The Making Of A Photographer

Russel W o ng , Jackie Deconstructed, 2004 , 6-color silkscreen and lithograph on Aquarelle Arches Satinee and plexi glass , 90 x 78 cm . Ed . 30 . Created in collaboration with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute . All images : Courtesy of the Artist and the Singapore Art Museum .

A photographer-friend of mine attended the photo clinic held in conjunction with Russel Wong: Photographs (1980- 2005), the first retrospective for a Singapore photographer organiz ed by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). To his dismay, he found himself surrounded by rich ladies and impressionable beginners who at times seemed more interested in Wong's autograph than the intricacies ofphotography. And so, when Wong told me that he hopes to be remembered as {{a good photographer who has left a nice, creative mark on a global level" and not because j ackie Chan knows him, I wonder in hindsight ifWong feels slightly hard done by after the photo clinic. But it is inevitable. His {{label" as a celebrity photographer-no matter how reductive the label is-has contributed to his fame, which he uses as a psychological edge against difficult stars. At the same time, his fame has created a pool ofprofessionals who have strong opinions about Wong's work. In this sense, SAM's decision to do the retrospective is a slightly {{controversial" one, perhaps driven by the need to tap into the {{audience" whom Wong can command wedged against the strategic need of not alienating the art community too much.
By Zhuang Wubin
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Zhuang Wubin: Did you set out to become a celebrity photographer? Russel Wong: I was just a kid from Siglap dreaming of becoming a soccer p layer or a track runner. When I was in secondary four, my dad bought me a S$180 Topcon camera from North Bridge Road because I was going away to the University of Oregon. Dad is a serious hobbyist. He merely hoped that I would take some pictures in America and send them back home. Of course, I had friends in secondary school who were from the photo club. But I was never interested in what they were doing in the darkroom. Making pictures? However, I did become more serious during university. In my third year, as a 19-year-old finance undergrad, I got my first international cover of world-record miler Sebastian Coe for Track and Field News. That was how I started photographing celebrities, sports celebrities to be exact. Even at that early stage, I found myself drawn to portraiture, as opposed to action shots, which everyone can get with the right equipment

A friend gave me my first copy of GQ. The Versace ads caught my eye . Later, I would learn that Richard Avedon had shot them. But that was how I got into fashion photography. I eventually got to meet Richard Avedon in 1986 at Hamilton's Gallery in London. When he passed away, I was very sad, because no one would do portraits like him. He was not ju st a fashion photographer. He was not one-dimensional.

speak. Or else, the portrait is not yours.

I'm sure you are aware that some professionalphotographers don't take you seriously. What is your response to their attitude?
They can think whatever they like. This is part and parcel of celebrity photography. The media is also responsible for creating it. Hopefully, I will be remembered for the work that I do , and not because Jackie Chan knows me . At the end of the day, it boils down to the craft. If I were a bad photographer, do you think the stars would hire me , knowing that their images could make or break their careers? The irony is, if I put Robert de Niro in front of these serious photographers, they would want to picture him too. So let them deal with their jealousy and insecurities, I'm in it for the right reasons. I think they simply ignore the fact that the whole process of working with the publicists and agents is not easy. It took Richard Gere three to four months before he saw my portfolio.

You have been described as "a celebrity photographer who also photographs celebrities. '' So are you a celebrity or a photographer?
I'm a photographer, first and foremost. Because of the genre I am in, I get cast into this spotlight. But I use it to my advantage. People respect me more. They expect more from me, and thus they are willing to give me more. It is a psychological advantage against the stars because once they are in my studio, they surrender to me. I take fu ll control. I give them a persona. I'll light in a particular manner. I'll make them look good or I'll make them look bad. You have to take control, go into it, move props, manipulate so to

How did you start shooting fashion?

But do you agree with the notion tha t

Russel Wong , Glenn Close, Raffles Hotel , Singapore 1997.

Russel Wong , BB King, Singapore 1994.

