Michelle Lyu is a Film Club Member whose work is featured in our Member Show Seasonal Reflections: Summer. We were interested in her submissions to the show so this week we decided to interview her and see a larger group of her photographs.
PL: What got you interested in film photography?
ML: The technical elements and creative and expressive potential of film are what originally drew me to the medium. I shot digital for many years before moving into film, and intuitively I felt that studying film would bring me closer to a creative, artistic practice of photography. With film, because it is so expensive I try to be austere in approach, which has nurtured a certain focus and discipline. In an interview from 1973 Henri Cartier-Bresson had a line which I think about, he said, “… You shouldn’t over shoot. It’s like over eating or over drinking, you have to eat, you have to drink but over is too much.” As well as being interested in photography as a great, artistic lineage and tradition which could be studied, renewed and drawn upon for our times. I think there is more history, with many 20th century greats like Ansel Adams, Gordon Parks and Cartier-Bresson, or more to learn from the film medium — or at least that it’s an indispensable foundation for contemporary photography.
PL: What type of camera do you shoot with, and what kind of film do you usually use?
ML: I’ve been shooting with a Nikon F3 most frequently these days. When working with it I constantly try to learn from the process because it has so much to give, it is really beautiful, well-designed, historic and beloved camera. I’m very glad it’s the 35mm SLR I’ve landed on at this time, it’s been a very joyful and enriching experience to shoot with. Previously I shot on a Pentax K1000 until it broke, and I would really like to start shooting on a rangefinder for the chance to work with more agility and with a mechanically different system. Eventually I’d like to work in medium and large format as well. I also shoot sometimes on an Olympus Trip 35 in fast and bright environments and have really liked its character at times. Subtle, unique qualities it possesses in how it renders light and shadow. A few of these photos were also made digitally, with a Canon Rebel T2i and Canon 5D Mark III, which I am also both fond of. I am still experimenting a lot with different film stocks and trying to learn their characteristics, especially color. But in terms of consistency, I have been shooting pushed Ilford HP5 mostly, and trying to comprehensively understand how its latitude and grain behave.
PL: You mentioned these photos represent the “development and direction of [your] practice.” Can you describe what it is about these photos that makes you feel that way?
ML: I think these photographs represent a process of testing and developing new ideas. Some of these photographs were in the making in my mind for a long time before the actual photograph, and many of the ideas will continue to be developed, and reinterpreted as another photograph in the future I think. I don’t think I’m doing a good enough job yet of expressing what it really is I’m trying to convey, which is also why I described these photographs as practice. I think the sort of consistency I’m trying to build in photography will take much focus, patience and time, because I am trying to not recycle or repeat when I photograph. Every time I pick it up the camera I try for it to be a clearer, sharper, more compelling and mature interpretation than what came before.
PL: There are a mix of color and black and white images within this collection. What are some qualities that you like about both?
ML: I like how the black and white medium lends itself well to abstraction, and how it draws attention to qualities of light, textures and expressive details that may not be as apparent or strong when seen in color. I also appreciate that it is allowing me to learn more about concepts and methods of darkroom work, since I can currently develop and print in black and white but not color. However I think at heart, I am more of a color shooter. In the right conditions, color is incredibly compelling and arresting, and moving in its elegant, idealistic expressions. I find color fascinating and complicated, and technically there is much I need to learn in its theory and science before it feels right, or fair to be shooting color again. To me, shooting in black and white is a very sharp and geometric experience, and shooting in color is like painting.
PL: Many of your photos within this collection capture people. What do you like about photographing people? What is challenging about it?
ML: Every time I photograph a person, it is an inviting, challenging and original experience. I love and respect the opportunity to collaborate with someone on the creation of a photograph — it is an opportunity to develop trust, understanding and vision with another person. At its best I think it is a sacred experience. Although I mostly make photographs of people, it is infrequently of strangers, and largely for this reason. It is very difficult to express the essence of another person because you must understand that person in a way that can only be achieved by a certain understanding of oneself. Earlier this year I’d taken a series of photographs I thought were beautiful of an acquaintance. After I’d meticulously edited and organized them, I was excited to share the photographs with him, and he didn’t like them. I was surprised initially because I had found them quite decent and wonderful. But I realized it was because I had portrayed him as who he was to me, a version of him in my mind, and some of the assumptions I’d had to make in order to press the shutter at certain moments, or compose a certain way, were wrong. Instead of portraying him as the man he knew himself as, which was closer to the person he is — had I attempted the latter, or maybe more successfully synthesized my vision and his essence, I think the photographs may have been very different and also more compelling, because they would have been more true. I think the photographer, to photograph another person well, must be sharply observant and also vulnerable and giving, because that is what allows one to see.
PL: Out of all of these images, which is your favorite and why?
ML: If I had to choose one, a favorite would be the photograph of Munchie, which is from 2019 and taken on the first DSLR camera I owned, the Canon Rebel T2i, my principal instrument of photography for a decade. The process and reflecting on this photograph taught me much and represents some of my anchoring principles. That I want my work as a photographer to be rooted in love for people. That although technical equipment and craftsmanship are invaluable to creative expression, it is having ideas and a driving purpose that are imperative to the creation of art. That our work as photographers is not to take from others but to give something that is really for good. That, like Cartier-Bresson said, “Life is once, forever.” Munchie was a mentor who inspired me through his great moral courage and abiding love and faith in people. He passed in 2020 and I remember thinking from time to time afterward that I was glad, grateful that a photograph I’d made had at least to an extent captured his legacy and could hopefully carry it forward. That warmth, vibrance, his light, the clarity, intelligence and grace. Shining — his eyes. My hope is that my photography can both express history and shape it into a positive future for humanity.
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