Tony Wang is a photographer and filmmaker currently studying for a Photography BFA at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. His latest film projects involve a collaboration between the camera and the art of dance.
For The Dance of Figural Vestiges series, each work showcases an authentic documentation of the body in a single photograph. Wang aims to challenge the viewer: “I intend to abstract the human body form to challenge the internalisation of the male gaze and the subjectivity involved in reading a photographic representation of the body.”
A: In Issue 107 of Aesthetica, we feature work from The Dance of Figural Vestiges series. What is it about dance that has inspired you to create the series?
TW: Dance has always been a big part of my works because of the beauty of the human body and that it’s a universal language to convey emotions. I’m intrigued by dance in this series because of dancers’ abilities to use their bodies as an art medium.
In The Dance of Figural Vestiges, I am exploring the relationships between the human body and the long exposure single shot technique. The fact that a dancer can perfectly control her body to form a certain shape or composition, like a living architecture, makes them a perfect match for the project.
A: Each work showcases an authentic documentation of the body in a single photograph – a composition comprises multiple poses of the same subject and is completed in less than 30 seconds. How important is this process for you, and to what extent do you experiment within this process?
TW: The process of overlapping multiple movements in-camera through a single shot is very important. This series attempts to showcase the relationship between one movement to the next. So the beauty of a single shot process is that the camera records the choreographed movements by the dancers in real time to show how each of their movements interact with each other. This interaction of vestiges cannot be seen by the human eye but only through the camera. It’s pretty fascinating!
Each photo is created in darkness, and we have no idea how it would turn out until the image is made. Working in the dark is no easy task. The dancer and I not only need to choreograph the compositions we want before turning off the studio light, but we also need to make sure the transitions between each movement we want to feature are within half a minute of exposure time. When all is rehearsed and our communication to switch movements is perfected, we are finally ready to create an image.
Lighting is another variable that needs extensive amount of adjustment to get right. It’s decided by the exposure time of the camera and the positioning between the lights and the subjects. Depending on how solid I want the figure to appear, I need to adjust the flash power and the number of times it is triggered. Throughout the making of this series, I have dedicated many sessions to craft a lighting plan and to understand the characteristics of this technique.
The anticipation for the outcome of a final composition in the stillness of a dark studio has a surprise quality that makes creating the project so enjoyable.
A: Has the process allowed you to feel that you have a greater understanding of your subjects and how you collaborate with them?
TW: Definitely! The choreography for each image is a team effort. I first come up with keywords, like asking my subjects to show vulnerability, strength, the letter Q and so forth. They would take these ideas and transform them into a set of movements.
In other instances, a spontaneous approach is more helpful for us to secure the forms for the image. I would ask my subject to freestyle dance with their previous movement as their partner. If there is a pose I like, I will stop them and choose that pose to be included in the photo. Through making the project, I found a symbiotic quality by combining dance and photography to create something new for both mediums. It is a special feeling!
I appreciate my subjects Keon, Demetris, and Abigail for participating in this project and to patiently experiment with me.
A: Are you looking to continue the series?
TW: I am taking a break from this series to work on other projects. Hopefully this will give me enough time to continue the project in the future with a renewed perspective.
A: You’ve mentioned that you aim to challenge the viewer: to challenge the internalisation of the male gaze. What drives this intention
TW: I think photography gives a real depiction of the human body that relentlessly shows all its textures and curves. The rich details in an image prompt viewer to subconsciously judge the photographic body. I want to use photography in this series to suggest an alternative lens to view the body by highlighting its beauty and shapes.
Due to the lack of texture and the abstract human forms created in-camera, the series intend to stop viewers from judging the imperfections of the body, and to encourage them to appreciate the beauty and universality of its shapes.
A: Does The Dance of Figural Vestiges inspire how you work in films such as Flow State, Liberated and Kindred Bodies?
TW: The Dance of Figural Vestiges inspires these film projects from a choreography sense that I need to find new ways to collaborate with dancers to present my visual ideas. However, the concepts of the videos are different from this photo series. Flow State uses dance as a vehicle to portray the fast-paced nature of the New York city lifestyle.
Kindred Bodies is a one-take video examining the viewing perspectives of a dance performance by making the camera an active participant with the dancers.
