A regular contributor to Rolling Stone, Wired, and ESPN Magazine, young photographer Peter Yang emerged out of the Austin journalism world and hit the ground running full-force with his masterfully lit, intimate portraits of political figures, actors, rock stars and cowboys. Peter chats with PICTURE in his cozy Brooklyn workspace about his roundabout path towards editorial success, and shares some tips on the dos and don’ts of photography.
This awesome guest article was contributed by Anna Sian, who normally writes for Picture Magazine. This article has been generously contributed to Photocritic as a sample of the writing you’ll find in Picture (a bit more about the magazine can be found at the bottom of this article)
WHERE DID YOUR PASSION FOR PHOTOGRAPHY START?
I went to the University of Texas in Austin, where I was a business major. I had to get in a suit three times a week and go to meetings and career fairs – it was all pretty depressing and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I saw a tryout for the student newspaper (which ended up being a big paper, and their photographers win a lot of Pulitzers) tried out for it, never really having taken a picture before, and I had a point and shoot camera.
I think I was just too ignorant to be intimidated by it all – I was just happy to be there. But I worked really hard and it was something I felt really passionate about, and I started seeing pictures everywhere, that I’d never noticed before. So that’s how I got started, taking the journalism route at the beginning.
AFTER SCHOOL, DID YOU ASSIST SOMEONE? HOW DID YOU LEARN?
I got a job at a newspaper coming out of school and I assisted myself a lot. I would read magazines, look at pictures, and try to figure out how they did it. There are things that took years to figure out that I think an assistant could have gotten by just asking a simple question, but the process of making so many mistakes trying to figure things out.
I went through about 900 different styles during that process, any gimmicky thing you can think of, I tried. Actually, there’s just kind of no replacing actually doing it yourself. Having not assisted, it was tough at first because I was doing it all roundabout and backwards, but I think in the end, it worked out.
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR FOOT IN THE EDITORIAL DOOR?
I come from a rich family. I just sent loads and loads of cash and they hired me. I’m actually much in debt right now. No, um…I feel really blessed that I started the way that I did. Well, while I was working at the newspaper I was based out in Texas and I was considered a regional photographer. And I started working for Texas Monthly which I had always heard was a mg that was always respected around the country – I knew a lot of people shot for them, Keith Carter, Mary Ellen Mark, Jeff Minton, and all these folks today.
Scott Dadich was there at the time, now the Creative Director at Wired. He was pretty new there and I think he liked what I was doing and so he called me for a shoot and I did another and they got bigger and bigger. It was fortunate for me to start that way, because he really encouraged me to experiment. And it was like someone was paying or me to do personal work.
Everyone has a label on their heads. Every time you see someone, you can read two words about them. People just have to know you as the Texas guy, the funny guy, the quirky guy, the dramatic lighting guy, the guy you call when no one else is available, guy or gal, whatever it is. I always encourage people who call me to really figure out how to conquer their market before they try this. But I guess if you’re already here, and you’ve already done it, you just assist.
All my first assistants, when they’re ready to go out on their own, I always put them in touch with all the editors I think they would work well with. And they usually have a relationship with them somehow already. But starting from scratch can be pretty tough.
SO HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE NOW?
I’ve been shooting for about 10 years, and I’ve been doing this kind of magazine stuff for about 5 years. When I started out, I think I was a much quirkier photographer. I never wanted to take a picture that didn’t have a point of view or a sense of humor, always looking for something a little bit off, or a little different. I think where that made some really good images, it was also a point of undue stress.
I figured out eventually that not every shot has to have a punchline. It could just be a nice intimate portrait of someone, and I think that’s what really helped me where I am now. I do try to find something interesting or funny to say but if its just a really kickass picture or a nicely lit picture of someone, that’s fine too.
DO YOU PREFER STUDIO LIGHTS TO NATURAL LIGHTS?
All of my pictures are lit in one way or another. The more I do this, the more i’m allowing the natural light to get in there somehow. and if the natural light isn’t available, I create light from natural situations.
I think a big difference between pictures now and a few years ago is that there’s always kind of a light where the sun would be overhead and behind a little. It takes a lot of gear, really long stands and big booms and all this stuff just to get a light that’s way up – it almost always simulates the sun shining dwn on someone. I feel like actually it looks a bit more natural even though its more lit than it happens to be.
HOW DO YOU USUALLY APPROACH A SHOOT?
The way I usually approach it is to do a lot of research on the subject, you know, with wikipedia and everything, you can find out all this stuff about people and you find out later that everything is not necessarily true, but at least you think them, going in. I usually try to find a location that is cool and that has different options. I try to bring props, and I have an idea of what I want but it’s not very often that I go into a shoot with exactly planned out. When a photo editor wants to say exactly what they want, I love it.
Because I can go in and get that shot and then I can do something that I think is cool too, and half the time, they love what I thought was cool.
As far as how a shoot goes, it really depends, because I do a fair amount of editorial but also a good amount of advertising too, and they’re just two completely different things in production. But at the very least there’s two or three assistants and a couple of carts worth of lights. I always try to keep it as simple as possible and stay low key.
HOW IS SHOOTING CELEBS DIFFERENT FROM SHOOTING ORDINARY PEOPLE?
It’s vastly different. It’s very much like you’re working ideas out with the publicist, there’s a set time that you have, you chat a little bit but both of you are working, they’re there to promote their new movie or their new album and you’re there to get the best picture you can. I think I get along with everyone, we click in a photographic way and once in a while, on a personal level.
SO YOU AND BARACK ARE TIGHT?
Yeah, we’re buddies. I feel like we clicked, but I kinda feel like, watching him, that he clicks with everyone. It’s usually not the bigger names—it’s someone I have a common interest with. Like when I shot Dana White, from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I was really into martial arts and we talked about that.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE NOT TAKING PICTURES?
I like to read books and watch movies and take walks on the beach. But more recently, I’ve been making stuff out of wood.
ANY FINAL WORDS OF ADVICE?
I think it’s important to be really persistent. And constantly creating your work – I used to do a ton of it, I used to shoot every day and find a reason to shoot something, and sometimes it would just be like, a macro picture of a lego guy, but it was a picture. I find that a lot of people don’t shoot enough.
If you don’t feel the want and the motivation to be shooting all the time, you have to really ask yourself if this is what you want to do; because that kind of enthusiasm decreases over time and if you’re already not feeling it– and people will say things like “well if I can just get someone to hire me, and I don’t even have to get paid, they can just assign me something to shoot and I’ll shoot it” – well that’s not how it works. You have to prove that you can do it. It’s just way too competitive, and if you don’t have that kind of desire, you’re probably not going to make it. So keep taking personal pictures.
And everyone has pictures of their friends. It’s sort of like the young hipster portrait, with natural light or something. Some are better than others, but you see that a lot. And then there are people who take pictures of a funky or weird looking guy. Don’t do that. What you should find are images that really tell a compelling story. I would just say stay away from the homeless people or a portfolio comprised of all of your friends that are under the age of 19. Diversify.
See Peter Yang’s Website for more of his photography
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