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Photographer Vivian Fu’s gaze is unflinching, whether she’s imaging herself, the tension and tenderness of her relationship, or the poignant details of everyday life. Her work is diaristic enough to feel like an intimate, albeit well-curated, glance at her real life, but elegant enough to function in fine art contexts. Throughout her compelling body of work, she tackles the taboo give and take of sexual power, essentialized notions of ‘Asianness’ in society, and the inherent strength in picturing vulnerability. Although she often appears in her photographs, it is abundantly clear that Vivian Fu authors this story. At once candid and considered, the photographer takes us through her artistic approach.
What first attracted you to photography?
Initially, I was attracted to photography out of boredom; it was something to do on family road trips where we would wake up before dawn so dad could photograph the sunrise and stay out late into the evening so he could photograph the sunset. All his photos differed so much from my own experience. Photography gave me permission to tell my version of the story. There are a lot of other reasons why I’m drawn to photography: being sentimental and wanting keepsakes of moments, having a nosy side and wanting to see everything, and not possessing any particular talent for other mediums.
Your series Me and Tim offers a close look at your relationship with your partner. What inspired such a close examination?
My photographs, in general, offer a close look at my life, so when Tim and I started dating almost five years ago, he naturally began appearing in my photos.
Your work is extremely intimate. You take photographs of yourself in sexual contexts, nude, crying, meeting people for the first time. Why is it important to you to represent vulnerability in your work?
Representing vulnerability in my work isn’t a goal I had in mind. Those things don’t make me feel vulnerable, and as a result, I don’t fear photographing them. Like I said, I’m very sentimental, and I think even though we’re not supposed to image sex or uncomfortable moments like crying, I’m still compelled to photograph them.
How has internet culture shaped your work?
The internet has been a part of my life for a large portion of my conscious years and because of it, I have been introduced to new ideas and artists, which has, in turn, influenced my work. As somebody who grew up with the internet, I’m comfortable with it, and it makes the most sense to share my photographs online, but conceptually, my pictures have very little to do with the internet. I guess something that could tie my work to the internet is that my use of both is to look and to learn.
What are the challenges of using photography, a medium grounded in the real world, to express a notion as abstract as identity in your series Asian Girls?
Photography isn’t inherently grounded in the real world, as it has been used just as long for telling lies, and what’s real for some people isn’t universally real for everybody else. Since there is no singular human experience, people bring their diverse range of lived experiences when viewing work, which is, of course, beautiful and interesting to get various reads of your work, but also problematic if you want your work to be understood in one particular way.
Are you trying to represent truth in your photography?
Yes and no. Maybe it’s not the truth, but it’s still honest, if that makes sense. It’s a selective truth.
Is your photography idealized? On the other hand, is it not idealized – and is that ‘truthfulness’ inherently more female?
They’re definitely idealized, and I don’t see ‘idealized’ and ‘truthfulness’ as being inherently separate.
Do you consider your work a diary?
A lot of people use social media as a platform for sharing their personal stories these days. Where is the line between Instagram photo diary and diaristic art?
I don’t necessarily think that there has to be a line, but if there were a line, I’d say it was the intention with which the work was made.
What would you say to those who consider you showing your body reiterating the ‘male gaze’?
That’s okay – I just happen to disagree. When making photographs, I am the primary viewer I am concerned about, but happen to also share my photographs with other people, which I recognize changes my photos from ‘private’ to something less so, and in that way, the gaze I am engaging with is no longer just my own. Including my body is part of my diary.
You often shoot on film and even include the analog time stamp on some of your images. What’s your attraction to analog photography?
I began shooting film because it was a process I romanticized, but it eventually became a part of my work process because it lends itself well to my work. For example, the time stamp setting I often use helps reference time but doesn’t root the images and moments to specifically identifiable times. It’s a reference to time without necessarily being tangible, which helps heighten the sentimental nature of my work. I think the grain and color of film also heightens this feeling.
What’s the best format for people to experience photography?
Looking at photos in book form is my favorite – you have more time to sit with it and in the comfort of your own home.
What photographers inspire you?
Right now I’m thinking about Nobuyoshi Araki a lot.
How did growing up in Southern California affect your artistic perspective?
Where I grew up in Southern California, all the houses are beige stucco replicas of each other, and in some way, the aesthetic of my photographs are the antithesis of that. My photographs are lush, colorful, textured, patterned, and messy. In another way, California has a certain laid-back warmth to it, and that’s definitely had an effect on my artistic perspective.