Sean Fader Interviewed by Ksenia M. Soboleva
The digital image as a tool for exploring queer histories.
Jun 12, 2023
Sean Fader, Lillies, 2023, archival inkjet print, custom gold lead frame, digital video, 40 × 30 inches. Courtesy of Sean Fader and Denny Gallery.
When Sean Fader and I happened to be on the same Zoom call in the summer of 2022, we quickly decided that the virtual encounter had to be followed by an in-person one. As we were both teaching at New York University, we agreed to meet in front of Bobst Library and walk over to Julius, the oldest gay bar in New York City. We had barely set two steps when it started pouring rain, and as Fader cheerfully picked up his pace without a hint of annoyance, I knew we would be fast friends. What’s a little rain when martinis and glitter in a historically queer space are on the horizon?
As I became more familiarized with Fader’s work, it occurred to me that Julius offered a compelling analogy to his artistic practice; in both cases, the camp appearance on the surface is steeped in a multilayered queer history. For many years now, Fader has utilized photography to navigate a tension between the historical and the contemporary. Working with the digital image, Fader’s photographs engage with an aesthetics of abundance to comment on queer identity, past and present. For his second solo exhibition at Denny Gallery, Fader takes on the role of sugar daddy to explore not only the queer attachment to the term but also its colonialist history.
—Ksenia M. Soboleva
Ksenia M. Soboleva
Your Sugar Daddy (2021–23) project cleverly weaves together the history and etymology of the sugar daddy with the personal life of Danielle Steel. How did you discover the connection between these two?
When I was living in New Orleans, I was invited to become a member of Antenna Gallery, an artist collective and gallery. We were selected to be a satellite exhibition for Prospect.5, New Orleans’s big triennial. The collective decided the theme of the group show would be sugar. During the pandemic, I had developed a belly and my beard had grown out quite a bit. The boys in the local bars started calling me “daddy.” So the moment we decided the theme would be sugar, I knew I wanted to focus on the sugar daddy. I had no idea that I would end up researching the history of San Francisco and Steel’s life. A quick internet search on the etymology of sugar daddy led me directly to Alma de Breteville Spreckels, and I am obsessed with her.
Alma grew up dirt poor in San Francisco but ended up marrying Adolf Spreckels, heir to the Spreckels Sugar Company fortune. Alma began to call him her “sugar daddy” because his money came from sugar, and he was the same age as her father. The phrase is as literal as it gets! In 1912, they built Alma’s dream house at 1080 Washington Avenue at the crest of a hill in Pacific Heights. Steel purchased Alma’s fifteen-thousand-square-foot home in 1990. I thought to myself: Steel bought the house of Alma and her sugar daddy! Then I started reading about Steel, and I got obsessed all over again with another fabulous woman!
The show focuses on these two amazing characters and where their lives overlap; and, of course, I use my obsession and my own body as a foil to tease out some of these stories, including my unfounded theory that this world of excess in a historically queer, Gold Rush city—San Francisco—influenced the history of leather daddy culture.
Sean Fader, Daddy, 2023, archival inkjet print, custom gold lead frame, digital video, 20 × 15 inches. Courtesy of Sean Fader and Denny Gallery.
How do you grapple with or navigate the violent colonial history that the term sugar daddy is rooted in?
Well, I think what you are really getting at is the history of sugar and its fundamental connection to wealth, capitalism, and colonialism. It is impossible to understate sugar’s historic and continuing geopolitical influence on the planet even today. In some way, I sidestepped that history when I decided my piece for Antenna’s sugar show would focus on sugar daddies. As a white male transplant to New Orleans, I felt that I was the wrong person to talk about sugar’s violent history on the people of New Orleans and the land; in the context of the Antenna exhibition, many of the artists in the show made work explicitly addressing the racial and ecological violence embedded in the production of sugar. However, pretty soon after starting this work, I realized that I was walking right into the history of sugar and gold wealth in San Francisco, which has its own distinct colonial legacy.
