Gallery Talk - Ming-Shiun Wu
Outside your fine art photography, you are also heavily involved in commercial and editorial photography. How do you balance the two and do they require a different mindset?
I have been practicing commercial/editorial photography for over 20 years, since I graduated from college. During my school years, I took several highly technical black and white fine art and nature photography courses. Although the processes differ somewhat, there are many similarities between the planning and preparation of my regular commercial projects and my fine art work. Unlike commercial work, that primarily takes place in a studio-controlled environment, most of my fine art photography takes place outdoors. Naturally, for the latter, seasons and weather conditions greatly impact the planning and outcome of a shoot.
Commercial projects usually have a deadline and budget, especially if the set requires a production crew. For the outdoor photography, it’s all about the moment. Sometimes I get the shot I’m looking for right away but usually the process takes longer. As lighting and movement are important elements in my work, it requires time and patience to capture that perfect moment I was aiming for.
Balancing the two different disciplines really helps me create head space and expand my creativity. Many times the two come together, or meld if you will, during the editorial process.
Your commercial shoots involve elaborate stage sets while your approach to your other photography seems more straightforward. Are there still similarities in how you prepared for the Death Valley series?
Yes, even though the outdoor photography seems more straightforward, I still share similar preparation processes that I also use for commercial shoots by, for example, exploring and researching an area prior to visiting.
How important is subject matter in your work and does living in Los Angeles influence it?
In Southern California, the variables between interesting locations and subject matter are endless. It is a culturally and historically rich and highly diverse area that offers an incredible mix of urban areas and nature reserves that incudes deserts, mountains, and of course the ocean. It’s my backyard and for me as an artist an endless source of inspiration. The climate here is also an advantage as the weather is typically dry and stable.
Did you visit Death Valley with a plan of what to photograph or did the idea arise on the spot?
I had visited Death Valley several times before and did have a plan and a list of specific locations. As it is the hottest place in North America, you must plan the trip accordingly and I usually go there either in late Fall or early Spring. The area is vast, remote, and can be dangerous, so you must plan carefully. It takes two hours of off-road driving from the nearest paved road to reach the Race Track rock area and you do not want to get lost on back country dirt roads as there is no cell phone signal and the roads are unmarked. You also want to pay close attention to time as it is easy, especially after dark, to become disoriented and lost in that area. At one point during a photo shoot, I got a flat tire due to sharp rocks in a dirt road so it’s important to be prepared for this type of mishap.
For me there is also a sense of urgency to continue visiting that area as, due to erosional forces and climate change, some of the views in Death Valley are gradually disappearing. The unique Race Track rocks area has been minimized due to climate change, as the conditions that make the rocks move (“windowpane” ice sheets that, with the help of wind, shove the rocks in front of them) have been altered by changing weather patterns. When I first visited the area in the mid-90’s, the Race Track rock tracks were clearly visible and with many more rocks compared to the very few we see today.
How important is process in your photography and what types of cameras do you use?
I started my photography with film-based 4x5 large format cameras. The equipment is bulky and the process slow and expensive. Each composition had to be carefully planned before I clicked the shutter.
While digital technology is far more advanced and convenient, and today’s photography can be created more efficiently and less expensive, I still hold to the same principles as in my early photography days as the disciplines involved are the same no matter if you are shooting on film or digital.
For the majority of my photoshoots, I currently use full-frame DSLR cameras, Canon 5D MarkIV, Canon 5D Mark III, and Canon 6D.
Are there photographers you admire who have influenced your work?
When I learned Zone System for black and white image processing, I tried to emulate Ansel Adams’ artwork is it was in my eyes the highest standard that I strove to achieve. For fashion and fine art photography, I admire and studied Irving Penn and Richard Avedon for their creativity and insights. The work by underwater photographer, Bruce Mozart, continues to inspire me for his pioneering and vintage underwater pinups. At the time his images were created, in the late 1930’s and 40’s, his art was considered breakthrough.
Even with a photogenic landscape such as Death Valley, it still requires the right light, color, and composition to capture an exceptional image. Do you know right away when an image is exceptional or is this more part of the discovery later on in the studio?
Yes, as mentioned earlier, I did have a plan for creating those images. For Death Valley, I followed my plan shot lists to ensure I would have enough time to set up and wait for the right moment to take the shots.
For me, to guarantee the quality of a finished image, I rely on years of experience and a vast amount of technical photography knowledge. The images are not an accident or coincidence.
What type of photography are you currently interested in and do you have any locations in mind where you will be next?
During the warmer seasons, I spend a tremendous amount of time in the water for my underwater photography and there are still many different concepts and challenges I’d like to explore.
My next location will be in Oahu, Hawaii. As an Islander, originally from Taiwan, I always love the vibe of the tropical islands. In my photography, I look forward to continuing to explore different ways in which to capture mountains and oceans.