Long before Kim Kardashian’s Selfish—before the selfie was technologically feasible, let alone a generation’s preferred form of self-expression—Pamela Singh was taking pictures of herself. Her innovative, curiously intimate efforts at self-portraiture are the subject of “The Treasure Maps of Pamela Singh,” showing at sepia EYE through June 30.
Singh boasts an unconventional CV—born in New Delhi, she was crowned Miss India in 1982. In the UK, she was enmeshed in scandal in the late eighties, when, supposedly, she worked as an escort whose high-profile clients included two newspaper editors and the sports minister; she was married, briefly, to a convicted arms dealer. Again, in these post-Kardashian years, when sex tapes can mint a reputation and Instagram is probably the most interesting medium in art, none of this is surprising, much less damning—but at the time it was too salacious for the public appetite. SHE WAS THE ESCORT GIRL WHOSE AFFAIRS WITH ESTABLISHMENT FIGURES SHOCKED BRITAIN, reads a typically down-the-nose Daily Mail headline from 2010. “Today, Pamella Bordes chats up men on the internet.” Don’t we all?
What Singh needed was a career change. In the nineties, hoping to discard her sordid past—et cetera, et cetera—Singh sought refuge in photography, for which she’d always had an affinity; she took up a career as a photojournalist and was published in newspapers and magazines like the Independent, the Sunday Times, Marie Claire, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Paris Match, and Photo. Along the way it occurred to her to attach a rear-view mirror to her camera—a true selfie stick, in that it was self-made and self-executed. “In this ‘pre-selfie’ world,” as the gallery puts it, “she spent her days wandering through the maze of the city, inserting herself within the daily life of the townspeople.” Now, some twenty years later, she’s applied color to the photographs using oil, acrylic, vermillion, mud, and gold. The results, at their best, are as vibrant as anything in Selfish, and as freighted in their guileless fascination with celebrity, femininity, and scandal-mongering.