A man walks down a New York street lost in thought, hands in pockets, hair swept back casually. He is just one of the many anonymous subjects of Sunil Gupta’s early street photography, shot during his first (and only) year living in New York in 1976. Born in New Delhi during the 1950s, Gupta emigrated with his family to Montreal before making the move alone to New York to study photography.
Born in 1953, Gupta has long been outspoken on gay rights, using his camera to document protests and actively speaking up for the queer community, whether back in his home country of India or in his adopted home of London, where he has lived for over 30 years. His portraiture (both spontaneous and staged) often focuses on the quieter sides of gay life, from the everyday domestic life of same-sex couples to moments of contemplative calm out on the street.
“I spent my weekends cruising with my camera. We were young and busy creating a gay public space”
In Christopher Street, Gupta’s 1976 series shot in New York’s prominent gay district, he used his camera as a way of forming connections with strangers like himself. “I spent my weekends cruising with my camera,” Gupta recalls. “It was the heady days after Stonewall and before AIDS when we were young and busy creating a gay public space such as hadn’t really been seen before.”
The resulting 60 images are deeply personal documents of the men that Gupta met during this period, some of whom he formed relationships with, sexual or otherwise (however fleeting those might have been). They also serve as a historic and political snapshot of a place and time that no longer exists, as part of Gupta’s ongoing interest in how these factors shape identity.
“They smile for the camera or look knowingly into the distance, safe in the likeminded, supportive community that surrounds them”
The men photographed in Christopher Street appear to be at ease, with sartorial flair and relaxed poses. They smile for the camera or look knowingly into the distance, safe in the knowledge of the likeminded, supportive community that surrounds them. These confident smiles can be read as defiant precisely because they are a subtle reminder of what has been fought and won. There would be more battles to come, but during this moment of tranquility they pause for pleasure in the sun-dappled streets of New York.
Louise Benson is Elephant’s deputy editor
From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta, A Retrospective is at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto until 6 August 2022