Today we are lucky to have a highly interesting interview with Nelson Chan, folks. Chan has been steadily making personal projects that deal with his heritage and relationships. Also he loves Induro! Without further ado….
I love the way your heritage informs your imagery- with your photographs in China, your Feng Shui-inspired pictures, and especially your portraits. How has your identity shaped your practice, and do you have difficulty bridging the gap between the two cultures?
Heritage and identity definitely inform the work that I do, and to a certain degree, I can say that they are usually the underlying crux of where my imagery comes from. At first, I never considered these concepts to be a part of my vision; it wasn’t until after college when I started to figure it all out. The past 3 1/2 years were spent traveling between New Jersey, Hong Kong, and China; photographing an ongoing project about my family titled, ‘my Da Lu’. During this time I never felt more mentally alone and it was because of this that a sense of self-recognition occurred with the work that I was making.
Though there was always a cultural connection with what I was photographing, I wasn’t interested in bridging the gap of my two identities as Chinese/American. It took me a very long time to understand that it’s the ‘gap’ itself, where I exist, which interests me the most. Children of immigrant parents always end up having an identity crisis and it’s this tension that creates a yearning to belong to something. This sense of longing has become what heritage and identity mean in my work. Knowing that I will never be 100% to the right or left of this cross-cultural spectrum has given me a lot of comfort and inspiration. Studying the differences rather than the commonalities seems to be more interesting to me.
Your stark, face-on portraits are really wonderful. They remind me a bit of Richard Renaldi’s work. I’m especially drawn into the frame when you are shooting someone with whom you’ve had a relationship of some kind. How did you start making portraits, and what do they mean to you?
It’s funny you should say Richard Renaldi. I just had lunch with him and his partner Seth. In regards to the portraits of people who I have relationships with, the environment is always something that is important to me. Like how clothing can inform one’s own personality, their personal space does the same either physically in the picture or emotionally in the expression of the subject’s body or face. They become more comfortable with themselves and in turn, let me be a little more interactive with them. I’ve brought a few people to specific locations, but they are always of places that inform who they are to me.
I always took portraits because I’m attracted to people, but by nature, I’m an extremely shy photographer. A lot of times, the portraits were very fleeting. It wasn’t until I started shooting with a view camera that I was directly sitting down with my subject for a prolonged period of time. There are a lot of pictures I missed and wish I took; photography has introduced both regret and courage into my life quite well. The only way to combat my shyness is when regret is pounding stronger in my gut. I’ve compared making these portraits to asking someone out on a date. So I guess you can say that the portraits I take is the product of a feeling I decide to confront. I hope that answers your question.
Tell me a bit more about the Feng Shui series. These homes are all in violent areas? How did you find them and shoot them? They’re so stark, and make me want to know their stories…
My series, ‘Wind, Water, and Bullets’ came about from my mother, who is a practitioner of Feng Shui, and an article I read about a violent neighborhood on Staten Island. In this project, I wanted to talk about issues of violence in our society, but didn’t want to be extremely heavy handed or clichéd with my imagery. All the images were taken with an 8×10 view camera so that the owners of the homes knew what my intentions were. Smaller cameras can seem to feel a little sneaky.
I met the owner of the first house I photographed at a friend’s wedding in Iowa. Their home was located in South Central, LA, where I was also staying as a guest. The house is alongside a park that turns into a very dangerous place at night. My first night sleeping there was filled with anxiety, but to feel this was imperative to the project, so I could understand the environment better. A bullet had entered one of the rooms in the upstairs portion of the house in the past. And shortly after I left LA, a nextdoor neighbor whom I had conversed with was shot and killed on the street. He was 24.
Void of artificial light, when looking at these interiors, I decided that I wanted to photograph towards the daylight that was entering through the windows. I want to use the flare of the sunlight to occupy the same space that a potential bullet could pass through. This created a certain dynamic between safety and danger in the photograph on a subconscious level.
What projects are you working on now, and what’s in store for you in the future? Are you able to make a living as a photographer at this point? Do you ever shoot for clients, or do you generally make personal projects?
I am still working on the current projects talked about above, but not shooting any new ones at the moment. I am however still making new pictures that don’t yet belong anywhere. My next move is to make a book dummy of ‘my Da Lu’ and figure it out as a sequence of images. I do not make a living off of being a photographer at this point, but I do make a living in the photography industry. I manage a fine art printing studio in Brooklyn, NY called Ken Allen Studios. I’m a highly skilled and competent craftsman specializing in inkjet printing. Before this, I was freelancing as a digital consultant/technician to artists. This past spring, I along with my friend Gerard Franciosa of My Own Color Lab, I carried out the scanning and digital post-production to photographer, Gina LeVay’s debut monograph from Power House Books, Sandhogs. Though I’m not opposed to photographing commercially and would welcome it, the most important thing for me is to continue working on personal projects.
What has been your experience with Induro tripods? Is there a specific model you’re a fan of, and why?
The camera has become a tool to help position myself in the world. It makes me interact with the environments I am in and gets me thinking about my relationship with what was in front of my lens; whether it is a person or a place. Though my vision is what ultimately makes me an artist, the tools that I use are what carry out that vision. In regards to extensive traveling and shooting with an 8×10 field camera, I appreciate a tripod with three leg sections for set-up speed and weight. With these specific guidelines, the CT313 has been a great performer for me. It’s extremely stable and I can easily extend the bottom sections and raise the center column to quickly have the camera be at the perfect height. If I need to have a higher vantage point, I can easily extend the second leg sections. The foam grips are also much welcomed because it really helps to ease the handling of my 8×10. With shooting a view camera, the legs it sits on is just as important as the lens or any other component and the CT313 is it.