What excites you about photography?

Photography “training” makes me learn to see the world and look at familiar subjects differently,  and assign them with new meanings rather than just passively observe. That says photography has a dual nature as an objective record and personal testimony. For example, when I walk in the street, I may search for those “cropped” scenes as if I were looking through the viewfinder. I subconsciously snapshot the moment that would otherwise elude the eye.  To me, photography is like using objective images to express intangible thoughts.  I think Elliott Erwitt made this very clear when he said, "It's about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It's simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them." To me, photographs bring people to a space-time people have not yet observed or even cannot imagine, but they actually happened. This is the power of photography that which grounds its credibility and allows us to trust the image we saw with confidence. You may be surprised to know that the best photographic scenes I could imagine capturing were when I did not bring a camera with me. But that’s OK!  The camera is simply a device or a tool, that teaches me how to see the world through the lens without a camera. In that sense, I did not have any regret.

Those photographs in “Inner Harbor”, "Cloud Gate", and several others in “Reflection and Reality” may look like paintings and those pictures appear to blur the apparently sharp border that defines photography and painting or drawing. So what’s your thought about this?

I think I should clarify this first as people frequently asked the same question- were those photos manipulated digitally? My short answer is that these photos are modified only by the methods frequently used in a conventional dark room such as cropping, adjusting contrast, brightness and tonal quality.  Those “abstract” or distorted images as you mentioned are created by either reflection or refraction through water, ice, metal surface or window.  It has been felt that there is something "morally" unacceptable when photography offers an abstract version of reality. I understand that anxiety, but have a different view. Although they are radically departures from conventional photographs, they were pictures taken at a decisive moment which distinguishes photography from painting and drawing. I did not create or synthesize those images but helped discover them through another way of seeing. Unlike a conventional fine artist, a photographer never invents or constructs the art content- it is a journey of discovery of the "decisive moment" and re-interpretation of visual experience by both the photographer and viewers. In fact, those abstract images are faithful copies or transcriptions of actual moments and remind us that there are hidden abstract worlds around us in our daily life. Abstractness is not only licensed to fine art but also to photography. In fact, one can say that photography is essentially an abstract way to interpret what one might refer to as reality. I hope these photographs may remind us how illusory of our perceived world is.

Stamps with Chinese characters

Stamps with Chinese characters

無我: No self (right) and 捨得: OK to give away (left)

Completely surrender the preset mind, forget yourself, dismiss the inner voice of "me plan".  Allow instincts to develop your photographic eyes. Let spontaneity and imagination rise into consciousness. The worst nightmare is waking up to discover that my perfect shot was all just a dream. But don't fret if you miss a shot. It is the wonderful excitement of capturing a fleeting moment, just like you forgot your camera in your dream...



Do you have a pre-set mind what you are going to photograph?

In the beginning of my exploration into street photography, I expected the expected—meaning that I was searching for what I wished or something in my mind. It turned out that such visual and psychological preconceptions rarely worked because one could only use a camera to select a piece of the world rather than direct what is happening. Now, I try to let spontaneity drive the composition and push the shuttle when the moment comes. I am expecting what is unexpected. It would be adventurous and exciting for viewers to try to know how the world in front of the photographer’s camera is transformed into a picture which is open to multiple interpretations. What was photographed or how it was photographed may become relatively irrelevant. I think that is the basics for appreciating photography as an art.

Why do you prefer black and white photography?

I've taken black-and-white photos since I learned how to use a film camera and a dark room back to my college years. There are many valid reasons to take black-and-white pictures, and they have been deliberated by many great photographers. To me, unlike color photographs, black-and-white appears abstracted from life and does not pretend to resemble the world in a way similar to what our human eyes (and visual cortex) might physiologically perceive. Although it still looks “real”, a black-and-white photo when compared to a color one is closer to minimalism and surrealism, and it facilitates the departure from optical appearance of things we see. The photos in the Inner Harbor series are my first attempt to take color pictures. The Inner Harbor is such a vivid and vibrant place, and the water’s reflection of the surroundings and people is nothing short of richness in color and contrast. Because reflections are inherently abstract, I think there is no need for me to convert them into black-and-white. Indeed, color may give a novel dimension to the images in certain circumstances.

What makes a good photograph?

New York City, 2015

New York City, 2015

The cliché images that appear in many photo calendars usually allow only a narrow and expected interpretation- it is beautiful! (but that’s it!). Those pictures can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes. The true beauty of a photograph comes from the viewer's imagination and deep deliberation of the photographic content which may be independent of the photographer's own interpretation. What a good photographer aspires to do is to provide such visual opportunity and again to create imagination to the viewers. Take the famous painting, Mona Lisa, as an example, the ambiguity of the subject's expression is one of the most critical attributes to the beauty of the painting. Similarly, the photographs I like should be implicit and enigmatic. The content may reveal something unrecognizable yet inside the familiar, and simultaneously assign new interpretation and emotion each time after I view the same picture. I usually review the same photos I took over and over again at different days so if those (unfortunately rare!) pictures can “survive” from my secondary or tertiary scrutiny, I label them as “good” photos. Sometimes, I think a good picture means coming up hard against the limits of our ignorance on a daily basis- recording a piece of space-time in an intentionally framed small world.

In your street photography, you used a lot of shadows in your composition which make the contents interesting. Why you prefer to use them in your pictures?

New York City, 2009

New York City, 2009

Tonal contrast is the essential grammar in photography composition, especially in black-and-white photography. This can come from different ways and the most common and convenient one in my view is the deliberate use of shadow, which is a "reflection" of the reality- the objects. Shadows exaggerate the existence of objects and colonize new visual experiences. They function as a kind of subtraction from the world and give the photos a mysterious or surreal feeling.

to be continued...