Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Conversation with Rona Chang

I met Nymphoto member Rona Chang while we were pursuing our BFA's at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Our friendship developed over long hours shared in the darkroom and during critiques. I feel very lucky to have witnessed the evolution of Rona's work over the last decade and to watch as she continually adds to the vast array of images she has collected from her travels around the world. Although the locations she portrays are diverse, Rona presents scenes with a singular vision; her perspective, color palette and the themes she explores tell the viewer a distinctive story about human nature and the way we interact with our environs.

Rona's work and process has always been an inspiration to me and it is with great pleasure that I introduce her conversation.


Man on Roof after Typhoon, Taoyuan, Taiwan from Moving Forward, Standing Still © Rona Chang


Fireworks, Kuanyin, Taiwan from Moving Forward, Standing Still © Rona Chang

Nymphoto: Tell us a little about yourself.

Rona Chang: I was born in Chungli, Taiwan. I spent my early childhood there and moved to the U.S., when I was seven when my parents divorced. My mom, sister, and I settled in Queens, New York, and we're all still here. Some of my summers were spent with my dad and relatives in Taiwan. Even though I didn't grow up living with my dad full time, he has had a profound influence over my work and me. He had a distinct and strong persona. He lectured philosophy to people that would show up at his house at night, wrote calligraphy for an assembly man, was involved in the politics of Taiwanese independence, smoked pipes, drank lots of tea, bull-shitted, and he never had a true profession. By the time I was in college, he owned about thirty dogs, which consisted mostly of German Shepherds, Boston Terriers, and Taiwanese mutts (a breed). He wasn't a professional breeder, but someone who dabbled in it. My relationship with my dad grew closer during those years and I fell in love with many of the dogs that passed through the gates and our lives. My dad passed away in 2002 and I'm still working that out in my head and through my work.


Shaving Business, Wuhan, China from Moving Forward, Standing Still © Rona Chang

NP: How did you discover photography?

RC: My first venture into art was a craft class I took on Saturdays at Buffalo State University while in second grade. (We lived in Buffalo for our first year in the US.) I picked up sewing in elementary school and by the time I was in junior high, I was entering sewing competitions. When it was time to pick a high school, I wanted to go to the H.S. of Fashion Industries. But a family friend suggested that I should try out for LaGuardia H.S. (a specialized high school for music and art and the performing arts in NYC). I ended up going there because the academic emphasis at the school was as strong as the art. It was sophomore or junior year of H.S. when I took a photo class with Ann Hunt Currier and promptly fell in love with the medium. Photography is very hands-on, and really appealed to me in the way that craft paper and glue did when I was seven.

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

RC: I am very lucky to work as a photographer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The quality of the collection and the dedication of the staff has created a nurturing environment for me. Photographing the entire collection of Japanese woodcut prints was one of the most inspirational things I've ever done.


Weather, Norway from Frost og Funi © Rona Chang

The biggest inspiration for me overall has been traveling. The beautiful light in Iceland has forever changed the way I perceive light and print color. The ruins of Peru are hauntingly magical. The pulse of Asia, especially Hong Kong is in my blood. I cannot live without Thai food. Each of the places I've landed marks a place in my heart. Plus, I could not possibly have made all of these years in N.Y. worthwhile without the ability to go to other places to produce work and come back with a fresh set of eyes.

NP: How do your projects come about?

RC: I grew up fishing with my dad at man-made fishing ponds, going to the local dam (which happened to be a big one), and living in an area affected by devastating floods from summer typhoons. Taiwan is a little country with lots of dams, which are places of public recreation, unlike the U.S., where many dams seem to be sealed off. Aware of the many water issues, I began photographing parched riverbeds and dams in 1999, which marked the beginning of The Hold Over Water series. The sheer volume of water that a dam can hold impresses me. The idea of humans engineering their landscapes to alter river courses and the flow of nature has always held me in awe. The images that comprise this body of work speak of my fascination with the temporary power man can hold over water. I've continued this past-time of visiting dams with my uncle, whenever I'm in Taiwan. When I travel, I try to check out the maps to see if there is a dam or reservoir close by to visit.


Reservoir Drain, Miaoli, Taiwan from The Hold Over Water © Rona Chang


Hoover Dam, Nevada, USA from The Hold Over Water © Rona Chang

Throughout the last couple of years as I have traveled to record an extended portrait of society through landscapes, I have found the need to get closer and photograph people. Moving Forward, Standing Still began unintentionally when I was in Shanghai in 2000. Walking back from the morning market with a friend, I noticed a man stooped by the side of the road with a small fire burning in front of him. I took the photo Man with Fire and he never once looked up. What he was burning I could not tell, why he was doing it, remains a mystery. What I found in subsequent trips to China and in various other places such as San Francisco, Peru, Macau, Mexico, and even Taiwan were cultures that were both foreign and familiar. Frankly, many of the activities that people were involved in struck me as interesting and bizarre.


Long Johns, Macau, China from Moving Forward, Standing Still © Rona Chang


Fixing the Colosseum, Macau, China from Moving Forward, Standing Still © Rona Chang

NP: What's next?

RC: I would like to show The Hold Over Water and Moving Forward, Standing Still so I've been busy getting the word out. At the same time, I am working on a project inspired by my Dad that is titled Breathing In. It will be a collaborative book project with the poet, Ann B. Knox. I am participating in the Exposure book project and the two upcoming Nymphoto shows at Sasha Wolf. I am going through the images I shot during my recent month-long trip to Peru and I also plan on taking some more time to improve my Spanish. I fantasize about being fluent and dream of living for a while somewhere in Central or South America.


West Baray, Siem Reap, Cambodia from The Hold Over Water © Rona Chang

NP: Thank you so much!

To see more of Rona Chang's work and stay up to date on her newest projects visit her website: http://www.ronachang.com, and her blog: http://www.plumandlion.com.

Rona's work is on view in 2 exhibitions this month
at Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYMPHOTO: CONVERSATIONS VOLUME 1 and NYMPHOTO Presents @ Sasha Wolf.