Hugo Yu has dabbled in musical theatre and, at the other end of the spectrum, business studies. Not finding his “passion” in either pursuit, Hugo wound up feeling “lost” and without a sense of purpose. It was only when a friend pointed out to him that he seemed to have an innate capacity for taking photos that Hugo began to consider the possibility of turning something that had always been a casual hobby into a dedicated career and creative focus.
With a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, Hugo already has a clearly formed conception of his work’s visual identity. His employment of high-saturation primary colours and his acute attention to form and composition – whether shooting spontaneously in the street or crafting shots in the studio – display his commitment to honing his distinctive aesthetic. This is influenced, he says, by photographers such as William Eggleston, whose work turns the everyday into the remarkable.
The visual, formal and chromatic consistency in Hugo’s body of work is such that we can imagine coming across one of his photographs in a book or gallery and saying immediately: “Ah, yes – that’s a Hugo Yu.” This is not to say that Hugo’s photography is without variety; his range of subjects is broad and diverse. Whether it’s a still life of a yellow banana with a red balloon, a meticulously balanced sculptural work that makes use of the shadows cast by an egg, a roll of masking tape and a clothes peg, or a figurative street shot, full of human emotion, Hugo’s photographs are singularly beautiful and collectively astounding.
It’s Nice That: What made you decide to study photography?
Hugo Yu: During high school I studied musical theatre but I was never comfortable on stage. I then moved to Seattle to study business, but I never had a passion for it and found myself feeling lost. I asked my best friend for advice about what to do with my life and he told me that he had noticed me taking a lot of photos with my iPhone, so he suggested that I explore photography. The next semester I took a basic class in photography and I couldn’t stop shooting. I decided to apply somewhere I could study it more seriously.
I found a mentor in Shawn Chen, a fashion photographer based in Shanghai who I met while preparing to apply for art school. He didn’t teach me any technical skills; instead he showed me work that still informs my practice today, including filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and videos of Richard Avedon conducting fashion shoots. He helped me understand the importance of references and how to learn from great work. He said that to be a photographer, you first have to have good taste.
INT: What were the best and worst parts of studying?
HY: It’s helpful to have a community that is constantly in dialogue with your work, pointing out things you might have missed and pushing you in new directions. They give you new ideas and references to work from.
I don’t like it when teachers set too many rules – what is right, what is wrong, how to shoot, what to do and what not to do. With these restrictions it can get confusing and impossible to break out and do your own thing. Some teachers have a very specific point of view that they try to impose on their students. If you show the same photo to four different instructors, you will get four different responses. You have to learn when to take their critical input and when to filter out the noise. Their advice often comes from a place of personal discovery and I need to make those discoveries for myself.
“The world in my photographs is still and serene”
INT: What has helped to shape your creative outlook?
HY: The single biggest impact something has had on my work was a William Eggleston show I saw in 2016. When Eggleston’s work was exhibited at the MoMA in 1976, it was derided as boring and vulgar for its everyday subject matter and its use of colour. Of course, many of Eggleston’s subjects ARE boring. Tricycles, ceiling lights, gas stations and kitchen sinks are not particularly interesting in and of themselves. But what elevates them is Eggleston’s colours and the context in which he composes his images. His work showed me that ‘boring’ subjects could be shot in a captivating way that imbues them with weirdness and beauty.
INT: Can you tell us about your use of colour?
HY: My photographs exist in a world without defect, and colour is an important part of that for me. The world in my photographs is still and serene, and the colour holds the whole photograph together. My colours are drawn from the chromatics of film photography and movies which use filters over the colour of real life. I try to exaggerate the serenity of everyday life, by capturing scenes, colours, and compositions that could only exist in the camera.
Colour also gives me direction, especially when shooting on the street. It’s the first thing I see when I’m taking pictures. My street photography then feeds into my studio work; I find my colours and subjects organically on the street and then seek them out purposefully to create new scenes and compositions in the studio. My studio work is meticulously composed by hand, whereas my street photographs are composed by the world around me – I just have to find them. This cycle blurs the line between what is authentic and what is fiction, another motif that is important to my work.
“I’m very particular about the objects I surround myself with”
INT: What are your main aspirations for your practice?
HY: Just as my street photography informs my studio work, my commercial jobs inform my fine art. I’m excited to expand my visual vocabulary as I take on more jobs and commissions. An unexpected request from a client can force you to think differently about your work and push you to add depth to your lexicon.
I also have plans to expand my practice beyond photography. My sense of colour and composition has applications in other areas like fashion, sculpture, film, and product design. I’m very particular about the objects I surround myself with and I’d like to bring my ideas in these areas to a wider audience. I relate much more to the 1920s when someone like Maholy-Nagy could drift between disciplines such as experimental photography, advertising and graphic design. Eventually, I hope to have my own studio and surround myself with people who help me execute my vision. For now, I’ll just do it myself!
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