Cynthia Reeser (Tampa Review Online): Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. It’s a pleasure to be able to talk with you about your work. Visiting your website, I’m reminded of the breadth and scope of work you do (and that of your husband and artistic partner, Peter Tieryas Liu). Could you talk about your work as an artist, and all the forms you work in?
Angela Xu: I’ve never thought of myself as an artist per se. In my mind, Shakespeare is as much an artist as the famous sushi chef, Jiro, as well as the random graffiti you see on the walls of the urban nightmare of cities, exemplified by Banksy. While Van Gogh is an artist in the traditional sense, as is Picasso, I admire both mostly for their passion bordering on the psychotic. You have to be that crazy to be able to view things from an atypical, almost bizarre perspective. Their influence on art history correlates to the madness with which they viewed the world and the ways they exposed a vision audiences had never contemplated before. In many ways, I think of myself as a recorder, and it’s the interpretation that I focus mostly on—the angles. A subject will look completely different if I shoot her from a lower angle versus a higher angle or a wide shot, which might reveal decay or decadence. Artistry revolves around perspective, and I don’t try to limit myself in terms of forms, though I enjoy photography. The collaborations with my husband are a completely different beast as we try to find a thematic bridge in visual cues that he can then accompany with text. At the same time, pacing is important because too much text bogs down the visual flow of imagery, so it’s a constant balancing act. I also enjoy expressing myself through paintings, calligraphy, and music. I understand delineations in terms of making it easier to categorize someone. But I like to experiment and push the canvas where I play so that it’s more about the “angle” I’m trying to show rather than the medium itself.
CR: One of the most striking things, to me, about your photography is the focus on people; your photographs show them simply going about their daily lives, but the wide variety of emotional nuance you’re able to capture is notable because there is so much honesty in it. Is this something you aim for in your photography?
AX: Absolutely. Every face is like a thousand paintings in constant flux. I just visited La Jolla, and the sunset there was so beautiful. A golden haze sprayed out from sunset on the sea waves, and there was an incredible beach with hundreds of sea lions. I took a ton of pictures. They were like paintings. But I guarantee you, if you put up the most beautiful picture of scenery in the world, and right next to it, have an interesting-looking person, everyone will be drawn toward the portrait of the person. Maybe it’s the herd instinct in us or we’re just gregarious by nature, but people are what make life and art so interesting. The ultimate punishment in Eden wouldn’t have been banishment from the garden, but from each other—complete isolation. We need others. At the same time, in my photography, I really try to capture those moments where everything is laid bare. People can’t fake it though (unless you’re just an amazing actress). Their whole life is a form of art. When I photograph, I’m trying to capture frames from the living picture. I’m a curator of emotion. How many struggles, how many loves, how many tears have vanished undocumented. I want to capture as many of those moments as I can. Both Rembrandt and Robert Henri are inspirations in that sense. In their paintings, versus other pictures during that same time period, there’s an unmistakable attitude they capture. I want to lay bare the humanity of those I record, even if just for a fleeting second. In the case of these photos in Xi’an, I wondered about their lives, their tragedies, and their triumphs. Who were they? That question drove the thousands of photographs I took that day.
CR: What do you feel good photography should do for the viewer?
AX: That depends a lot on how the viewer defines “good.” For me personally, I look for something I’ve never seen before or something around me I’ve never noticed. Then again, the photography could be something I see daily, just in a way I’d never experienced before. It should shock, disturb, even be provocative, but that’s general, as even pornography can encompass those three.
The tricky part is that a lot of it depends on mood, too. Sometimes, I’ll want to see dramatic photos, and other times, I’m happy with pictures of cute puppies. In that sense, I feel anything that makes you emote is a good photograph. However, if you want it to transcend individual meaning, there has to be some kind of message in the photo. If a photo can tell a story that supersedes race, time, region, and even place, it’ll haunt and resonate far beyond the initial viewing. That’s why I think the photo of “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” still has so much poignancy—because of all it represents decades later.
One of the most interesting shifts in our approach to photography now is that with the spread of digital photography, it’s hard for there to be a single image that represents a moment, as you can take millions with your digital camera and your phone. Even if the image isn’t perfect, a couple waves of the magic wand and cropping tools in Photoshop, and voila, you’re creating reality edited to your desired parameters. The difficult part is, you can’t doctor emotion on a person’s face. Like Heisenberg’s Equilibrium, when a subject knows they’re being photographed, they immediately change and react to the camera. For me, one of the biggest challenges is capturing people in a natural pose so that it’s authentic without being intrusive. I try to photograph the images that are most interesting to me. Sometimes I succeed, most times I don’t. My hope is that the ones I do end up liking the most are the ones audiences will react to.
AX: Picasso’s quote, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” is something I espouse. At the same time, can art and truth ever cohabitate? Art is by nature subjective, an interpretation of something external. Even math is quantified art constrained by the numerical points that form the sums of its equations. So I have to wonder if truth is something we should strive for as artists. I’m not talking objective truths, nor ethical questions of right and wrong, when it comes to the matter of truth. I mean the nature of reality as interpreted by art. Some of the best art I’ve seen rejects the truth and encourages escapism. Others strive solely for truth and are soporific as a result. I once spent several hours in a garden observing a colony of ants. They were extremely busy with their job, rushing back and forth, waving their antennae, communicating with each other. From above, there was an esoteric beauty in their movements, a symmetry inspiring a sense of wonder. Again, angles. If I were an ant, I would probably be miserable, slaving away day after day as a mindless drone. In my art and photography, I want to explore those angles and make a connection to those who see their reality from different perspectives. I want all our truths to connect. Somewhere in those threads is my philosophy. Somewhere there is my lie Photoshopped as truth, or is it the other way around?
Visit Angela Xu on the web at: http://www.tieryasxu.com/
Angela Xu is an international photographer who enjoys taking photos of the obscure. Her work has been published at places like Calyx, Juked, Prick of the Spindle, and Redivider. She is the art editor atEntropy Magazine.
Cynthia Reeser is the Founder and Publisher of Aqueous Books, and Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Prick of the Spindle literary journal. She has published more than 100 reviews in print and online, as well as poetry and fiction in print and online journals. Her short stories are anthologized in the Daughters of Icarus Anthology (Pink Narcissus Press, 2013), and in Follow the Blood: Tales Inspired by The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (Sundog Lit, 2013). Cynthia is currently working on a literary short story collection inspired by fairy tale lore. Also a senior editor for two association management companies, she lives and works in the Birmingham area and attends the University of Tampa in pursuit of her MFA in Creative Writing (fiction). Visit her on the web at www.cynthiareeser.com.