I don’t feel like writing an intro to this Jerry Hsu interview because I’m hungry and tired and because Jerry talks a lot so this interview is already really long, but I will mention that Wikipedia says that Jerry was a child prodigy of dark slides, and for about three hours one day it said that he was a known child pervert, but Wikipedia changed it back really fast and wouldn’t let me keep inputting that same information for some reason.
The reason for this interview, besides a nice trip to Swingers and another opportunity to link the words “known child pervert” and “Jerry Hsu” on the Internet, is that Jerry’s solo photography show “A Love Like Mine Is Hard To Find” opened last week at Slow Culture gallery and runs through May 2nd. Jerry takes beautiful, complicated photos and you should go see them.
Now here is an interview (portions of which appear in the piece about Jerry Hsu on Smashbox Studio’s The Hype blog):
Yasi: Hi Jerry, how’s it going?
Jerry: Good, how are you?
Great! I know you’ve said this a thousand times, but let’s try and say it fresh and new, or make it up… Like, how did you first get into photography?
Well, first it was just from being a skater and looking at skate magazines and wanting to just document like, me and all my friends. That’s how it initially started. It was just like, wanting to copy what I saw in skate magazines. So we would just shoot photos of skateboarding, that’s how it really started.
What was the first camera that you shot on?
I don’t remember… It was one of my mom’s cameras… Like the family cameras. It was some kind of Canon auto… Like your mom’s camera. That was the very first camera I used.
Were you like 12 or something?
I Was probably like, 13, around then, 13 or 14 just shooting photos of, you know, just my friends. And it was just really fun like getting the film back and seeing everything. That was kind of the start of it. And that’s when I started getting more into filming my friends and taking photos and then paying more attention to skate photography because at the time it was pretty artistic. There was a lot of cool small magazines like Slap and stuff which had like really, really good photographers, so I was kind of learning about how things looked and they way they accomplished those effects, it was awesome. And then in high school I took photo classes.
Do you think those photos were artistic and cooler back then because they were shot on film?
Not totally necessarily… But the short answer is yes, totally. But I mean, people today who don’t shoot film at all, they could be a little bit more creative you know… But it’s skate photography, like whatever, essentially it’s really just sports photography. But back then, yeah, there were way more artistic photographers, and also photographers were way more willing to experiment more I think, because there was just more of a focus on the photography. There’s so much more going on now, I think it’s more hard for people to focus, they are just so distracted. Back then they just had the film and camera, and if they printed stuff themselves it was a very involved process. Now it’s just, photo, and that’s it.
Yeah, 200 clicks, 200 photos.
When did you start shifting your focus away from skate photography and being like, “Oh, I want to shoot that bird over there” or whatever.
Hah, well my bird photography started… haha nah. It was at a time when I was 16 or 17 were all those skate photographers that I was working with, they knew a lot about photography, and so I would ask them like, “What do you like? How did you learn?” And they would tell me about photographers they liked. And then I took some classes where I learned about important photographers. Those first classes were like, Edward Weston, Eugene Smith and just kind of like classic photo class. The people they would teach you in a photo class and all that stuff. But then I started to look on my own for what I liked. I started to find things like Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. I would just go to Barnes & Noble and try to find books with a bunch of shit. I got a lot of compilation photography books to just try and see like “Oh, what do I like?” So that’s how I started learning, other photographers. And they would just kind of point me in the right direction. And I also started seeing like zines and stuff that people would make. Like even Patrick O’Dell… I was in a photographers car and I found a zine he made and I thought it was so cool and I thought “I want to do this.” So Patrick is actually very influential to me because just his point-and-shoot style, I really dug it. And it was also full of skaters that I really liked and it wasn’t skating, it was what they were doing when they weren’t skating, which really interested me.
Were you touring a lot during this time? Because you were in high school…
It was right when I started touring. My first tour was when I was 15, it was this cross-country tour, and I did bring a camera on that, but I didn’t really shoot that many photos because it took a while to build the courage to start shooting photos of everything. There was excitement but there was also a shyness about taking photos of stuff. Like when I look back I also think, “Oh I wish I shot way more stuff,” but I was just way too shy. But yeah I was touring and that made things interesting because everything was new and when you’re around all kinds of new stuff you just want to shoot everything.
This is just a logistic question not having to do with anything, but as a 15 year old how do they (i.e Su Hsu) let you leave for tour?
Well it was during the summer, but my team manager had to talk to my mom on the phone, and looking back I’m pretty surprised that my mom let me do that. Because I was 15 and as soon as I got in the van it was really bad. It was like beer, girls in the hotel room, it was immediately like a bad influence. Bad influences happened like right away.
So you were getting super into photography and you’re still skating and traveling the world. Do you remember the moment or the time when you were starting to take photography more seriously and it wasn’t just like, a hobby anymore and you were like “oh this is fun I’m interested” to “oh I really want to do this more as a career”?