Spreckels Sugar, Alma’s sugar daddy’s company, was founded on colonial exploitation of Hawaiian land and extractivist economies dependent on migrant labor. It goes to show that it is impossible for anyone who participates in the art market to actually distance oneself from the violent histories of colonialism and capitalism. Wealth and power are baked into its DNA.
Sean Fader, Spreckels Sugar, 2023, archival inkjet print, custom gold lead frame, digital video, 20 × 15 inches. Courtesy of Sean Fader and Denny Gallery.
There is a familiar yet distinct camp aesthetic to your photographs and installations. With the spiked interest mainstream culture has expressed in camp aesthetics over the last few years—think Met Gala, for example—how do we keep camp queer?
Recently, I was speaking to a queer studies class at NYU about my work. The professor was talking about queerness being inherently about a rejection of normalcy and even celebrating being an outsider. One of the students pointed out that their experience was quite the opposite. For their generation, growing up in a liberal community, it was deeply uncool to come out as straight. I’m not going to lie; it made me a little sad. I had worked so hard to turn the pointing fingers and name-calling of my youth into a badge of honor. I am not upset that some young queer people aren’t growing up tortured by the world around them, but what saddens me is that there are some people who are claiming queerness because it’s trendy. “Pinkwashing”—this idea of selling queerness and marketing it—demonstrates how capitalism weaponizes marginal identities when there is money to be made. I also have to remind myself that queerness and camp are fluid and ever-changing. Camp is about a secret language that the queers speak, a secret humor that only we get. Yes, some of it pops into straight, hetero mainstream; but we will always find ways to hide in plain sight, flagging and recognizing ourselves in small ways just outside the mainstream. How about us queers learn and update Polari; let’s start a new hanky code based on John Waters movies and Lisa Frank’s school supplies!
Sean Fader, Sugar Daddy I, 2021, archival inkjet print, custom gold lead frame, digital video, 44 × 78 inches. Courtesy of Sean Fader and Denny Gallery.
Social media is another subject of inquiry in your practice. What are the benefits and the challenges of engaging with social media as part of your work?
I always think about social media as a tool and a weapon. Ultimately, I’m still optimistic about it. When people talk to me about how evil social media is and how much damage it is doing to people, I often notice that they are part of prevailing cultural norms. For queer people, social media is often one of the first places where we can find people to flirt with and those who celebrate our bodies and way of life. I think social media is a part of the rich history of queer communications: the smell of lavender, green carnations, Polari, hanky code, nail flagging, now Grindr, Tinder, and Instagram. It’s a way to feel seen in a cis het norm sea.
My undergraduate degree is a BFA in musical theater, so my practice is very influenced by years of obsessing about how my actions are being read by others. Because of that, I think about the photographic event as the site of performance and how we queers are using photography to see and be seen, destroy normative ideas of bodies, and celebrate and support our community in digital public spaces. Photography is going from being controlled by the few to the many. It’s time for us to be seen and to shape our own visual narratives.
Much of your practice explores the role of the digital image. What are the ways in which this role has changed over time, and what does this mean for analog photography?
I grew up with a darkroom in my basement because my mother was a photo hobbyist. I loved that space, and I loved the magic of the darkroom. There will always be a place for analog photography. I think what most fascinates me about the digital image, which is in stark opposition to analog, is that digital photography is in the hands of the masses, and there are digital public spaces like Instagram for everyone to see and be seen in. We live in a world where 3.2 billion images are shared online every day by millions of people! As a result, digital images are fluid. They are traded as currency: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. They morph into memes, and those memes morph into sub-memes and raise families of memes. They represent us, or who we believe we are, or who we want people to believe we are. They reflect us, often when we don’t want to see ourselves. They show us all the possibilities of the people we can be and the ways we can live our lives. That sounds pretty queer to me!
Sean Fader: Sugar Daddy: Dear Danielle is on view at Denny Gallery in New York City until June 24.
Ksenia M. Soboleva is a New York–based writer and art historian specializing in queer art and culture. She holds a PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU.