Combining Photography and Writing
Wayne Yang is a talented photographer and writer who has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Asian Review of Books, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Free Press, among others. He and I worked together as editors of Night Train literary magazine, and he is a suberb and geeky human being. (You don’t mind that I called you geeky, do you, Wayne? You know it’s my ultimate compliment.) You’ll see what I mean if you check out Eight Diagrams, his blog devoted mostly to photography and writing, but also artificial intelligence, film, finance, and other Rennaisance-Man interests.
Tell me about Wayne Yang growing up. What were you surrounded by? What was the family style and your role in it? What did you dream of as a boy?
Not much more than the typical adolescent angst, where boy meets girl, girl spins boy’s head and heart around sort of thing. I have very happy memories of growing up otherwise: traipsing through bogs, tasting the salt of the Southeast in raw oysters, watching southern football. Eudora Welty taught us that you don’t need to have been a sopping drunk or a depressive heart to write well. I grew up in the Carolinas, which means that I was weaned on writers like Faulkner and O’Connor and McCullers, taught that literature was one of the highest callings you could have.
I did, however, grow up feeling a bit of an outsider, since I was a first generation American Southerner, rather than one whose family had spent hundreds of years in the region. I grew up in an immigrant family. We didn’t have tintypes of our ancestors in Civil War uniforms. Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t get a shotgun when I reached my 12th birthday. One of my best friends had a grandfather who had been a Granddragon in the Ku Klux Klan, but I remember often riding shotgun in his car while he played Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech or L.L. Cool J tunes. Two thirds of the people in my high school European history class, men and women, ultimately had some kind of military training after college. The South is like that: full of contradictions and anachronisms.
My mom was trained to sing opera at the National Taiwan Academy for the Arts, but she focused on the visual arts as I grew up. She’s one of the most creative people I know. My father is a doctor, a brilliant academic–back in his day, you needed to be one of the top 30 students in the country if you wanted to be a medical student at National Taiwan University, so he was deeply puzzled why I was always such an abysmal student, nor could he fathom why I wanted to be a writer. I was an incorrigible student, a typical daydreamer. My teachers were encouraging despite everything. I could have been a fourth generation doctor–two generations on my mother’s side, her father was a surgeon–while for generations nearly every male member of my father’s family had been a doctor or a Presbyterian minister. My father helped push me towards journalism when he realized he couldn’t make me give up my typewriters. I suppose wanting to be a writer is not light years from wanting to stand at the pulpit, though.
Describe a day with you and a camera.
It really varies. Today I spent most of the day traipsing around Harpers Ferry, one of my wife’s childhood hometowns. Back in New York, I will wander around different neighborhoods, depending on my mood. Or I will get the occasional assignment to shoot a sporting or celebrity event.
What subjects or themes interest you most? Is there a particular story you’re trying to tell ”“ something specific you’re trying to capture or document?
I wish I could shoot a lot more performance art. Man or woman in motion. Dance and theater, both which I consider among the purist art forms, because–can you get a lot closer to primal beauty than a man or woman expressing himself or herself through the movement of his or her own body? Is there anything more amazing than the culmination of hours of practice and discipline, that razor separation between control, discipline and unfettered expression? Or theater”¦or literary reading, where a man or woman tells a story largely or solely through just his or her voice–or through a gesture? I admire Martine Franck’s images in Fables. Curtis Carter has a good introduction on the dance photographer Barbara Morgan. Degas’ ballerina paintings are inspirational.
My street photography is quite different, much more urban. There, I’m much more caught up with how we are swallowed up by our surroundings and circumstances. Writers like Jack London focused on how man could be overcome by nature. While Hurricane Katrina showed us that we are still more than vulnerable to those forces, these days we are just as susceptible to the forces of steel and commerce and financial circumstance. I remember coming on Walker Evans’ signs project again recently, and it hit me how some of my own work was beginning to parallel his. Signs, those icons of commerce, have become part of the urban landscape. We are ourselves often become lost in that landscape.
In both my writing and photography, I’ve long been curious about how people combat events and circumstances that swirl outside of their control. My skill level and my level of personal audacity have not taken me there, but the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers like Evans and Dorothea Lange resonate with me. Steinbeck and Dreiser resonate with me. Tolstoy and those write about how war overcomes us and waylays the best-laid plans, they resonate with me. In terms of collaboration between writers and photographers on this front, I’m fascinated by the collaboration between Walker Evans and James Agee and that between Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell.
What kinds of emotions do you experience on your side of the camera?
I hope I’m being largely detached. You want to be able to relate to what people are doing and feeling, but you don’t want to be caught up. You should really be seeing, not feeling.
Do you find your presence changes the shot you get? Are you somehow inside the photo as well?
Yes, which is why it’s very educational when you learn that even a master photographer like Evans was known to use a right-angle lens in his street photography. He also hid a Contax rangefinder in his coat to put together his famous series of photographs taken on the New York subways. I’m now experimenting more with smaller cameras and cameras with waist level viewfinders in my street photography. Of course, people become very conscious of the camera, which is why I think it is unbelievable how a crisis photographer like James Nachtwey seems to have this ability to become almost invisible. He is often capturing people at their most vulnerable, or at their deepest moments of grief, and while his subjects seem aware of him, they also seem to let him melt into the background. They want him there. Some photographers are renowned for this ability to blend into the woodwork. Collaborations can also be helpful. Evans had the gregarious Agee with him when they put together their Let Us Now Praise Famous Men project.
When did you think to combine your photography and writing? And can you show me an example of how they work together?
