From The Ground up: Interview with Stéphane Nguyen

From The Ground up: Interview with Stéphane Nguyen

Where did you grow up in France? When did you come to San Francisco and why?

I grew up in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, which is the local Chinatown, in project developments for artists. I had wanted to live in the U.S. for a while, so when my partner decided to move from France to the Bay Area about 3 years ago, I decided to make the jump, too. I applied for an artist’s visa, but had no idea it was such a complex process! It’s been a 2 year-long shaky road of back and forth between Paris and San Francisco – but I’ve finally got it all sorted out. It’s all good now, and it was worth it.

How and when did you start photography?

I’ve always played with a camera, probably starting at 11 years of age or so. But it’s really when I had my first digital camera, around the mid-90’s, that I seriously got into it.

I just couldn’t stop shooting. Then I started a photoblog about 6 years ago (http://www.totoblog.fr), where I post a picture a day, kind of forcing it to become a daily activity.

I also attended a 5 year-long Art Education program in Paris after high school. I took some photography classes as a side, but really was focused on design at the time. So in terms of photography, well, I’m mostly self-taught in photography.

French-Bay Area, that’s so funny! I’m sure there is a support group for that, where everybody chain smokes, sips Bordeaux, bitches about America, and learns how to marry their inner French cynical, arrogant, sceptic selves with the mostly optimistic Californian way of life…

You are a graphic designer for a living, so I’m wondering if photogphy is for you a way to create, as well, or is it more about capturing something that has already been created?

Photography is something that I do very spontaneously. I always keep my camera with me, and will capture whatever catches my eye. So I guess it’s more about what to do with some random, often mundane, subjects that I come across, and how I can (hopefully?) elevate them to offer something more interesting. Or at least a more interesting way of seeing them.

Thomas Cabus: ashes and wine paris, france 2006

Thomas Cabus: ashes and wine Paris, France 2006

Would you ever create something from the ground up (like a painter) or are you more of a purist? Has your background in graphic design influenced your photography more, or is it the other way around?

That sounds like what I do with graphic design already, which is all about staging different elements in a frame, whether it’s a print page or a screen. So no, I don’t stage photos and create them from the ground up, in that sense. I do use whatever crosses my path and see if there is some potential in it. That’s something I could be interested in, in the future, though. Kind of a merger of both activities. I guess they do end up impacting each other, yes.

Have you been influenced by a photography mentor or do you have a favorite photographer whose work inspires you?

Mmm, not really. I guess I have too much of an eclectic taste to really have a favorite photographer. It goes from Martin Parr (for the aesthetic) to Weegee (for the freakish), Pierre & Gilles to Hiroshi Sugimoto, Mapplethorpe to Avedon… A lot of queer stuff, now that I think about it. For me, it’s all about using this medium to express a personal and hopefully original point of view about my surroundings. I’m sure to a certain degree I’m influenced by these artists, though.

Thomas Cabus: Messages The Castro, San Francisco, USA 2010

Thomas Cabus: Messages to The Castro, San Francisco, USA 2010

So, you’re saying that there is something about photography that has been instrumental to highlighting the “queer experience”? Do you feel like there are things about this medium that have been able to convey or translate stories from the queer community that wouldn’t otherwise be understood or digested?

Well Pierre & Gilles, Mapplethorpe, Pierre Molinier or even David Lachapelle, just to mention the big ones, certainly have helped to put “queerness” under the spotlight and “mainstreaming” it. But there are many other people out there using other mediums who do the same thing. I’m just thinking that, growing up as a gay teenager in the 80’s, which was quite a lonely place, I was drawn to those works and related to them.

Have you always evolved in a visual environment?

Yes. My dad is a painter; my mom is a sculptor and potter. Their friends were also artists for the most part, so dinner parties at home when I was growing up were kind of fabulous. They also started to take me to museums at a very early age, which is amazing, especially in a city like Paris. My grandfather, who we visited every weekend, also had a huge collection of ZOOM and PHOTO magazines from the 60’s through the 80’s. I remember that I would spend hours in his study flipping through them — mostly for naked skin, I have to say!

So, you’re just another perverted Frenchman.

Hahaha. Oui, I guess so…

Seriously, though, how does your French background impact your work? Do you feel there is a specific aesthetic that repeats itself in your work that is unabashedly French? Or do you think that you are now more of a French-Bay Area (whatever that looks like!)

