I am Yan Wang Preston and this is why I shoot film
Regular readers will remember reading about Yan’s current project, Mother River here on EMULSIVE a couple of weeks ago and I’m, please to be able to finally bring more of her words and work to you in today’s fresh EMULSIVE interview.
Over to you, Yan!
Hi Yan, what’s this picture, then?
YWP: This is “Y1”, the source of the Yangtze River, the first picture in my Mother River series (2010-2014). I rarely share this picture online because it is one of my most important personal pictures. It is the home of my Mother River, home of the home. Taken at 5,400 meters above the sea level in the deep Tibetan Plateau at about -30 degrees centigrade. I love the extremely subtle tonality. I made several exposures of only one view on the day (16th November 2011), after travelling for nearly two weeks to get there.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
YWP: I’m a British-Chinese artist based in West Yorkshire, UK. I was born in central China and trained in Clinical Medicine there. I worked as an anaesthetist in Shanghai before moving to the UK in 2005. That’s when I decided to become a photographer. I was an amateur photographer in China but to turn into a career was the biggest decision I have made so far.
I spent my first 5 years in the UK learning the trade, doing whatever I could with photography; weddings, postcards and everything else. Since 2010 I have concentrated on my own work. So far I’ve completed three personal projects, Mother River (2010-2014), for which I photographed the entire 6,211km Yangtze River in China, Forest (2010-2017) for which I photographed transplanted old trees in Chinese cities and He-River Together (a performance series with the aim to embody myself into the landscapes, 2011-2012).
This year I’m publishing two monographs. This is a wrapping-up year for me, I think. And a new beginning. I don’t know where I’m going yet but it’ll need to be a challenging idea.
When did you start shooting film and what drives you to keep shooting?
YWP: I learned photography shooting film. Nowadays I often use digital cameras for assignments and other occasions. But for selected projects, I prefer using film. This is not about being nostalgic or anything like that. For some work, I prefer to have more of a ‘thinking and feeling’ approach. The story is more cerebral, more in my mind, and more imaginative. The slow and careful shooting process aids me to get into a different zone, a zone of being intuitive and reflective at the same time.
Meanwhile, I do admit that I like the film grain. But that’s not essential. It helps for some work but not the others.
Who or what influenced your photography when you first started out and who continues to influence you today?
YWP: I remember the deep shock when I first encountered the photographs of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Galen Rowell, Marc Ribout, some of the National Geographic Magazine photos and the French humanistic photo-journalism pictures. They took my breath away. These definitely influenced my early practice while some aspects of them continue to influence me today.
Since I came to the UK, I’ve been heavily influenced by the New Topographic group of photographers. But I prefer a warmer tone in my own work. Perhaps I can explain this with paintings. I’m equally in love with the expansion of Rothko and the mad details of Bruegel the elder. I also feel a deep connection with the celestial Chinese landscapes. So far I’ve been exploring the topographic and the story-telling. But I may try something else in my future projects. Name wise, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Jem Southam, Boomoon are on my top list of influences at the moment.
Are you a mixed medium photographer? What drives your choice to use film or digital from one day to the next?
I use digital when the fast turnaround time is beneficial and when I don’t need to have a very deep emotional and intellectual engagement with my subject. I can’t see any binary between the two medium. They both have their advantages and limitations. We’re lucky to have both.
What’s your next challenge…your next step? How do you see yourself improving your technique? What aspect of your photography would you like to try and master in the next 12 months?
YWP: I would like to ‘let myself go’ a bit. This means that I would like to have a more personal and intuitive approach when making pictures. Meanwhile, I would like to make pictures that work on more, different levels. For example, how can you make a picture that is not only political but also historical? I mean, how can a picture add onto the development of a media (i.e. Chinese landscapes) while avoiding simply adding on the myth of it? Is the format? Or the content?
I’m not interested in a picture that merely expresses a personal ‘feeling’ or a picture as a visual pleasure. It needs to be a lot more than that. How can it be ‘personal’ and ‘intuitive’ but also ‘cerebral’ and ‘intellectual’ at the same time?
Do you have a subject matter or style you always find yourself being drawn to? Why?
YWP: I’m very interested in the contested meaning of ‘nature’. This can be reflected in the genre of landscape, or in any other picture style. I suppose that it is life. I’m interested in life, the wider meaning of it – and the extension of it in history.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an unknown assignment. You can take one camera, one lens, two films and you have no idea what you’ll be shooting. What do you take with you and why?
YWP: I’ll take my Linhof Master Technika Classic, 150mm Rodenstock lens and two sheets of Kodak Portra 4×5 film. Oh, and the tripod too. I’m familiar with this system and know how it will or won’t perform. It is simplistic but its potential is limitless.
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location for the rest of your life. What do you take, where do you go and why?
YWP: The no-brainer answer is to go to the west of China. It is a land with mighty mountains, rivers, people and modernising development. I have a passion for the Tibetan Plateau, where I feel the most alive. But I have actually restrained myself from going there. Now there is a chance, and I’ll take it.
Of course, I have other ideas that involve working more locally, with a more research driven and less topographic approach. But I can’t see how it works yet. So I’d go to Tibet.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll of film, where and how will you expose it and why?
YWP: Oh. With my last box? I’ll take portraits of my family in the woods next to our house. It is memory and family that are important in this incident.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about film photography today and how would you set it straight?
YWP: I think the biggest misconception is that mythic opposition between film and digital photography. We’re often drawn to have an either/or approach instead of a both/and approach. I don’t care which approach people take, it is the pictures that count. Having said that, different processes do have different meanings associated with them. It is not good or bad, it is simply ‘what does it mean?’
I don’t see it as my personal responsibility to ‘set it straight’. What I can do is to resist unreasonable temptations and stick to my own principles. Talking points such as ‘new generation of photography, conceptual versus documentary and the current trend are not important. What we need to remember is what we want to do with photography, and find the most suitable to do it. There is so much photograph out there. I’ll try to make my pictures count. They shouldn’t be just the white noise.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
YWP: I think that film photography is going to be a very niche market. For all the trouble and cost, the user needs to seriously ask him or herself: ‘Why am I doing this? Is it still absolutely necessary?’. But it won’t go away for a very long time yet. In fact, people are still using the early alternative photographic processes that are even more complicated. We like to play with different tools.
Thanks very much to Yan for stepping up, it’s very much appreciated. Yan’s Mother River project has been an epic undertaking and combining travel, shooting, developing and preparation of the final book, has taken over half a decade of her life. It puts the small photo projects and builds we put off time and time again to shame; and helps put into perspective the fact that if there is a will, we will find a way.
There’s more about the book here on EMULSIVE, or you can head on over to Kickstarter to support its completion yourself. Please catch up with Yan over on Twitter and if you get a moment, head on over to her website to check out more of her work!
I’ve got a very special interview coming up in a couple of weeks but in the meantime, I’ll leave you to check out some of the other fantastic work here on EMULSIVE over the past week. Thanks for reading and as ever, keep shooting, folks!
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