A: Tell me about the urban landscape and this has informed your photography series such as Urban Hallucination and The Waiting Begins?
TW: I have been living in New York City for three years, and I am not a big fan of the noise and chaos in the city. Urban Hallucination and The Waiting Begins are visual experiments for me to find peace and quiet within the chaotic for a chance to introspect. In these projects, I attempt to focus on the seemingly insignificant details under the noisy backdrop of New York. By paying attention to these cropped compositions, I discovered a hallucinatory landscape made up of light and texture that is separate from the outbursts of the city. This ephemeral landscape allows introspection and quietness.
A: How do you approach these series, versus for example, The Dance of Figural Vestiges?
TW: I first approached these series by walking in different parts of New York to collect cropped compositions that intrigue me. Then, I start to carefully curate and crop my findings in the editing process. In The Dance of Figural Vestiges, the “collecting” process becomes finding the right movement in my subjects’ choreography. Therefore, I think close looking and observation is required in both projects but in different ways.
During the editing process of the urban series, I try to sequence images based on their lighting and colour to make the eye flow seamlessly from one picture to the next, constructing a visual essay. In The Dance of Figural Vestiges, the consistency in the series is established by using the same composition, ratio, and backdrop between all pictures, directing the viewers’ full attention to the body forms.
A: You’re currently studying for a Photography BFA at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. What are your plans upon graduation?
TW: I plan to become a lens-based artist upon graduation. For my art, I will continue exploring the urban landscape and to capture the quiet in the chaotic. I am also hoping to further experiment with the relationships between the camera and the dancing body. With this said, my art and interests are constantly changing. So, I will adapt my photography to what interests me by the time I graduate. I am working hard to show my projects in art fairs and exhibitions.
On the filmmaking side, I want to keep creating experimental video works involving dance and aspects of performance art. It is also my goal to direct video commercials that incorporate my style of using dance and fluid camera movements. I have recently made a short documentary film on Manhattan Chinatown during the pandemic called Chinatown: Our Only Home. The film is doing great in festivals right now! I hope to continue creating documentary films spotlighting social issues.
A: How has your work evolved over since arriving at NYU? To what extent do you think you have evolved alongside your work?
TW: My work has evolved drastically since my arrival at NYU. When I started school in 2019, I was interested in the photos by old masters like Henry Cartier Bresson and Gary Winogrand, portraits on Instagram, and the works of fashion photographers like Albert Watson and Richard Avedon. The images I made a few years ago were replicas of those I like on social media or those taken by photographers I admire.
When I started to get in touch with the concept of photography as art and gradually accumulated my visual vocabularies, I took on a patient and intentional approach to the medium. The patience is an outcome of the lockdown during 2020, in which I began paying attention to small details and finding interests in inconspicuous things around me. My images at the time were portraits of houses and still life in my godmother’s San Diego neighbourhood.
When lockdown is over, the patient observational approach and cropped compositions remained as key elements in my practice. Despite the noise and chaos in New York, I still find myself looking at everything closely to filter out the distractions around me. As a result, my work subconsciously reflects who I am. I became more introspective and came to terms with my quiet side as my photography evolves. The seemingly insignificant never cease to be intriguing.
A: How do you think your practice will evolve in 2022 and beyond?
TW: I will continue working on Urban Hallucinations series in 2022. In the meantime, I am making another series on the relationship between shadow and memory. By using the same cropped compositional approach in Urban Hallucinations, this project will be focusing on manipulating the shadows casted by objects on the streets of New York. The shadow of an object represents memories. By changing the shadows in post-production or by using artificial lighting, I intend to show the malleability of the human memory.
The series is in an early stage, so I am trying to experiment with methods to distort the shadow in a natural way and to portray the objects I encounter on the streets in a studio setting. By doing this, I can separate these collections from their original settings to show how brain edits out information and formulates new ones. My practice draws inspirations from previous projects, so I am excited what this year would bring me and beyond.
A: Where can we next see your work at exhibitions and art fairs?
TW: I am currently hard at work to show my works at exhibitions and art fairs this year.
To watch Flow State, click here.
To watch Kindred Bodies, click here.
All images and videos courtesy of Tony Wang.
The work of Tony Wang appears in the Artists’ Directory in Issue 107 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our online shop.