Five Contemporary Photographers Interrogating Identity

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Denim Dress, 2014Sam Contis, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Thomas and Susan Dunn © 2018 Sam Contis

A forward-thinking new exhibition at New York’s MoMA spotlights the contemporary image-makers paving the way for a new generation

Being: New Photography 2018, the Museum of Modern Art’s latest exhibition of contemporary photography, explores the concepts of identity and personhood in photo-based art. The exhibit considers how these ideas intersect and diverge, as well as their relativity to larger questions of modern existence and human experience. “While personhood is something that we all share, also inherent in these representations is the recognition of difference, which is especially urgent in our current moment when rights of representation are contested for many individuals,” says Lucy Gallun, MoMA’s assistant curator of photography, and the curator behind the show. “Universality in humanity does not mean sameness.” 

Through a diverse collection of works, Being questions the traditions of photography, the relationship between the body and the self, the photographic perspective and its subjective influence, and the dialectics between privacy, presentation, intimacy and exposure. Five artists in Being offer particularly veritable responses to how identity is defined in the present day – as we explore here. 

1. Sam Contis

Sam Contis’ series Deep Springs speaks to the idea of community and the social self. Contis spent lengthy visits at a traditionally all-male liberal arts college in the high desert of California, a remote backdrop that contrasts starkly with the group mode of collegiate life. “Contis’ subjects are pictured at a moment in their lives – the early college years – that has been typically understood as a time of coming into one’s adult self,” said Gallun.  “In this case, such identity-formation is impacted by group social dynamics as well as connection to the characteristic western landscape.”

2. Andrzej Steinbach

Andrzej Steinbach’s series Gesellschaft beginnt mit drei follows the traditional, base format of a group portrait. The group is composed of three figures in every picture, but each holds an unexpected twist: only one figure is shown as whole, while the others are partially cropped out of the frame. Through the series, the figures trade positions and attire, upending our expectations and preconceptions of image representation. “In this way, by slipping between various characters and readings, Steinbach’s figures reject strict interpretations, and remind us that individuals are mutable and inconsistent, including in their relationships to others,” says Gallun.

3. Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya's images often substitute masks, parts and space to fragment both the literal and figurative body. Layers and collage effects unsettle what the eye anticipates, viewers’ fixed beliefs, the historical canon of portraiture and the social context more broadly. “There is a confusion of positions – Where is the camera? The model? – which forces viewers to confront our own perspectives,” says Gallun. 

4. Sofia Borges

Sofia Borges’ work is set in established, familiar environments: museums, zoos, aquariums, archives, among other institutions. Her perspective on the venues touches upon a sense of artifice and contrivance in how our understandings are formed. “The masks and sculpted figures in Borges’ pictures must stand in for entire epochs and peoples that came before, and prompt us as viewers to consider how we understand our present reality,” says Gallun. “How do we comprehend our current condition through the lenses and languages of representation?”

5. Shilpa Gupta

Shilpa Gupta’s work looks at people who have changed their surnames for a variety of reasons – an important revision, as the surname is considered a foremost aspect of identity and the self. “Notably, the imagery Gupta uses to represent these individuals is not necessarily figurative – like the names themselves, there are multiple kinds of signs for a person,” says Gallun.  

Being: New Photography 2018 is on view at the Museum of Modern Art from March 18 until August 19, 2018.