Matthew Papa: Song to the Siren

Matthew Papa (b. 1967 Detroit) is a New York-based artist working primarily in photography. Desire and the body are often subjects in his work, as he’s interested in our conflicted ideas around them. I would like to recommend Song to the Siren, Papa’s first solo show, that will be opening March 10th at the ICP-Bard MFA studios.

Today, I present a preview of his show, alongside some of the photographer’s insights into his practice. I share some excerpts from a conversation we had a couple of weeks ago, when we talked about his relationship with photography, his subjects, nudity, and his experience preparing the show:


Matthew Papa, Untitled, 2014

MP: “I pursued philosophy at a time when I was looking for new ways of understanding myself and my world. I am following a similar path with photography, but this time at the cusp of middle age.

My interest in photography is not to document reality; I’m more interested in its ability to transform experience and reveal potential. There are many things in life that masquerade as the truth but I feel photography is a perfect tool to uncloak them. For example, to look at most cultural forms, life after thirty seems like a steep decline into de-eroticized oblivion. I know from my own experience that this is not true. I want to put pictures into the world that make us question what’s possible…”

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Matthew Papa, Untitled, 2014

“I am drawn to people that are often overlooked. I’m not like Diane Arbus looking for subjects whose difference is so pronounced that people consider them freakish. And I’m not like Herb Ritts or someone like that who is only interested in people who are super beautiful. I really hate fashion photography because it perpetuates an elitist idea of beauty that is often circumscribed by youth. I believe if you look at most faces long enough, you will discover something beautiful about them”.

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Matthew Papa, John, 2015

“My relationship with my subjects is highly varied and depends on how we came to meet. There are a few gay websites or apps that I have profiles on. Because of the inherent sexual undertone, there is often flirting going on before we even meet. I also have met a lot of people through my tumblr.

I get messages from guys saying they love my work and want me to photograph them. I’ve also had former models send people my way—one of whom has become a very good friend that I’ve photographed multiple times”.

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Matthew Papa, David, 2015

“I don’t shoot people nude for shock value. There is nothing more natural to me than the human body. The variability in forms is infinitely interesting; every body is different… And everybody inhabits their body differently which is something I like discovering.

The other thing that nudity does is strip away the particularity of style. Clothing has so much power to convey meaning and image. I am more interested in seeing someone’s persona revealed through their gestures, how they land in their body and how they gaze back at me. There is an inherent power in being the photographer but I go out of my way to subvert that a bit. I never put on airs of being totally in control of the situation or undermine someone else’s sense of agency”.

Song to the siren postcard 5x7 FINAL

Matthew Papa, Stephen, 2016

“Another thing that I implied earlier when I talked about the body being infinitely interesting is the visceral, visual pleasure it gives me. This is wrapped up deeply in my own desire and I have discovered that through photographing people, I always seem to expand my notions around it. This feels very exciting and gratifying to me. I like to feel that I am transformed in the making of the work and I want to put out images/ideas in the world that broaden how we understand ourselves”.

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Matthew Papa, No Matter What Ya Calls Me-I Am What I Am An’ Tha’s ALL I YAM!, 2015

“I have to say putting together the solo show has been incredibly rewarding. I’m at an age that I know myself pretty well and have accumulated experiences that have prepared me for organizing a significant thing like this. I didn’t want the experience to be framed by stress, so throughout the process, I’ve tried to start thinking about things with ample time to feel comfortable in my decision making. I have never done anything like this before—this is the first time I am showing my work in this way.

At some point you have to make decisions and just believe in yourself. I really feel the second year of the MFA is about solidifying your own ideas about what kind of an artist you are. I’m really excited to show people what I’ve been up to.”

Song to the siren postcard 5x7 FINAL2-2

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