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celebrity photography is easy because of the fame and persona that each star already has before the shoot? Not true . I look at it as an added responsibility. And I'm sure you have seen bad pictures of celebrities before . You need more time to get them into the mood. There is a lot of pampering to be done . The stars are used to taking control of their environment. To do my job well , I'm fighting against them for the control. As you know, working with the stars, 99 percent is about trust. If they don't trust you , they will give only 50 percent. And it shows in your work. I t1y to create a relaxing environment for the stars. I kid a lot. I try to make them comfortable. I also make it a point to explain my intentions to the stars so that we can build the trust. I appreciate them as individuals and try to find the unique quality, even the imperfection, in each of them. In this sense, I take the cue from observing how great directors work. You eventually moved from fashion and concentrated on portraiture. Why? Pure fashion photographers come and go. After a while, it gets too trendy. You shoot a spread and two months later, they chuck it away. Therefore, good fashion photographers end up shooting portraiture. They picture the social icons of their times and the images become a documentation of their generation. Look at the picture of Marilyn Monroe, for example. What is your personal objective of having this retrospective at SAM? I'm not presenting a message. Instead, it is a journey of my work and my thought process over the past 25 years. Doing this exhibition, I realize I'm still proud of the pictures that I took 25 years ago. I pictured Carl Lewis when he was 19. Did I expect him to become an icon? Well, I did have a rough sense that he would be great. But anyway, this retrospective is just a visual journey to give people a better idea of who I am. I'm not t1ying to prove anything to anyone. I never take this approach. In this sense, photography has always been self-serving. I do it because I get a kick out of it. The exhibition will include travel pictures , personal work, landscapes, portraits of common people , and movie sets. Speaking
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Russel Wong , Marcus Miller, Capital Studios, Hollywood, 1998.

of which, if you told me when I was in LA that I would one day work closely with

Asian stars, I wouldn't have believed it. I mean, I flunked my Chinese as a student, and now, I'm working with Zhang Yimou. This is ve1y exciting for me. What do you contribute to Zhang Yimou's movie-making process? What I bring to the table is a slicker marketing approach, something I have acquired from the West. I see myself as the bridge between the East and the West. That's how Zhang Yimou 's Hero made it onto French Elle. I have my agent in NYC distribute the pictures that I shot of the movie to places where they cannot have gotten. Yimou was happy with my contribution to Hero. How does Zhang Yimou work? Yimou always lets you do what you do best. I think someone asked him how he picks his team for each movie. His reply was he always picks the best for each category. Then, he will let them do their thing. He totally understands and respects talent, and is willing to let the talent flow. I think this is the
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Russel Wong , Tamborine Man, Singapore, 1996.

quality of a great person. I wish more people could experience this. As you know, Zhang Yimou has not done action movies. So when the action sequences come up, he just sits down, shuts up, and lets the action director take over completely. On the other hand, you have people who always try to look over my shoulder. And when my pictures turn out bad, they a k me why.
You have worked on Asian and Westernfilm sets. Can you comment on the differences?

The Asian film industry is like a family whereas it behaves very much like a business in the West, complete with rules, lawyers, and agents on the set. You cannot speak directly to the celebrities in the West but you can eat on the floor with Ang Lee on an Asian set. The relation here is less formal. Everyone suffers together in bad hotels and 45-minute lunch breaks in the middle of nowhere. Evety single cent goes into the movie whereas in the West, a sizeable part of the money goes into the luxUiy gyms and trailers that sit around the set.
With the exhibition at SAM and your recent residency with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, it seems you are moving towards the genre offine art. Is this a deliberate strategy?

to do something that is impossible to achieve on the lens. But if you use it to change the character of your image, then it is wrong. I'm sure it sounds stupid but the essence of what some photographers have been doing in the digital era is like taking an image of a lion and pasting it against the setting sun. Instead of being in a safari, they have missed out on the point of photography. In the digital era, it is easy for photographers to miss the point. It's not only about taking the picture. It's like jazz. You improvise. You draw from the environment you are in. You feed on the atmosphere. You are like a conductor.
And now, we are starting to see a generation of young photographers who have absolutely no grounding in the analog format.

I think they are totally at a disadvantage.

It's sad when young photographers come up to me, op n their laptops, and show me their portfolios. You will be surprised when they don't even know about tungsten film, ISO, or f-stop. They have been shooting Auto from day one. You know, it can never hurt to learn. The more you know, the more it will help you in the future. I guess, when things are so disposable, you don't spend time on it. You become lazy. There is very little thought-process, as compared to the time when you only have six sheets and a celebrity sitting there, waiting for you to make it happen. You just have to make your six sheets count. Don't get me wrong. The digital revolution has definitely helped a lot. But it has also taken away a lot. At the end of the day, the medium is just a tool. I have an equal chance of making a bad picture on film or in digital. Therefore, it is what comes out and not what you use that makes the difference.

In commercial and corporate work, you are essentially selling a "product." In fine art, I get to shoot whatever I like. Of course this is something that I hope to achieve. One day, I can photograph an MTV VJ or the president of a country. The next day, I can walk into a coffee shop and picture a wanton seller.
I know you are still very much a Hasselblad fan although you have started shooting on Canon digital cameras. We are at this divide between the digital and the analog world. What do you feel about the digital era?

You are right. I shoot celebrities and movie posters on my Hasselblad. And I use my Canon lD on film sets. But I'm never a slave to technology. I think the biggest joke in the digital era is to use the word "Photoshop" as a verb. I often hear people say, "Let's photoshop this, let's photoshop that. " In this sense, technology hinders the progress of young photographers because it inculcates a lazy mentality in them. Because they think they can fix it on the computer, they light badly. They don't want to fix the problems on the set. Don't forget, photographers are visual-problem solvers. I can understand if you use the computer
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Russel Wong, Conductor, Singapore, 1996.

