They say every picture tells a story, but Sunil Gupta, the revered gay Indian-Canadian photographer, decided to change the game when he did not see his life reflected in visual media growing up.
Born in New Delhi in 1953, Gupta arrived in Montreal with his family in 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots. He originally studied to become an accountant, graduating from Concordia University in 1977, but opened many eyes — including his own — when he switched gears to become one of India’s best-known photographers.
Gupta embraced gay life in the heady days of 1970s gay liberation, moving to New York City in 1976 where he studied photography at the Parsons School of Design, then to London, United Kingdom, where he earned a master in photography at the Royal College of Art.
Gupta set out to break barriers with his socially-engaged work — his photographs can be found in collections around the world, including at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Tate in London, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and the National Gallery of Canada.
One of Gupta’s best-loved photo series is “Friends and Lovers – Coming Out in Montréal in the ‘70s” from when he took photographs for the fledgling bilingual monthly newspaper Gay-Zette: Voice of Gay Montréal Association = Voix de l’Association homophile de Montréal. Gupta’s photographs document the aftermath of the Aquarius Sauna fire in 1975, the façades of bars, early gay liberation marches, and other significant moments. This series was exhibited at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto in 2018 and can still be seen on Gupta’s official website.
After its acclaimed debut at The Photographers’ Gallery in London in 2020, Gupta’s landmark career retrospective “From Here to Eternity. Sunil Gupta, A Retrospective” opens next at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto in 2022 (the retrospective was coorganized by The Photographers’ Gallery and the RIC). The exhibition’s accompanying book, Sunil Gupta: From Here To Eternity (Autograph), was a cowinner of the 2021 Photography Book Award presented by the prestigious Kraszna-Krausz Book Awards in the United Kingdom. Sunil and I sat down for a candid Q&A when “From Here to Eternity” debuted in the U.K.
What was it like being a queer teen in Montreal just after Stonewall?
The main issue back then was coming out — and you started with your parents. So that’s what I did. I was 16 or 17, I was very young and very confident. I came home one day and announced it to them. We never really discussed it again but when I studied at Concordia’s Sir George Williams Campus, I shared a flat with my sister on Stanley Street and lived a very out existence in what used to be the Gay Village downtown. My apartment was popular with my gay friends because it was so central and my parents never made a fuss about it.
How did you deal with racism in a predominantly white queer community?
It was very ethnically divided and full of European ethnicities. The groups were quite rigid. I didn’t have a group; it was just me. But I had embraced a very gay identity from the word go. It was much more useful to me at 17 to be gay than to be Indian.
You worked at the Aquarius bathhouse on Crescent Street before it burned down in 1975. Three people died in that fire.
I took pictures of the Aquarius for the Gay-Zette newspaper, which started as a McGill campus group made up mostly of undergraduates, then became bigger, spilling out into the city.
The Aquarius consisted of standard corridor spaces where you could circulate, and had rooms which were used for sex. You would deposit your clothes in a locker, they provided towels and little packets of lube, and you would wander around in your towel.
My job was to go around and provide the lube and the [tissue] paper. It was tragic that the fire happened when people were in the bathhouse. They [owners Lorne Haliday and André Laflamme] also had a bar on Drummond Street called the Taureau d’Or, where I also worked in the early part of the evening. Then when it shut I would work in the bathhouse.
You documented this era in your “Friends and Lovers – Coming Out in Montréal in the ’70s” solo exhibition at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto in 2018. How important is it for you to document queer life?
In the mid-80s I became very conscious that there were hardly any gay men of colour in visual media. They were not in art history. They weren’t in the academic world. They certainly were not in the photo world. There were almost never any gay men of colour appearing in centrefolds. This motivated me to portray queer people of colour in my work.
I also thought for years that my migration experience was about departure from India. I left a very complex, interesting place and arrived somewhere completely unknown. That’s what I’ve always been trying to excavate. What I’ve come to appreciate more recently is that my journey is really more about an arrival, more about landing in Canada where I found a new identity. That’s what’s really been my driving factor, what’s driven all my work and made me who I am.
Is photography still important?
In this era of fake news, documenting our lives is more important than ever. I never get tired of a good photo of an arresting moment. You can hang it on a wall and look at it again and again. That’s why I think people still love my “Christopher Street” and “Friends and Lovers: Coming Out in Montreal in the 1970s” series.
How did your time at Concordia and in Montreal help shape you?
It was a positive experience that set a pattern that continues and is still relevant to my life: being a freelancer. I never had the luxury or the complacency of just going to school and not worrying about money. During school I either worked or studied part-time. But I have very good memories of Montreal.
The upcoming exhibition “From Here to Eternity. Sunil Gupta, A Retrospective” will open at the Ryerson Image Centre in Winter 2022 (from January to April 2022, according to Gupta’s official website). Check the RIC website for the most current information on exhibition dates and COVID-19 guidelines. Visit ryersonimagecentre.ca.
INFOS | Visit Sunil Gupta’s official website at sunilgupta.net