skirts. Right. And so thinking about that, that space. But also this. I think there’s a lot of there’s a lot of like also anxiety, I think, around the writing, around photography, photo history about desire and erotics, because I think, you know, photography is a technology of producing images in a way that that is so bound with what we desire to see. Photography isn’t a natural art that just sort of appears from somewhere. Right.

S4: Right. It’s a technology. So, I mean, what do you and your teaching students now? Right. And so every every one of us is carrying a camera around in our pockets most of the day. So what’s the distinction for you as an artist who’s using this technology to create art between the work of art and the snapshot, like how to resolve that tension for young people or for people who look at a photograph and say, well, I could do that, I could take that.

S2: The best thing you say is try it. Just try it. You know, I mean and I think you can say that it could be a head shot. I mean, I tell people head shots are hard to make a good head shot because anything that we know so well that we like internalize and know how to read so well, people think that they can do it and that. But the moment you try, it will fail spectacularly. I think even in their own images that I that I make, there’s a lot of attempt and failure. But, yeah, when I talk about technology, I’m interested in the idea of like a productive technology. It’s something that is developed and then is attuned to and bound with our desires for a type of outcome. But when it comes to like technology, like for me, I am really firmly against teaching digital manipulation, because what it often becomes in terms of foundation is it becomes a way to correct or to quickly resolve something that should be figured out through time, effort of remaking, reworking observation and trying again. So, you know, I want, for example, students, whether they’re working digitally or an analog, to know precisely how to control their image making device, whatever is at hand, whether the shutter speed aperture to get the precise exposure rather than taking an image, it’s not working out. And then how do I use Photoshop to fix the image?

S4: I’d love to go just way back to your own youth. We’ve talked about your experiments in portraiture and now you’re sort of investigation into the notion of studio and space.

S2: But I’d love to talk about how you yourself first came to photography and what it is and excited you then project some things painting, drawing as a kid, taking painting classes or doing ceramics and things in school. You know, if I as a kid, sometimes you do things and then people are like, oh, that’s what you do. But I didn’t ever think about being an artist. I mean, I wanted to be. Yeah, I remember from like being in fourth or fifth grade all the way through maybe my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to be a computer scientist and I was really into programming. And I mean, when I mentioned things like database development, like that’s sort of the lingering aspects of it, which is really helpful considering the work that I do. There’s a lot of archiving and databases of information, but that’s you know, I never considered being an artist, but my the Drona photography was, I think, curiosity, but also to. Sort of like burgeoning adolescence and kind of like thinking and working through coming out. And so when I talk about my, you know, coming to photography through pop culture, whether it’s LaChapelle or, you know, magazines like The Face Out or whatever it was, that’s what my Dorottya photography was. It was through that kind of like voraciousness of like I was at one point I had a basement full of magazines, like I was a voracious magazine collector of fashion magazines, of gay magazines and things like that. And so that’s what my influence was. And then finding out that there was a world that I could make that a job, you know, I thought, OK, I can be a fashion photographer. Like, I wanted to be a fashion photographer and I wanted to go to New York and I wanted to, like, find my entrance to that world. But when I was in high school, I took a photo class. It was sort of like one of those pre college photo classes at UC Riverside. And I took it because I wanted to learn black and white photography. But also I did not get along with my high school art teacher and I refuse to take a class with him, so I had to take the credit. So we found this class, our neighbor across the street. We lived on this cul de sac and my mom’s doctor lived across the street and her husband was a photographer and he had darkroom equipment. And so he let me use all of this stuff and we set up a dark room in the garage at my mom’s house. And so that is where my foundation for it all kind of came from. And then someone at UC Riverside was said, oh, you could go to New York. NYU has a really great photo program. And that’s what got in my head. I was like, I’m going to New York at 16. I decided I’m going to New York. And I moved there at 17 and I thought I would never, ever leave. But circumstances changed. And I’m back in L.A. and have you been working during this period of quarantine?

