Luo Yang : “It’s all about diving into their real lives”

Luo Yang. Courtesy of the artist

Luo Yang is one of the major artist of her generation. Born in 1984, she belongs to the post-maoist generation that grew in the disruptions of the Chinese reform and opening up economic reform. Her portraits depict an emerging Chinese youth culture that defies imposed expectations and stereotypes. Her work is a testament to her subjects’ individuality and personality. Femininity, gender, identity: she reflects the deep changes taking place in China today.

In the context of her solo exhibition exhibition “Of Every Genre” opened for the 2021 edition of PhotoSaintGermain, Victoria Jonathan interviewed the photographer on her career, inspirations and views on her generation.

DoorZine: In the exhibition « Of Every Genre », we are showing a selection from two series: « Girls » and « Youth ». During 10 years, you have shot hundreds of women in their 20s (about the same age you were) from all parts of China who, just like you, had moved to bigger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Taïwan or Hong Kong. You have said in previous interviews that you were coming of age at that period, and that your models sort of reflected your own search for identity. How do you relate to this series? Is it autobiographical? And how/why did the series end after 10 years?

Luo Yang : It is an account of my own life and the lives of the girls from that same generation that surround me. We indeed can say that my life is intertwined with the lives of these girls. The series ends after 10 years because my own adolescence has bygone and I feel deep inside that I have a new understanding of life.

With « Youth » (started in 2019), you focus on girls and boys born in the 90s and 2000s (the GenZ). Why? You seem to adopt a more exterior point of view, is it the case? It’s also a generation who grew up with social media and the selfie culture, is it something that counts in their portrait taking?

Because I’m very interested in their lives, the new generation is very different from mine. This also explains why I adopt an outsider’s attitude when shooting them. I don’t intentionally try to capture the influence of social medias on this young generation. I try to capture the similarities and characteristics of this generation.

Luo Yang, “Ren Fang”, 2016. From the series “Girls”. Courtesy of the artist.

“The girl had just returned from Japan. She is very beautiful and white. We were doing the shooting in the garden downstairs my house. Spring had just bloomed and there were cherry blossoms and small flowers. She laid there and perfectly blended into the background.“

Luo Yang

The two series share many similarities (to the point that it’s difficult to tell which photo belongs to which series): the individuals depicted are very diverse, but they all seem to be free and independent-minded, even anti-conformist. There is also a sense of intimacy and truth in your portraits, whether they are shot outdoors or in the model’s own interior. Some of them seem very staged and other very immediate. Your presence and your own emotional connection with the models can be felt in all the portraits. Could you tell us more about the process behind your portraits? How do you choose your models? And their environment/props? Do you stage the photographs? How do you create this sense of intimacy? 

Well, a lot of them are friends, but of course many also aren’t, it’s really about getting to know them and capturing them in their daily lives. I choose models that I find curious, interesting, and real. It’s all about diving into their real lives, nothing is really planned but there is a will to take part in the project, to be honest like friends. That’s how we connect.

You shoot with a 35mm objective and use almost no artifice (no lighting or make-up, shooting in natural environment). Do you retouch or reframe your photos? Do you take many photos per session? Why do you keep using the analog in the age of digital photography?

I almost don’t retouch my photos and use very few camera rolls, although it depends on the situation. I believe film rolls have a relative sense of quality, but later perhaps I will head to digital photos. But it is also a different feeling to shoot with one or the other medium. 

Luo Yang, “Liu Zixuan”. From the series « Youth » (2019-). Courtesy of the artist.

“At first glance, he has the beauty of a girl. He enjoys wearing women’s clothes and perceives his gender identity as a woman. Before coming back to China, he studied clothing design in Italy. His mother understands him and believe he wears clothes that fit him very well. However, in the small Chinese county he comes from, very few people accept it while he can be himself in China’s big metropole as Shanghai and Beijing”

Luo Yang

It’s interesting that you depict individuals who are « coming of age » in a period of intense change in China (also a sort of country’s coming of age). Your generation grew up in a very different country than the generation of your mother, and it’s also very different from the generation of « Youth ». How are these generations different and is it something important in your work?