I was trained as a print journalist, but I also had some training in photojournalism. My interest in photography was rekindled when I got the rather obvious idea of using images to help sell my written journalism. The sinic traditions have a long history of blending text, poetry and art; the great calligraphers were supposed to be as accomplished at writing poetry as they were at controlling a brush. There’s a long Western tradition as well. Early biblical work was as much art as text. William Blake is best known as a poet, but he was an accomplished engraver as well. His combination of the two he called “illuminated manuscripts.” A designer I know recently introduced me to the work of Dorothea Tanning, who was a nexus for the dada and surrealist movements. She was a very accomplished painter, who was also well recognized as a poet. Do you know the piece by Charles Demuth called “The Figure Five in Gold?” It’s based on a poem by William Carlos Williams. I’ve already mentioned the collaboration between Evans and Agee, and Bourke-White and Caldwell. And did you know that Emile-Zola was an avid photographer? I would like to experiment more with combining poetry and photography.
Let’s say you have a stack of amazing photos. Then what? Do you shop them around? Use them to get commissioned work? Compile them into a book?
Hard for me to say, because what little commercial work I’ve done so far has been on the news and event photography side, and my photographs are sold through the two photo agencies that represent me. I’ve sold articles that I’ve illustrated with my photography. It’s only recently that I’ve begun going through images that I hope might be viable for the fine arts market. I’m teaching myself more about high-end digital printing. I have some book projects that I want to put together, but there’s a lot of long term work that needs to go into them.
What’s your day job?
I’m glad you asked, because many biographers do us a great disservice when they convince us that artists arrive on the scene fully formed. How many biographers tell you how the writer or photographer slaved away in a conventional job before he or she was able to fully support himself or herself through her artistic work? Granted, the most brilliant artists are the ones who make us think it’s easy: McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was in her 20s. Hemingway was in his 20s when he wrote The Sun Also Rises. But they also had incredible discipline, almost to the point of obsessiveness. And, of course, they were also simply brilliant. It comes harder for many of us. I would like to live a more bohemian lifestyle, but you can’t feed a family on air.
Though I started life in publishing and journalism, I fell into finance when one of the Swiss banks one day asked me to move to Zurich. They thought my writing abilities might be useful to them. I used to live on one of the same streets where James Joyce kept an apartment. Now I’ve been in finance since the dawn of man. One of my cousins, who is a successful journalist, told another friend that he thought I would never leave the profession. On the flip side, a week before I left for Switzerland, a friend, bless her, clipped a newspaper article for me about financial professionals who later went on to become great writers–notably T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. I still have that clipping. It’s probably more than coincidence that many of my favorite writers and photographers were financial professionals before they became full-time artists: Evans, Stevens, Eliot and Andre Kertesz. Sebastiao Salgado and Hart Crane also come to mind. The blessing and bane? When time is more precious than money, you begin to think in terms of longer term projects.
Your thoughts on this quote from photographer Jon Anderson:
I am not so interested in striking visual imagery for its own sake, and I don’t care for controlled studio work much either. I favor a kind of photography where the shooter has little control over the scene and the accidents of life play a large role. I like surprises, and I very much like the fact that my intentions don’t count for much when I tangle with the object world. I like photographs that give me an almost novelistic view of society in all its registers: the comic, the tragic, the burlesque, the epic.
I’m a great admirer of Jon’s photography, but I’m equally admiring of his writing, and I hope he does more work in the future to combine the two. Jon has done a lot of street photography, and these days, he’s doing a lot of social documentary work in the Caribbean. I appreciate a sense of serendipity too, but I don’t always disdain artifice. Dance and theater, for instance, are examples of where artifice can be made beautiful, and finding ways to document and portray that kind of accomplishment can also be important. I even like the high artifice of fashion photography. Writing and photography do not always have to be gritty and dirty. But Evans once said that the best photography was essentially literary, and I think that’s the sentiment that Jon was sharing.
Who are some photographers and writers who have influenced you?
On the photography side? Evans is dear to my heart. Though he was a brilliant photographer, he was a failed writer, and that has, unfortunately, some resonance with me. He was accomplished at writing film reviews, though. Henri Cartier-Bresson taught us all about the “decisive moment.” Andreas Feininger for his precision and New York cityscapes. Alfred Sieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe, because they taught me that you could create visual art just by peeking out your apartment window. Kertesz, whose Washington Square photos are brilliant; they teach you to take in the whole scene. He was also always experimenting. I would like to think the Farm Security Administration photographers like Dorothea Lange have had some influence, but my work has not taken me in that direction. Eugene Smith, whose photo essays were without parallel. I also like a lot of the great portraitists–like Arnold Newman–and fashion photographers. I’m greatly admiring of the National Geographic photographers who write well.
As far as writers? Hemingway, whose straightforward sentences taught me a lot about both literature and journalism. Graham Greene, who taught me that fine writing could also be thrilling. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose work is simply magic. Milan Kundera, who taught me that novels could be theatrical and philosophic. Joyce for his short stories. The Russians for the sweep of their novels. D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, who were brilliant as both novelists and poets. The poetry essays of Seamus Heaney. Speaking of poets, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Eliot, Neruda and Frost. The literary journalism of John McPhee, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard and Tom Wolfe. The travel writing of Paul Theroux. Can I say Shakespeare? I remember reading an article about Shakespeare Behind Bars, where an inmate marveled at how passage after passage of the writing was written in meter and rhyme. I marvel at that too.
What’s your wish for your career?
To put together a book or two that someone will find absorbing.