I don’t really know the exact moment because it was always really hard for me to know when to take it seriously. I guess when people started to notice, I guess that’s when everybody knows. When people start to notice what you’re doing. Like when they are asking you to contribute.
How did people notice?
I guess the first break was Patrick, again, Patrick O’Dell, who was in New York. He knew I was really into photography and he had seen photos. We had made zines together and stuff, and he showed Tim Barber who was the Vice photo editor at the time, and Tim saw my photos. He literally came to Patrick’s apartment, looked at my photos on a computer, and he was like “These are great, let’s put this in a photo annual” or whatever. And that’s sort of when people started to notice and email me, so it was really Patrick and Tim supporting what I did. That’s kind of how it all started and that’s when I began to realize “Oh, I guess I’m okay at this” or people like it.
You’ve developed a very specific aesthetic I feel like with what you like to shoot now, I don’t know if you’d agree, but…
It’s a little urban, it’s a little “sad times” sometimes, or I don’t know, bleak?
Yeah, it can be bleak I really love how those types of photos make me feel. Like when I look at a photo that’s like, bleak, not too bleak obviously, but just stimulates that part of me where… Ah it’s so hard to talk about but the things that I like to shoot photos of I notice that a lot of people just want to ignore, they don’t really want to see that stuff necessarily. Like seeing it is fine, but processing it and examining it and appreciating it… People just want to get on with it. But if you show something like that to someone in the right way I think they can be really for it.
Do you think it’s the kind of thing where it forces people to think about things they might not want to?
I don’t know, whatever it is, maybe it’s not the actual subject of the photo or their own reaction to it, like maybe it’s therapeutic in a way?
Yeah sure yeah, it even forces me to think about things I don’t want to think about, because initially when I see it or if I think of an idea… I just know what I like and I know when I see it. I just try instinctively to create my pictures but I don’t think about it too hard because sometimes I look at it super fast…
Right like you have to catch something.
Yeah I just have to recognize something and get it, because editing is such a huge part of what I do. I’ll take like thousands of photos but really only like two will meet my criteria or will be good enough for me to show someone. So that’s a huge part of it. Like if I take a photo, it could be such crap. But later is when you decide what is important and what isn’t important. Like the story you want to tell, editing is such a huge part of that. You just instinctually take pictures. I don’t know what the word is but you just cherry pick the ones that tell the story you want to tell. And the story can be different every time. You can take photos for a year and you can look at them all.
Like in a narrative form.
Yeah exactly. Like in an interview with someone you can look at them on the TV and they can make you look how they want
Yeah totally, I’m going to do it with you right now.
I know, I know that’s why I’m super nervous haha. No but, that’s a really big part of it.
How often would you say that you actually set up shop as opposed to just catching them all on the fly?
It depends on a couple of things. Definitely if I’m not shooting a lot then I feel kind of bad and I want to create something, because a lot of what I like… I really like street photography or immersive photography but sometimes I’m just not in any type of situation where I can achieve pictures like that.
Yeah because you have to leave your house sometimes…
Haha, sometimes you have to get out of bed to get a photo and I don’t want to do that… Hah no but if I feel like nothing is going on and I’m not making anything I sort of, you know, it pushes me to, because I sort of list ideas, things that I want to see, because things aren’t just going to happen, you can’t just wish for things to happen. Sometimes you have to create something you want to see. I don’t do it that often, just whenever I feel like my life needs it, or I need to make something.
Like a catalyst.
Yeah, or if I just have an idea. Sometimes I just get an idea and I have to do it right away because I know I won’t do it later or the opportunity is there or whatever. I guess it just depends on how busy I am, how much I’m shooting and all that stuff.
“All that stuff” that’s usually a good indicator that you’re done answering the question…Do you ever feel that sad photos are somewhat similar to sad songs in the way they make people feel? Or do you think it’s different in a way that people like to listen to sad songs and don’t like to look at sad photos?
I mean it totally depends. I’m definitely not trying to make sad pictures, I’m just sort of trying to build a narrative that I would like to see. A lot of humor is involved too because they are very connected. Like feeling bleakness or sadness is a coping mechanism. I mean I don’t want to straight up bum people out. Like there is an arc, and I feel like humor is the arc and I don’t want to be too heavy handed with either of them. I try to be subtle because no one wants to be bashed over the head with anybody’s ideas. But yeah it’s very similar because I like sad songs, but not all the time, but when I hear one and it’s the right time, it’s really meaningful. And it’s the same thing with images, and you don’t really need to be specifically a listener or look like a person who uses their eyes a lot, you know what I mean? Maybe this sounds really down but…
Like people actually looking around and being aware, it’s an awareness thing.
