Paul Mpagi Sepuya - Photographs New York Wednesday, October 11, 2023 | Phillips

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  • “I’m interested in Blackness, and thinking about it materially and visually for what it produces in images, and how it’s inseparable from the production of photographs. I want to force conversations on the formation of queer spaces, homoerotic activity and mutual envisioning, objectification, etc., tied to the fundamental, indefinable space for desire for seeing that photography comes from.”
    —Paul Mpage Sepuya

    In his Darkroom Mirror series (2017), Paul Mpagi Sepuya engages with the performative nature of the photographic studio as related to Black queer social spaces. With his camera and tripod positioned in front of a mirror, he depicts himself, and oftentimes a collaborator - either a friend, lover, or peer - in the act of making an image. As evidenced here, the mirror reveals the equipment of the studio alongside fingerprints, smears, smudges, and imprints of bodies left on its surface. Since these indexical traces can be only seen through blackness, their production necessitates that a dark cloth be utilized as the backdrop. These surface marks, depicted in tandem with bodily forms, imbue the images with a profound sense of intimacy and tactility that are an integral aspect of Sepuya’s process.


    The remarkable group of photographs comprising Lots 161 through 200 in this auction come from the collection of Fred and Laura Bidwell, collectors, philanthropists, and founders of the Transformer Station, the renowned exhibition space for contemporary photography and art in the Hingetown neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. The Bidwells’ collection presents a truly enlightened selection of work, ranging from classic practitioners such as Lee Friedlander and Stephen Shore to photographers working at the very cutting edge of today’s artistic practice, such as Kehinde Wiley, Zanele Muholi, and Hank Willis Thomas, among many others. Themes of identity and self-representation course through these works. An inquiry into the intrinsic nature of photography is another through-line, with artists as conceptually diverse as Alison Rossiter, Matthew Brandt, and Christopher Williams pushing the boundaries of the medium to deepen our understanding of it. Central to the collection is Hiroshi Sugimoto’s masterful Lightning Fields 128 (lot 169), which is emblematic of the creative spark underlying Bidwells’ progressive conception of photography.


    Driven by a passion for photography and a desire to make their collection accessible to the public, the Bidwells renovated a former Cleveland Railway Company transformer substation into a state-of-the-art exhibition venue. Boasting 3,500 square feet of exhibition space, the Transformer Station became a vital part of the city’s artistic community, hosting exhibitions drawn from the Bidwells’ collection, exhibitions curated by the Cleveland Museum of Art, as well as performances and talks. Earlier this year, the Bidwells gifted Transformer Station to the Cleveland Museum of Art which will continue to use this unique space. 


    Proceeds from the sale of these works will support the Bidwells’ active philanthropic endeavors. 




    Read More about High Voltage →


    • Provenance

      Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York

    • Exhibited

      I Sing the Body, Transformer Station, Cleveland, 5 July - 6 October 2019

    • Artist Biography

      Paul Mpagi Sepuya

      American • 1982

      Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s distinct photographs are not portraits in the conventional sense. The viewer may catch a glimpse of an arm, torso, or hand, but rarely the sitter’s entire body. Deliberately employing fragmentation and manipulating perspective by using mirrors, drapery and collage, Sepuya has become known for photographs that explore the construction of queer and photographed bodies. This photographic investigation of identity and what it means to be represented is at the core of Sepuya’s artistic project, and has garnered him widespread attention since his graduation with a MFA from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2016, as evidenced most recently in his inclusion Being: New Photography 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in March - August 2018.

      Investigating the studio as a social environment, Sepuya stages friends, partners, muses and lovers as the subjects of his photographs. The deliberate fragmentation of bodies in Sepuya’s photographs is meant to provoke a feeling of desire within the viewer, a longing to see what is concealed. Sepuya’s work features photographic equipment and studio space as a way to examine how identity and individuality – of both the image-maker and the subject – are made manifest in the construction of an image.  

      Sepuya’s photographs are groundbreaking in their simultaneous investigation of racial and sexual identities in reference with the history of photography itself; the stating of props are a sly nod to those found in photography studios from the early 19th century to modern times, drawing our attention to the artifice and constructed image inherent to the photographic process. “(The elements) are tied to a point in time starting in the 1920s and ’30s with (the emergence of) a more self-acknowledged gaze in photography,” Sepuya said. “You put a drapery and a column and mirror, and it’s art instead of a naked person.”

      View More Works

High Voltage: Contemporary Photographs from the Collection of Fred and Laura Bidwell


Darkroom Mirror Study (0X5A2203)

Archival pigment print.
50 3/8 x 33 1/2 in. (128 x 85.1 cm)
Overall 51 7/8 x 34 7/8 in. (131.8 x 88.6 cm)

Signed in ink, printed title, date, and number AP 1/2 on a gallery label affixed to the reverse of the flush-mount.

Full Cataloguing

$7,000 - 9,000 

Sold for $6,350

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs


Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Chairwoman, Americas


New York Auction 11 October 2023