S4: I know. For example, I forget is it I forget the name of the gallery where you had the show in the spring and vehle matter matter. And so I know that that was like a big show of of a body of work that you’ve probably been waiting to really send out into the world for some time. Are you working now on something? Are you working on something different or are you continuing your investigation to sort of studio or you just kind of writing out the pandemic as the rest of us or.

S2: Yeah, so that show, which was my first solo show, Velimir Los Angeles, since I’ve been working with them for the past year and a half, or maybe a little over a year and a half, opened on March 14th. And that was the day that the stay at home orders were announced for us for California. So the show kind of felt like in limbo. And I described it to friends as sort of feeling like, you know, I went to a pharaoh or like an Assyrian prince or like someone kind of gets all the stuff together and then it just gets buried and entombed like the show feel like it all came together. I worked on it for years and then it was installed and then everything shut down and it’s still up. I don’t know how long for, but it’s seven months. And it’s it’s there’s this strange, like public, not public, embalmed and tumed exhibition on view things that I would have been working on for this upcoming spring. Twenty twenty one and the fall beyond have all disappeared or been postponed. So it’s a weird moment for working. Ruman, it is notoriously difficult to talk about visual art in anything approaching concrete terms, but I feel like you and Paul were really able to do it and I was very interested in his reserving of the terms, art and artist for explicitly non-commercial noncommissioned work. I feel like I admire this because it really goes against the popular grain where we’re supposed to use those terms or as we do on this show, the term creative in a kind of broad tent way. What did you make of that?

S3: Oh, that’s very generous of you to say. I didn’t worry about fixing Paul’s work in language. The work itself is beautiful and it’s complex, much more complex than I think it seems at first glance. And I wasn’t sure that I had a language for how to explain that. Certainly in a way, you need to see it. And this is a podcast, and that’s just sort of a challenge of this particular form of journalism or inquiry or whatever you whatever you want to call what we’re doing here. But I think my approach was just to talk about what you’re seeing, what you’re looking at. And then, of course, hearing the artist himself describe it is illuminating. And I think it’s very interesting that Paul. Holds on to the term artist for as a way of describing what his endeavor is, and I think it’s important and I think he’s he’s not incorrect. You know, when I asked him about Avidan and Liebovitz specifically, there’s artistry in what Annie Liebovitz does. There’s artistry and what Richard Avedon did. But it’s clear in Paul’s estimation that their approach was to do something journalistic by nature and that Paul’s approach is to do something artistic by nature that Paul is telling the story. It’s not the photograph telling a story. And I think that is an interesting distinction.

S2: Totally. You know, maybe it’s because I’m middle aged now and working on my second book. But I was also struck by a thing that he talked about that I think affects artists across disciplines. There are so many mechanisms to support and promote young and early career artists. There’s a 40 under 40 list and just about every field, including fiction, there’s emerging writers grants. You know, this big debut novels will often get a kind of press attention that that same novelist second work might not. But the mid career can be a hard, barren place when it comes to outside institutional support, even though it often makes up the bulk of an artist’s, you know, actual work. You’re about to publish your third book, which I think makes you mid career, right. Is this something you think about?

S1: I do, of course. I think that, as you say, there’s a lot of institutional support for youth or for novelty. And while it is not uncommon or maybe it is uncommon, I don’t know.

S3: But you do sometimes encounter a very young artist like Paul, who was very young when he was producing those early portraits with something that is very clearly raw talent. And I think in theory, these lists and these grants and these other kinds of opportunities are meant to support that talent, to help foster it and help it mature. But you can’t just walk away from that. The onus is on the individual artist to maintain a sense of discipline and rigor about their own practice and to push themselves to grow. And I think when you look at Paul’s current work, the work that he’s producing now, or the work that was a film at of Los Angeles in an exhibition that was unable to open fully because of covid-19, you see a through line, you see a connection to that early work, but you see somebody who has really pushed themselves forward. And that’s hard to do. And that’s something that you kind of have to do on your own, because, as you say, it’s harder to get on those lists of like forty five writers who are forty five years old. I don’t think anybody really cares when you’re no longer shiny and new.

