Sunil Gupta on 45 years of making pictures

As a new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London brings together over four decades of his work, we speak to photographer Sunil Gupta about how his work straddles the world of activism, documentary and art

“I went to the movies, so that was my big outlet growing up in India. You know, Bollywood with the big, colourful, all-singing, all-dancing blockbusters. I think that was my visual reference,” photographer Sunil Gupta tells CR. “There was a camera in the family, and I think with cinema, even though I couldn’t make cinema, I saw there was something equivalent to looking through a camera lens and got interested in making still photographs as a kind of poor man’s substitute for movies. That’s how I got going.” 

Gupta has been creating images for nearly 50 years and a new show at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, From Here to Eternity, brings together 16 separate series in the first UK retrospective of his work. “The process has been very enjoyable. It’s been several years in the making, actually. So we had a lot of time to decide exactly what pieces from which series would finally end up in it,” says Gupta. “It was interesting to work so closely with a curator because they always bring their own point of view and knowledge to this process. I’m somebody who quite welcomes it, I don’t feel very possessive. It’s not got to all be up to me, I feel like I’m more responsible for the creation of the source material, and then every iteration and exhibition is always different from the next.” 

Top: Untitled #13, 2008, from the series The New Pre-Raphaelites. Above: Untitled #22, 1976, from the series Christopher Street. All images courtesy the artist and Hales Gallery, Stephen Bulger Gallery and Vadehra Art Gallery, © Sunil Gupta

The source material Gupta speaks of is vast and varied, and is both an insight into the photographer’s life and an archive on important moments in the history of gay rights. His first real taste of photography was when he arrived in Montreal, Canada at Concordia University in 1970, just after the Stonewall riots in New York. Gupta fully immersed himself in university life and it was the first time he could openly embrace his sexuality. “I joined the first emerging Gay Liberation Movement groups on campus. We did lots of things, one of which was to run a newspaper, like a little tabloid and it needed pictures. So I volunteered to be the person who produced the pictures, it was great,” he remembers. “I had instant subject matter, the newsletter was full of items about where you could go out, demonstrations that were happening, and sometimes it had real news. I suddenly had an audience because then they would print [my pictures] and people saw them, and I had my name in the newspaper with a photo credit, that was very exciting.”