Chuck Dong // Instant Photographer
Why use instant cameras? What's the deal?
I love to make it difficult. Having a very limited amount of shots and technical capabilities, forces you to respect moments much more and makes you very aware of the situations around you. You tend to rely more on instinct, rather than the piece of equipment you are using. With any kind of field experience, you always develop that sixth sense of what is going to work and what is not. There is still a certain wizardry that is required with taking a great Polaroid photo.
The instant format is crude compared to 35mm film or HD digital by far, but I love that fact. To me, that crudeness makes it tangible and very comfortable for people to look at. Like, “I could have takin’ that” vibes. I totally respect high-end photographs and that "f64 mentality" by all means, but that style is sort of cold and unforgiving, at least for what I want to create. I love the dreamy, blurry, but a familiar quality of instant photos. Like punk rock or abstract art, I want the viewer to feel welcomed by its simplicity and imprecise nature. Comfort through crudeness, I guess.
So you were a designer first, before you started taking pictures?
Yes, I always credit design as my first love. But when I thought about changing it up to photography, I never wanted to start with all of the things that a typical “photography student” would have to go through such as starting with B&W and all that. I was very certain I wanted to shoot with a Polaroid camera, but I wanted to do it from a designers perspective. A lot of my photos are composed like you can could possibly place a logo anywhere in the negative space. I’m not ashamed to take this angle for my work, its where I started. We are often times plagued by the history of something that we can influence in our own way, you should begin where ever you feel is the right place.
Although I found inspiration in design, I also found it to be some what emotionally disconnected, from an artistic standpoint. I felt that in graphic design work, one had way too much control. You could imagine something and then design it to be exactly that. The pure perfect image your what you morbidly dreamt of can be artificially realized. I desperately needed something that had happy accidents. In Polaroid photography, you have a lot less less control and are more at the mercy of your subjects, environments, or quite frequently, your own gear. This has been a refreshing aspect of photography to me, always having to immediately change and quickly adapt to whoever/whatever/whenever you are shooting. You should always try to ride that line between control and uncontrollable. The results will never be boring.
I also fell in love with the way people felt after you take a beautiful picture of them. It must be the similar feeling a fashion designer or hair stylist feels. It's like YOU helped them look great and YOU helped them feel more confident about themselves. It's an addicting feeling for me so far. And because it's an instant photo, it's way more immediate and not as processed, a bit more magical and transformative.
What's your take on digital cameras today?
I love the way digital has made photography universal and public. In a way, instant film was the former universal public medium, became too expensive and limiting, and economically became eclipsed by the digital revolution. But the authenticity of digital photographs has been in question for the past twenty or so years. I think it's safe to say all published photos in the mass media today have been digitally manipulated to some degree. However, instant film has maintained it's reputation of truthfulness and uncensored process. That's why I love it like a classic hip hop album.
Today, we are seeing digital manipulation to the point that I would say photographers are really just "designing" their photos and subjects. Like when you see the behind the scenes green screen takes from CGI movie set, photographers are also anticipating elements they can add or manipulate later. I always say, if it’s more than 3 layers in Photoshop, it probably never existed in nature or reality. But unfortunately, for the human body itself, this means appealing to the masses through "digital plastic surgery". Maybe the worst morals/ethics playing god decision that any photographer has to make. I read a quote from actress Keira Knightley telling The Times of London, “I’ve had my body (digitally) manipulated so many different times for so many different reasons, whether it’s paparazzi photographers or film posters. I think women’s bodies are a battleground and photography is partly to blame. You need tremendous skill to be able to get a woman’s shape and make it look like it does in life, which is always beautiful."
Describe the vibe you try to capture in your photos.
I try and take a lot of tips from art history, fashion magazine culture, and of course documentaries.
I do not like how a studio picture feels, honestly. Or even that studio vibe, something is unnatural about it. It's always been super important to me to capture something with the element of reality or risk, in a photograph. The public is way too educated on the workings and the "behind-the-scenes" of todays fashion world and all it's beauty secrets, thanks to Tyra Banks and Reality TV. But you can use the other side of Reality TV and portray the interesting biographical documentary human element that brings those unobtainable worlds closer to our lives.
I also love the psychological element that photography brings to the table. When directing people you always have to be conscious of not over-directing and be listening rather than talking. That is super important. Any projections you have of anybody are shattered when you let their true essence breath through a photo. Taking pictures has always been about documenting that essence. There's that one Richard Avedon quote, "A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows they are being photographed, and what they do with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what they're wearing or how they look." Pretty much, Photography is visual therapy.