S2: Right. Granta should do a 50 who are 50.

S1: Yes. You know. Right. That would be my one shot at glory.

S2: And another thing that affects that transition from early to mid career is, of course, money. And I was very happy to hear you both talk quite honestly about it. Paul and Poggi, you had this kind of incredible early career success. And a lot of people assume when you have that early career success, it’s like, all right, you’re set. You just do your thing now. But that success did not actually translate into enough money to live on in New York. He always had day jobs. There were times he had trouble making rent and he even went and got his MFA after he had already made a name for himself in order to be able to support himself with teaching and so on.

S3: Was kind of remarkable to hear Paul speak so frankly about that. I do think there can be a huge gulf between the esteem in which an artist is held and their ability to survive, especially when you’re talking about artists who live in expensive coastal cities. And I didn’t ask Paul kind of brought money up organically. And the reason I didn’t ask is because it’s often sort of uncouth to talk about money. But being on some magazine’s lists of hot artists under 30 doesn’t actually pay the rent.

S2: Right. It’s just like how you can’t buy your meals with Internet exposure. Yeah, Paul has a very different life now. He teaches. He doesn’t live in New York. His income is stable and so forth. Do you feel like that life transition has do you feel like that life transition corresponds with a transition in his work? You’ve said that as his career goes on, his work gets different. What do you see as the change in it and how do you see those things interrelating?

S1: I wonder if the stability has afforded Paul the liberty to continue to investigate what he is drawn to. Right. So the ability to derive an income from teaching or indeed from the sales of his art. It’s probably a stabilizing factor and means that he doesn’t need to be dabbling in the work of a commercial artist, he’s allowed to sort of follow what he wants to follow. And I think when you see the current work, you see an artist who is still exploring queer desire in the current work. It may be less obvious than in the early work. And I don’t mean to use obvious as a sort of negative quality. Right.

S3: But the early portraits show beautiful people and they have a particular kind of erotic charge. Those people are often undressed, right? The photographers in the frame and he himself is often undressed. The new work has this interest in mirrors and in backdrop and the obscuring of the body and the creation of small space within the confines of a larger space of the artist’s studio. And it is also erotic in a way that is very subtle. And I think you hear Paul articulate its relationship to photographic history that helps illuminate exactly what he’s up to.

S2: Right. He definitely seems to be an artist who knows who and what he is. And part of that is also recognizing there are artists like David LaChapelle, whose work he admires and feels influenced by, even if his own work is completely different from that. And he tried to do a kind of LaChapelle style work and it didn’t work. He had to kind of accept the artist that he is. I feel like I’m a very kind of different writer for maybe the writer I would want to be if I had control of the universe. Among other things, I primarily read fiction and I solely write nonfiction, you know, are you the kind of writer that you set out to be? Did that experience of discovering that he’s a different kind of artist speak to you as well?

S1: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it until you framed it that way, but I think that is a very important point to make. I’m not the writer I set out to be in the least. And I think that there are artists who are other people’s gateway drug. Right. They seduce you into art and then you sort of outgrow them or you become interested in something else. And it’s analogous, I think, to the music that you listen to in your adolescence. Right. Like, I still have a deep fondness for the cure and the Smiths and Depeche Mode, but I’m not listening to them now. I know that. I just knew it. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there can be these early acts of seduction by whatever it is, whatever you respond to. For Paul, whether it was David LaChapelle and that sparked his interest in photography or that helped him articulate his own interest in photography. And it wasn’t until he picked up a camera and sort of spent, you know, at this point, almost half of his life toying with that medium that he unlocked who he is as an artist.

S3: We hope you’ve enjoyed this show, if you have, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work that we do here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now at Slate Dotcom working.

S2: Plus, thanks to Paul and Podgy Supriya for being our guest this week. An extra special thanks to our producer extraordinaire, Cameron Drus.

S3: We’ll be back next week for a conversation between iSEC and this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, the playwright, composer and lyricist Michael Jackson.

S5: Until then, get back to work.