PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 14
INTERVIEW BY REBECCA STORM
To talk about Nguan’s photography without first considering his unique orchestration of color would be like talking about perfume without any mention of fragrance. What initially drew me (along with thousands of others) to his photos on Instagram was the seamless scroll of sublime pastel hues that substantiate much of his work. Nguan photographs people and places; often strangers, often peaceful interludes in otherwise congested cityscapes. He explores narratives that are both represented and perpetuated by the subjects he chooses—Nguan’s interest in “big city yearning and emotional globalisation,” exhibits what might constitute the modern day sublime: a documentation of the individual among the masses. The Singapore born-and-raised photographer believes it’s important to “look at the earth as if it was the moon”; to look objectively at one’s everyday and subsequently mundane surroundings; to ultimately adopt the observational habits of an alien. This habitual observation is increasingly uncommon in an era of over-stimulation, with masses of individuals funneling their attention into distractions and devices. Under a rosy cast, his photos of the quotidian and prosaic transform into something enchanting and ethereal: the classic Nguan aesthetic.
How do you find your subjects? Could you describe your shooting process?
My process involves walking for miles and miles, or sometimes standing completely still, but always being in a heightened state of attention when I’m out with my camera.
Do you ever feel nervous approaching others? Are you ever met with hostility?
It depends a lot on where I am. It’s easy to approach subjects in certain cities, and impossible in others. I don’t think I ever get a hostile reaction, but any kind of a rejection is bad enough. The trouble is, once you ask for permission and get a “no,” you can’t go back and make a candid picture—that would be an act of blatant aggression. So it’s smarter to shoot first and ask later. Sometimes I go, “Hey, I took a photo of you just now and I don’t think it’s going to turn out so well—do you mind if I take a proper picture?” But a posed picture isn’t always better.
Has anybody ever taken issue with you photographing their children?
Once I was taking pictures of a teenager on a beach. She was building a sandcastle taller than herself—it was glorious and looked like some cross between a pyramid and the Watts Towers. I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned around there was a girl, about 6 years old, who said very politely, “my mom asked me to tell you to stop taking pictures of my sister.” Her mother was only about fifteen feet away, but she sent the child to relay the message.
I’m completely sympathetic to anyone who has concerns about what I do. At the same time, I’m serious about my work, and my intentions are true. Thankfully I’ve had very few confrontations with the public over the years—maybe three or four incidents, in total.
What is your favourite way to connect with strangers? Does the relationship extend beyond merely photographing them?
I’ve found that compelling portraits can be made two seconds after meeting someone. In fact, shallow familiarity can obliterate a tension that can be valuable for good pictures. The most average of images result from forced “getting to know you” chats, like the sort you see on Humans of New York and its gazillion imitators. Of course, intimacy and trust can lead to amazing images too.
How important is social media to you?
Oh, it’s great. Ironically I was at my most prolific when I didn’t have an audience, but being able to communicate with people from all over the planet is a blessing.
In previous interviews you’ve mentioned an apathy for fiction, yet you’ve also expressed an interest in wanting to take “photos in the middle of a story”—how important is narrative to your work and how does that interact with your relationship to fiction?
I don’t mean to be so down on fiction; one of my favourite things is to go to the theatre whenever I’m in New York. But the only stories you can truly trust are the ones you create for yourself. I do like to say that each of my photos is the middle of a story, because its befores and afters are left entirely to the viewer. I’m reluctant to provide captions and contexts for my pictures, because those greatly limit where a viewer’s imagination can go. It’s the evocative potential of still images that make them unique.
It seems as though much of what is beautiful in a photograph is often assumed by some audiences to be a result of the film used. How integral is your choice of film stock?
It’s not so important since I scan my negatives and make digital prints. For the record—since I’m asked about it so often—I use Kodak Portra. I do miss Portra NC, but it’s no longer in production.
Your photos are lauded for their ethereal hues of pastel pinks and blues—is this an intentional arrangement of color in the editing process or is it a result of something more organic?
I like to shoot in the late afternoons, when the light is really soft. I owe my “look” to that, as well as to the quality of medium format film. I scan every single frame of film myself and get these crazy color casts. I try to coax those colors toward reality, but sometimes they don’t make it all the way back.
Name your top three most visually stimulating films:
I have a weak spot for the French New Wave, so I’ll go with Pierrot le Fou, Le Mépris and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg.
Your photography seems to have taken a shift from expressing an interest in massive crowds to more of an interest in the individual within a setting—a moving away from congested public spaces. In a Romantic sense, do you feel city scapes have replaced the sublimity of Nature? Are you at all interested in exploring an individual’s experience of this modern day sublime?
Yes, exactly. Walking in the street could well be the modern day equivalent of staring at the sea. The only reasonable response to all of the city’s stimulation, the encroach of its crowds and the possibility of sudden and decisive violence from around the corner or above is to withdraw deep within yourself. You could say that my photographs examine this experience, but they are also an effort to resist the terror. And although my work has evolved, it will always be about conjuring meaning from randomness, order from chaos. Whether I’m shooting landscapes or portraits, individual or crowd, candid or staged, it’s all about imposing a structure on what I see, editing the world, and hopefully creating a new and distinct one.
There’s a Stewart Brand quote on your blog: “children draw houses as unpreventably as they draw faces. No matter where they actually live, they nearly all draw the same house—one story, door in the middle, two windows to each side, pitched roof seen from the front, a central chimney with a swirl of smoke, and an inviting path up to the door.” Brand lobbied NASA to release photos of the moon, and talks about how the earth is surrounded by inhospitable space. Can this ideology be applied to your subjects? Is your work more a micro-observation of earth?
Do you notice how everything looks slightly altered when you look down from a plane or a tall building? Speeding cars appear to be crawling. The tumult below becomes eerily serene. It looks like a semblance of the world, transformed. I want my pictures to give a similar feeling of simultaneous calm and dislocation. And, like I said, it’s helpful for an artist to look at earth as if it were the moon.
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