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Russel Wong , Bamboo Forest, "House of Flying Daggers", Yong Chuan, China, 2003.

The onus then is for young photographers to become students of the craft. Look at Tiger Woods. Not only is he a terrific golfer, he also knows a lot about the history of the sport, making it a point to read about the past masters. Similarly, there's a reason why Richard Avedon or Henri Cartier-Bresson last. You can definitely draw something from their experiences.

there were times when you felt down and out. How have you dealt with setbacks?
Even now, if a client doesn't like my job, what can I do? This is such a subjective industry. What can I do? Ninety people may like it. Ten people may hate it. The pressure is consistent. It is day in, day out. Ten times out of ten, I have to deliver. Because I'm Russel Wong, my clients come to expect more from me. "OK" is thus considered a failure.

From the vantage ofyour success, everything looks very rosy. But I'm sure

When I have a bad day at work, everyone sees it. My pictures get published. You know, it's always easy to point the finger at the photographer. But maybe the subject is tired? Nobody cares. It's the photographer's fault. In a weird way, I knew I was going to be good. It helps when everyone around me in LA [Art Center College of Design] had the same mindset when we were at school. Everyone was thinking of working for Time, National Geographic or Life. The mentality was very positive.

Russel Wong , Female Torso with Roses, Singapore, 1990 .

Russel Wong, Male Torso with Lily, Singapore , 1990.

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grow. I made lithographs out of my portraits of Jackie Chan, joan Chen, Aishwa1ya Rai, and Michelle Yeoh. The process of photography ends with the making of prints . However, with my residency, Howdoyoudescribeyour Russel Wong , Michelle in Motion 2004, 4-color lithograph and silkscreen on it is encouraging me to rework my pictures . ow, an aesthetic style? Japanese tan paper, 103 x 69 cm. Ed. 30. Created in collaboration with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. image can take a year to complete . What can I do with I think my style is simple and the picture? Should I paint over timeless. I keep it very raw and it? Can I scratch it? I'm asking idealistic when it comes to the myself these questions. technical side of the equation. I don't touch up my photos and With your exhibition at SAM I never use filters or special efand your recent residency, fects. This gives my portraits more credibility. you seem to be moving in different directions. What is the How do you light your pornext step for Russel Wong? traits? Hopefully, my SAM exhibition will tour the world. I'm negotiGod made one sun. But look at ating over the Internet but galthe forms and shapes created leries in Hong Kong , France , by the one sun. Therefore, I preItaly, New York City have alfer one single light source. ready indicated interest. I will inety percent of my portraits also make a movie within the are lit by one light source. I next two years. The synopsis is work with the methodology of already in my head. I just need subtracting light. I light my pica scriptwriter to help me out. It ture first. Then I try to take away will be shot in Singapore and the light. The absence of light hopefully it will be shown gloin my image is what I'm trying bally. Incidentally, I think we to achieve. What can I take out? don't have enough products that If light is everywhere in your are global enough from Singaimage, you will not feel its prespore. And yet, people here are ence. But when it is absent, then so keen to give a fa lse sense of you will notice it. security to our local creators . .0. Music is an important influRussel Wong, Aishwarya Ra i: Lot us Dream , 2004, 10-color silkscreen, Zhuang Wubin is a Singaporeence in your work. So which lithograph, and gold leafing on Rives BFK Tan paper and TGL Handmade light came first, music or photogbased photographer and arts blue paper, 76 x 96 cm. Ed . 30 . Created in collaboration with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. writer. raphy?
MARCH / APRIL 2005

People were telling me that I could fall back on the safety net of having a finance degree but I didn't see it that way. Personally, I saw no option: Either I become a photographer, or I don't do it at all. I guess there will be signs in your life that will show, in a subtle way, what you should do with it. I mean, it's not normal for a 19-year-old to get a bloody international cover and I didn't go through too much slog to get the picture of Sebas-tian Coe, so I thought that maybe I should be a photographer. It all boils down to the fact that you cannot please everyone in this business. You may shoot 20 rolls and your client may only approve two fram s. What can you do? Not forgetting those power-hungry CEOs who are thinking: "How dare you ask me to do this or do that [during a photo shoot]?"

Music came first. I first picked up classical piano , swrtched to pop, and then play d the saxophone which got me into jazz. Music has always been in the family environment as well. My uncle is an opera sing r in London. You know what? Photography is like jazz! There 's a main structure but you improvise especially when you are creating a rapport with the subject. It's also like a dance. You 're playing off each other, just like Miles and Coltrane in a band!

Recently, you did a residency with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. How was the experience?
It was a little way for me to

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