Sunil Gupta collects his store of London’s street passers-by in the 1980s in a brand-new book

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Roaming main London, the Indian photographer creates spontaneous portraits of the curious characters that populated the city when he first moved there

When the Indian photographer Sunil Gupta found its way to London in the early 1980s to study at the Royal University of Art, he strike the streets with his digital camera in search of connections with the city’s gay community. “I wished to continue my earlier collection, Christopher Street , which I shot in New York, as I’d had a disruptive break of relocating to London and then in order to Surrey, and then back to Greater london again, ” he remembers. A series of black-and-white street pictures shot on the same road, Christopher Street was made in 1976, post-Stonewall riots and pre-Aids epidemic. Gupta and his contemporaries were busy, “creating a gay public space for example hadn’t really been observed before, ” he says.

© Sunil Gupta.

In the 1980s, there was no area in England’s capital which could compare to Christopher Street, but there was a similar scene in west London, where Gupta lived. It was less concentrated though, and the designer soon realised that a new project focusing so specificallly on gay life may not be possible in the same way. Rather, his locations and his topics began to emerge from their daily explorations. Walking in between Hammersmith and Fulham, travelling to South Kensington plus Oxford Circus, he started to choose subjects for his pictures from the passing characters. “I photographed whoever caught the eye then; gay men, people of colour, the elderly, and the odd mixture of people on the King’s Road, ” he says.

© Sunil Gupta.

Gupta has recently returned to the pictures he shot back then, collecting them in a brand new photobook, titled London ’82 and published with Stanley/Barker. He rediscovered them while digitising his past function, he says. “I had been encoding my negative archive off and on since 2003, but simply by 2017 I was able to provide everything into one studio space and have former students assist bring the scanning to a summary, ” he explains. “These were just low-res scans to see what was on display screen, but this series of pictures stood out. Initially We made 100 postcard-size prints. Then I spread them on the biggest table I had and did the editing that way. ”

He slowly showed the pictures to people, and it was his past tutor, Anne Williams, who have suggested they would make an interesting book. At the time, he had been working on publishing Christopher Street , so it felt like a natural progression.  

© Sunil Gupta.

“I think it’s a bridging moment for my practice, which was coming from a very US-centric, Euro-modernist place where documented and the street were getting foregrounded. My photo schooling in England made me issue a lot of those values, so in a sense I was critiquing within the classroom what I was involving in the streets. ”

Greater london ’82 is an odyssey through the capital’s streets and returning, seen through Gupta’s eyes at a specific and conformative moment in his personal history. The images detail fur coats and fabulous outfits, bus queues and markets, graffiti and glances straight into the lens. There are pictures of teens and seniors, families and clusters of friends. They show all ages, all walks of life; the whole spectrum of a resided experience that made up the city’s community at that time. The colourful catalogue of movement and conversations is uncovered too, and each image informs an individual story. One of Gupta’s favourite pictures from the collection reflects this point. In it, an elderly man walks recent a high-end designer store. “

I like the warmth from the shop interior against the coldness of the light outside with this one, ” he says. “The man appears to be ashen-faced; an attribute that drew me for this frame. He’s a kind of caricature capitalist out and about probably asking yourself ‘how to spend it’ [according to the FT ]. But in his colourlessness he looks like he’s had his life sucked from him. It’s in conundrum to the wealth on display within London’s West End. ”

© Sunil Gupta.

The images in London ’82 are, in some ways, a continuation of Christopher Street – they share exactly the same spontaneity and curiosity just for passers-by, for instance. But they also mark a new way of looking at Gupta’s artistic development. “I think it’s a bridging moment for my practice, which was coming from a very US-centric, Euro-modernist place where documentary and the street were getting foregrounded, ” he says. “My photo education in England produced me question a lot of those values, so in a sense I was critiquing in the classroom the things i was practising in the roads. After this, I mainly shot people I either knew or had permission from. But going out into the road has been ingrained in me and it’s something I actually find I easily return to, especially in a new place or look harder at my everyday surroundings. ” Three decades later, this impulse can still be observed in the projects he is helping to make now. One example, he says, is definitely his latest series, Walworth Road – a visible study of his interpersonal surroundings during Covid times.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. This wounderful woman has written on photography plus culture for over 40 world magazines and journals, and held positions as manager for organisations including The Photographers’ Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam plus Self Publish, Be Joyful. She recently completed an MA in comparative novels and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London

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