French-Bay Area, that’s so funny! I’m sure there is a support group for that, where everybody chain smokes, sips Bordeaux, bitches about America, and learns how to marry their inner French cynical, arrogant, sceptic selves with the mostly optimistic Californian way of life…

Thomas Cabus: Wasp & Martini Laroque, France 2006

Thomas Cabus: Wasp & Martini Laroque, France 2006

Seriously though, I don’t know. I guess I’m still very French, and maybe it shows in my work, as I tend to produce lean, simple compositions. The European “elegance,” as I’ve heard several times. But I have been moving around so much for the past few years that I am not sure I relate to a specific national identity anymore.

I have a passion for design, and there is something very graphic about your pieces from a design perspective. There are definitely some structured design elements in your aesthetic, and I’m curious about the process. Can you describe the way you interact with your graphic skills when you take/edit/choose a photo? I’m talking about composition, color and your post-production process.

Being a graphic designer, I have this tendency to see our reality in terms of composition, proportions, lines, colors, contrast, etc. And being originally from a print background, my eyes often flatten everything and see in 2D. This is probably prominent in my pictures. As for post-production, I already spend hours working on a computer for design, so I want my photography to be as spontaneous as possible. Take a picture, edit it with basic tools to color-correct and make it pop a little (I like it when it pops), and post it on the blog. I already spend way too much time on Photoshop, so I like this quick, lively process.

What is photography for you? Is it your reality? Your point of you? Both?

It is both. I use it to isolate the reality I see and to express my point of view and create an original new thing, an original new emotion.

I feel like for many people in this field, photography is a long journey, and a process where they tire very quickly of pictures they shot five days ago. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Oh wow. No idea. San Francisco? Paris? New York? By a pool in a Beverly Hills mansion with a retrospective at the MOMA, and a flock of minions obeying my passive aggressive orders? Under a bridge in a cardboard box? One sure thing, though: whether it’s expensive champagne or a cheap beer, I will probably have a drink in my hand.

Quelle est ton expression préférée en français? What is your favorite expression in French?

“Putain de bordel de merde.” Which is just a succession of nasty words, really. I’m also at this stage where my English is great but not perfect, and my French is somewhat vanishing from my brain, so I often sound pretty stupid in both languages. That sucks.

So no, I don’t stage photos and create them from the ground up, in that sense. I do use whatever crosses my path and see if there is some potential in it. That’s something I could be interested in, in the future, though. Kind of a merger of both activities. I guess they do end up impacting each other, yes.

That’s why you must communicate through photography! Haha! So, my last question : If you could give 3 pieces of advice to our french brothers and sisters out there who want to come here to the Bay Area and delve into photography, what would they be?

Okay…

Number 1
: Go out, get drunk (not tragic drunk, though) and meet people. It really is all about connections and friendships.

Number 2 : Use the French card, it’s exotic, especially on the west coast.

Number 3 : Learn about American etiquette, which is very, very different from our own. Americans never say no, especially in California. They’re very Japanese in that way. I thought I was a genius when I first started to show my work to people, because everyone was so enthusiastic – but really it’s so passive-agressive! (Whereas in France, when you get a pout, it’s a good thing.) Learn about the “No” sandwich: people will start by giving you very positive feedback; then the “but” will come and massage a “This is crap” message; then there will be some kind of a positive pep talk to finish things off on a good note. Focus on what comes after the “but”, that”s where the information really is!

There is this great site, http://web.media.mit.edu/~guy/american/ – go there to understand what American people truly mean when saying certain phrases. Joking aside, it’s actually truly helpful.

Merci.

THOMAS CABUS – Currently based in San Francisco, Thomas Cabus, 38, was born and raised in Paris, France. As a graphic designer and art director, he works for independent film and media campaigns, as well as corporate clients like Oracle, Orange, Air France and more. On a whim, six years ago, he started the One Photo a Day blog (totoblog.fr) which led to gallery shows in Paris and throughout the U.S. He loves meeting new people, traveling, tragic bars, and suffers from a long-standing obsession with Prince. Go to http://www.thomascabus.com to learn more about his work.

Stéphane Nguyen

Stéphane Nguyen is a French photographer and technical engineer living and working in San Francisco.His work has been featured in Vogue France and his award-winning video blog for TechShower was shot out of pariSOMA's South of Market co-working space for a year.You can view back episodes on VidSF.org.His favorite French wine is Dourthe blend from Bordeaux and he likes his photography sophisticated and bold.

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Stéphane Nguyen is a French photographer and technical engineer living and working in San Francisco. His work has been featured in Vogue France and his award-winning video blog for TechShower was shot out of pariSOMA’s South of Market co-working space for a year. You can view back episodes on VidSF.org. His favorite French wine is Dourthe blend from Bordeaux and he likes his photography sophisticated and bold.

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