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 situation 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.
The instant format is crude compared to 35mm film or HD digital by far, but I love this. To me that crudeness makes it tangible and very comfortable for people to look at. 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 but familiar quality of instant photos. Like much punk rock or abstract art, I want the viewer to feel welcomed by its simplicity and imprecise nature. Comfort through crudeness, I guess.
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 public medium. It was just 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.
Today, we are seeing a reaction towards digital manipulation to the point that I would say photographers are really just "designing" their photos and subjects. Unfortunately, for people who love photographic truth in a digital world, this means appealing to the masses with "digital plastic surgery". 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."
So you were a designer first, before you started taking pictures?
I found design to be some what emotionally disconnected, from an artistic standpoint. I fell in love with the way people felt after you take a beautiful picture of them. It must be a 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.
I also felt in graphic design work, one had way too much control. You could imagine something and then design it to be exactly that. Whereas, in photography, you have 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.
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.