My parents and I had a very different life, but not so different from the post-90s or even the post-00s. It can be said that these generations have changed dramatically with the rapid development of Chinese society and the generation of my parents. I didn’t deliberately try to find differences, but it is true that different generations present different faces in the photos, the younger generation is more relaxed and less heavy, but I believe that each generation also has common emotions. This is what I have been capturing, the differences and commonalities.

Photography amateurs when they see your work sometimes reference Nan Goldin, Corinne Day, Larry Clark, who all photographed youngsters with a more or less autobiographical tone and very direct style. Do you have any influences?

I have seen and admired all these artists before I started photography. I believe I was subtly influenced by these predecessors, but we were born in different times and cultures. I think my work is more focused on my own life and culture.

Luo Yang, “Yao Ezi”, 2019. From the series “Youth” (2019-). Courtesy of the artist.

“I photographed the pink-haired girl in Beijing Tsinghua University when she was studying art there. She was still very young at the time and now studies abroad. She has many tattoos over her face and body but has a very gentle character. I think she carries within her a revolt against life and family. Her rebelliousness is also manifested in the way she dresses and behaves.”

Luo Yang

How do you relate to women photographers from the generation before you (born in the 70s), who depicted the underground life or explored femininity (like Xing Danwen or Chen Lingyang)? You were picked by Ai Weiwei for your first international show, how do you relate to the 1990s experimental photographic and artistic scene in China?

I like Chen Lingyang’s artwork very much, it’s direct and violent, but her generation’s artwork may have taken on more of the marks of the times and heavy pain. It’s important to pay attention to the context in which photographs are taken as each generation’s conditions of life are different. I think the 1990s experimental photography is quite heavy and formalized, or it gives too much meaning to art. We might say that the younger generation is pursuing meaninglessness. This is also something that makes a big difference in our comprehension of art.

Your work shares some similarities (depiction of nudity, young subjects, personal diary/autobiographical, sense of freedom and independence) with some of your contemporaries like Ren Hang, 223, Coca Dai, or Chen Zhe, you even were part of the same group shows when you all started in the late 2000s. Would you say that you belong to the same artistic family?

What unites us is to belong to the same generation. We all shoot young people and give particular attention to documenting their daily life. However, our photos stay very different so it is hard to say that we belong to the same artistic family.

You also work as a fashion photographer. Does your artistic work influence your fashion work or are these two very separate areas? 

Yes, there are influences of my artistic practice and nowadays people accept it more. But these photographic practices stay quite different.

Luo Yang, “Pi Pi”, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

“Her name is Pipi (which means “butts” in Chinese). We took this picture a few years ago on an abandoned viaduct in Beijing’s foggy winter. This picture expresses a form of confrontation and symbiosis between the colorful and fragile girl and the gray and cold city.”

Luo Yang
Luo Yang, “Lin Chong and Wang Jingyi”, 2019. From the series « Youth » (2019-). Courtesy of the artist.

 “This photo picturing two guys was also shot at Tsinghua university. They are good friends. The short hair one is an actor and model while the long hair one is a clothing designer. He conveys the 1990s Hong Kong and Taiwan environment. In this picture, the atmosphere of the picture really brings us back to a bygone era.”

Luo Yang
Luo Yang, “Xiao Jie”, 2019. From the series “Youth” (2019-). Courtesy of the artist.

“His name is Xiao Jie. He is a very gentle boy with long hair and fine eyes, polite and kind. I photographed him in summer at his home.”

Luo Yang
Luo Yang, “Kaye”. From the series « Youth » (2019-). Courtesy of the artist.

“I photographed this girl on an old fishing boat in Hong-Kong. In the background, we can see Hong Kong’s tall skyscrapers which contrasts with the fishing boats. I believe it’s a very realistic picture of Hong Kong’s situation. Beautiful and unpredictable, this picture somehow embodies the city.”

Luo Yang
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