A heightened sense of vulnerability and awkwardness

Fine art photographer, Matthew Papa recently completed a MFA – Johann caught up with him and found out a little about the experience…

Johann D’Nale:Why did you undertake the MFA in the first place – what were your aims and expectations?

Self-Portrait with Jerome, 2015 36” x 45" Archival pigment print © Matthew Papa
Self-Portrait with Jerome, 2015
36” x 45″
Archival pigment print © Matthew Papa

Matthew Papa: In the early 2000s I went back to school for design at Parsons. While in the program, we were encouraged to use our own photographs for our assignments. When I was younger I had been a very keen photographer but as I got older it somehow got pushed to the periphery. So this foray into design rekindled my love of photography. I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do but I was in the middle of a design program and it wasn’t practical at the time to try to make the switch. Since 2003 I have been working as a designer but all the while pursuing this goal of transitioning to photography.

I decided to do the MFA for a number of reasons. I think the major one was being able to concertedly focus on my practice and develop it. Also, I was seeking a community of equally committed people because as an artist your relationships are one of the most important things you can have. The program at ICP-Bard is very intense with a focus on critical theory and experimentation. It was good for me because I didn’t have a formal art history background, although I did study philosophy as an undergraduate. When I started the program, I was really open to being challenged and trying new things.

How has the experience informed or enhanced your practice?

The experience definitely informed and enhanced my practice. For one, we were encouraged to experiment with new forms and challenge the notions we had around ourselves as artists. I worked with video for the first time, as well as appropriation and employing archival images from my younger shooting days. Also, the study of critical theory about contemporary art, in particular ideas around conceptualism, helped me refine what I was interested in and how I wanted my work to function.

Untitled, 2016 30” in diameter Archival pigment print © Matthew Papa
Untitled, 2016
30” in diameter
Archival pigment print
© Matthew Papa

How did  ‘Song to the Siren’ go? What were the reactions of those who attended?

My solo thesis show went really well. It was great to see my work printed at the scale I imagined, as well as seeing the pieces finished, mounted and framed. There were a lot of people at the opening, including many of my models. That was really gratifying to have them come out to support me. I think people found the work both beautiful and challenging. The nude male is still shocking or alien to many people but I think it is important for these representations to be in the world. Unfortunately the show was only up for three days after which another student takes over the space for his or her thesis. It was a huge amount of work for such a short time.

We Are Obscured looks at gay and queer identities – can you explain a little about how your work touches on this?

My work specifically looks at the middle-aged gay male experience. My generation experienced our sexuality primarily through the specter of AIDS. Many of the men in the generation above me were lost to the disease. In doing the work, I realized that younger men have a completely different experience of their sexuality since AIDS was perceived largely as a manageable disease for them, and now with PReP, preventable. In the work, I’m exploring relationships between men and how we navigate intimacy. Often I am working with strangers so there is a heightened sense of vulnerability and awkwardness that can heighten a connection.

Untitled, 2015 25” x 20" Archival pigment print © Matthew Papa
Untitled, 2015
25” x 20″
Archival pigment print © Matthew Papa

Finally – where now for you? What plans do you have for the future?

Just this week I submitted my thesis book for printing. We are all required to write and design our own books that live in perpetuity at ICP. It feels like a significant accomplishment and required an intense amount of focus. I have a few more weeks of classes but my immediate plan is to try to unwind a bit so I can process this two year experience. I had considered applying for some residencies but ultimately decided to delay that for now. I’ve heard from people that it is important to give yourself some space the first year out and I feel like I can understand the importance of that. Doing the MFA has been incredibly intense and rewarding but I feel like I need some time to digest it.

My immediate goals are to find a studio space outside of my apartment, perhaps sharing with one of my classmates. The community of artists in New York is rich and deep and I plan to cultivate my role in it. I also would like to teach so will start looking for adjunct positions as well as proposing classes at ICP. I will continue to design but plan to turn that practice towards artists books and helping other photographers realize their own book projects. I knew being a working artist wasn’t an easy path. There are no guarantees and most artists struggle. I will seize on the momentum of finishing this significant body of work by trying to get it seen. One particularly exciting thing this summer is a group show with my classmates at the Camera Club of New York curated by Charlotte Cotton.

Thanks for taking the time to share these insights – and your work, Matthew.

For more, see Matthew’s website, tumblr, instagram or twitter.

All images © Matthew Papa, 2016.