Yup. I mean a lot of people don’t want to be aware.
So Nate called me and wanted to work together on a zine. He wanted a theme, and I was super down for that. He sort of brought up a theme about obsessive photography, quote on quote obsessive, but what I think he meant was a series, like “let’s do it where I do my series and you do your series and we put it together.” Because we both do a lot of series. He told me what he wanted to do, he wanted to do still life’s with books, like still life’s of nudes with books in the photos, and I kind of went through the things that I do, one thing that I did was, because i’m always in the streets, I noticed that I shot a lot of photos of people reading in the streets. People kind of like, not necessarily homeless people, but people who live on the fringe or whatever and people who are kind of just like sitting there on the street and they are kind of doing nothing, but occasionally I would see them reading which, it was a little bit surprising, like oh they still want to stay busy and also, oh they are still interested in life a little bit
They didn’t give up.
Yeah like it’s kind of cool, like they find a novel they are interested in and started reading, it gave me a hopeful feeling, because they view those people as garbage.
As failures, yeah that’s a really interesting point, it’s a good point in how you’re saying it makes people look at people differently. Just because those people don’t live in like traditional society, it doesn’t mean that they failed. It might mean that they chose to live on the fringe. They like sitting on their park bench and reading their book you know. You know what I mean? It’s not always the way people expect it, it’s an assumption that these people fail.
Totally, that’s why I think I initially noticed it because like, Oh they’re not just waiting to die, which I feel like a lot of people, when they look at people like that, they…
They just treat them as one-dimensional things…
Basically people look at them in one-dimension. So when I see them doing something that’s.. you know, they’re reading. They’re interesting.
And half the people I know don’t even fucking read books and they’re not even homeless.
Yeah exactly. So it was a sweet thing I started to notice a lot so I just started photographing it and kind of had this series going and when I told Nate he really liked it and it really worked together and so yeah, that’s what that was about.
Now tell me about your show at Slow Culture. What it’s about? What’s the theme?
The theme is pretty loose, it’s pretty much everything that we talked about as far as stuff that I like, and a lot of it is new, it’s probably 80% new.
And when you say new how new do you mean?
I guess probably like in the last 2 or 3 years. Ever since I moved to LA my photography has changed little just because of all the landscape here and all the driving. A lot of the photos, they don’t necessarily involve driving, they involve me seeing something and pulling over and shooting it, that’s something new i’ve never done before I guess because I lived in San Jose and it was a little bit boring. But a lot of the themes are stuff we’ve talked about, the photos are a little bit bleak but also a little bit sweet. The photos start somewhere and they kinda, I don’t mean to sound like such a douche, but there are small details, if you look it might not just be what it is, I try to show things that have a little bit of more depth.
It’s not your first solo show is it?
No, not the first, it’s the third. But yeah, um, I don’t know, ask me another question haha.
Ok, that’s fine. Now that you’re in the twilight of your skateboarding career, because you’re really old, do you think photography will take over more as what you’re pursuing in terms of career and craft?
Well, yeah, of course skateboarding has to end definitely, and I’ve known that since the beginning, of course it’s become more and more real every single year.
Now your foot’s in the grave…
Yeah haha. But it’s also really exciting because if I don’t have to skateboard all the time, I can do all these projects and ideas that I really want to do. So I think it’s important to stay enthusiastic and positive. I just want to be able to do my projects, even if I don’t make that much money, because the commercial aspects of photography, I see my friends doing that, and it really looks hard in the way that I don’t think I’m very cut out for a lot of that stuff.
You’re not going to put a bunch of homeless people in Urban Outfitters clothes like “Urban Outfitters Spring/ Summer 2015 by Jerry Hsu”?
Haha yeah. And also like my style, I would really have to change what I do to make money… No one’s really going to want to see a pile of toilets in an ad for clothing, or whatever. So ideally when skateboarding is over I can use whatever skills I have with photography to survive but yeah, basically I just want to be able to do my projects, and as long as I can do that and support myself, I’ll be happy, and it’s kind of exciting to think about that but it’s also a little scary putting yourself out there. And also for skaters, skaters have a really hard time adjusting to the real world. Like after their careers are done, it’s like when you heard about football and basketball players like, “how are they broke?” like they made millions of dollars every year, how do they not know how to save or whatever. Skaters kind of live in a non-reality like that too, so we’ll see what happens. Maybe I’ll end up becoming something you might see in my pictures, just on the street…
That’s really sad. Let’s not think about it. Last question, will you take my head shots?
Like I said before, I don’t really like doing commercial work, no I’m just kidding.
I wasn’t going to pay you.
If I can have full artistic control of these head shots then yes, I will definitely do it.
Do you have anything else beside the show coming up you want to mention?
Not really, just working on small stuff. Just come see the show!