It’s November 3rd, 2020: election day in the US. Amidst the COVID pandemic, we Facetime with photographer Hugo Yu to talk about his work and vision; a welcome distraction especially on a day like today when, being from Chinese descent and currently living in New York, his mind is a rollercoaster.
Hi Hugo, how did you end up as a photographer in New York?
My parents are both artists, and my grandfather’s biggest hobby is photography. Somehow I thought business school was a safer bet for me, so I came to the US to study marketing. But people started to notice my photography and liking my work. That’s when the idea of pursuing photography as a career slowly started to develop in my head. Also I wasn’t that thrilled about marketing anymore, so I applied for a BA in photography here in New York City. Back in Shanghai I would only come home for the weekends, because I was in school the rest of the week. So the idea of crossing an ocean to live on my own, in a place where I only knew one other person, wasn’t that daunting to me. I have been very independent from an early age – but my mother actually still calls me daily to check in on me.
Both in your street photography as well as your studio work your signature is omni-present; there’s a strong use of colour, refined compositions, elevating everyday objects or scenes. How would you yourself describe your work in 3 words?
Quiet, serene... and the third one I need to think about. I guess nostalgic, as it reflects both good and bad. What I’m trying to say is that my work reflects on a moment, and it can be sad knowing that a good moment has passed. Perhaps melancholic is a better word?
Is that also what you hope people see in your work?
I hope people can connect to my work. I don’t want to tell too much about my work and what it means to me personally, since I want people to find their own meaning to my work. I like my work to raise a question without answering it.
Would you consider your work to be reflective of your Chinese roots and NYC life?
There is this very strict and rigid aspect to the way I work. I think this comes from my upbringing in Shanghai, and Chinese culture in general. I think my time in NYC has let me explore my point of view as an individual. And develop my own self expression in my work —Chinese culture is very focused on the collective, where American culture is focused on the individual.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
Music is very important to me. Growing up I always wanted to study musical theater. The first song I listened to on repeat was Platscher by Berlin techno DJ Paul Kalbrenner. For me it’s pure minimalist perfection allowing me to get into a higher focused mindset. I also moonlight as a DJ where I like to play Disco and House. Artwise I’m constantly inspired by Russian constructivism, surrealism and I love dada. Then there’s also Moholy Nagy as part of the Bauhaus movement. And of course Alexander Calder, a photographer sculptor. If one day I could own a yard with one of his sculptures, I’ll just sit there and stare at it for days. It would never bore me.
I love his mobiles!
Yes, they’re amazing as well.
And also daily life in general inspires me a lot. Cooking for example, is a huge love and source of inspiration for me. Slicing veggies can be meditative. Photography taught me how to look into the details in life, which are an endless source of inspiration for me.
But my biggest influence of all has to be Eggleston. I remember walking out of his expo ‘Democratic Forrest’ and I was just seeing colours more clearly. From that moment on, my colour usage exploded.
When do you make your best work?
When I’m surrounded by people that I trust and respect for their artistic views. My roommate, a very talented graphic designer Willie Shaw, is one of my most trusted sources for reflection. I like to work with people I trust.
Is there a clear intention when working in the studio? Or do you work more intuitively you would say?
It’s a cycle of experimentation and implementation. On the street it’s easier to experiment because you’re constantly confronted with new situations and you have to react in the moment. It’s not until afterwards, when you see the shots, that you can start figuring out what was working and what wasn’t working. I’ll bring the concepts that work into the studio for a more controlled shot. I obviously also experiment when I'm in the studio, but in a different way.
A testimony to this statement is the work that we saw you produce during the COVID lockdown. It really blew our minds.
Thank you. During the lockdown my roommate and I got to escape the city and stay with my roommate’s parents in Connecticut. There was a beautiful yard and plenty of space and time to experiment. It confirmed to me that I don’t need that much to create good work. My new teachers actually gave me such a nice compliment on this saying that my work has a painting-like quality to it. They say your eyes move around my pieces in a similar way as with a painting.
You’re currently doing a MA in fine arts, specializing in sculpture. And also further deepening your signature still life sets in your photography. What are your dreams for your own practice?
My goal is to be able to express myself in different mediums. I have ideas that are shaped in a 3D space. I want to develop sculpture techniques and find the right specialists to collaborate with. My dream would be a full blown studio, capable of taking up any project involving visual expression.
What was your first memory growing up? It can be anything from any age.
Don’t worry about sounding professional. Sound like you. There are over 1.5 billion websites out there, but your story is what’s going to separate this one from the rest.
We started our Homecoming as we felt a lot of people are experiencing the art world as intimidating and/or exclusive, what is this world to you?
I agree. I think the art world right now is unnecessarily complicated, and full of jargon that makes people feel like there’s something they are not understanding about art. It doesn’t have to be that complicated! If you connect with a piece, if you feel something mysterious, if you feel intrigued by something, just move towards that.
What is your relationship to your curator Holly Hay from Wallpaper*?
Holly and I met when she selected me for the Wallpaper* graduate shortlist. We stayed in touch, and I feel lucky to have her as one of the few amazing mentors that I trust and whose opinions I value. I think mentorship is very important. Being able to get feedback from people I trust is crucial to my work.
What is home to you? What meaning do you give the word?
Home to me is a place for trust and forgiveness. The only place you can go always return to and always be forgiven. I don’t really care about material objects. Being an extreme perfectionist, not much makes it into my room. But I would love an Eames lounge chair. Post modernist furniture is actually a big passion of mine, but it’s so expensive; especially over here in The States. I like my bright yellow, minimalist, seventies, round shaped, organiser/wall object. And a painting by my friend Lily Fei, which I begged her to make for me. Her work is amazing.
Home is now even more so a place to come together as outside restrictions apply - I found myself cooking more than ever. What are your home rituals?
Chinese hotpot is my favorite meal for a dinner party. The heart and soul of the dish is an intensely flavoured stock, finely chopped meats and veggies on the side. And a dip, that’s it. Simple but so good. Hotpots are the best recipe for a fun night!