Random Encounter. I met Ernie (Ernest Chang) through a mutual friend of ours at Tai Lung Fung. After an unexpected drunken night, I was impressed by just how ridiculously smart he was and how passionate he is with photography. So I decided to ask him if he was willing to do an interview with me and thankfully, he agreed. A recovered drug addict with ADD, it seems that I have much more to learn from him than he has from me. Through this interview, he has taught me how to appreciate the medium of photography in an in depth manner, an appreciation which is also applicable to life in general. Ernie considers himself not a photographer, but as an artist in the medium of photography. Enough with the intro, let’s continue on with the interview.
Tell us about your life story.
I’m from Tampa, Florida. Was born in Clearwater. I’ve actually travelled back and forth from Florida and Hong Kong throughout my entire life.
I was exposed to the world of photography at the age of 15. That was when my uncle gave a DSLR to me, and I really liked it. In fact, I never really went to classes but instead was reading about photography. To be honest, the reason why I think I’m a fan of art is because my mom is an artist as well.
Anyway, so I wanted to go to Ringling because the founders of the college were the Ringling brothers, famous for their circuses back in the 1930’s, and so I thought circus you know, I might fit in. So I went there and started taking classes, only realizing early on that the classes were stupid, that I was so much smarter than these professors who didn’t have any artistic endeavours and only taught techniques. I don’t think visual arts should be quantified in grades or how much you pass or how well you do with oral examinations. Artists aren’t born to be athletes; they aren’t supposed to be graded who’s best or second best. Art is an unknown; it’s a mystery to everyone.
Early in my life at around the age of 13, I was diagnosed with ADD and was told that I was, you know, crazy. And as a kid, that’s pretty hard to hear about these things. Later on, I was also diagnosed with depression as well. Anyway, so I started getting addicted to drugs early on. All of these things drove me to a place where I needed drugs to understand myself because other people won’t try to. Other people will just abandon me because they think I’m dysfunctional and it made me feel so alone in this big, big world. So that’s how I started getting into the world of drugs and the world of photography. With photography, it provided me the only outlet because it gave me control from capturing a photo, and it gave me an intent to control lighting.
I’ve been to drug rehab twice. The first time was when I had a nervous breakdown in college and I was sent to Chiang Mai, Thailand for two months for cocaine rehab. Once I was done rehab and was back in Hong Kong, I felt pumped to be involved in art. At first, I didn’t know how to be in the business of art… so I started doing freelance photography and freelance graphic design, but what I wanted to do was art. Art is the most important thing for me and I don’t care about other people’s opinions or designs, I just want to show with the opening of the gallery The Stallery (see below) that you’re allowed to be different, that you’re allowed to be artistic instead of having to try your hardest, learning everything about photography only then to give up to work for galleries, where people judge you and say you’re not good enough so we can’t sell you.
Any interesting stories in your life personally or professionally that you don’t mind sharing?
My dad went with me to Chiang Mai for my rehab. I wasn’t sure why my dad went because I wasn’t very close with him, but he was a logical person, and I needed somebody logical cause I wasn’t making much sense anyway, like my brain was trying to withdraw. So we get to Thailand to a resort and actually, I remembered the resort was very nice. But still, I remembered feeling that my life was over… I had to hand in my phone, and it felt like a prison to me (although the staff there were nice). During those days, I remembered meeting my friend called Simone from Melbourne… actually all of the people there were interesting people.
During my rehab in Chiang Mai, we had these so called “outings” on Sundays because we were so called addicts, or patients of sickness. For these outings, you get to choose white water rafting, snorkelling in a fish tank, or football etc. and I remembered choosing white water rafting… I almost died. There were 4 of us on one of the white water rafts, and when the instructor was trying to explain to us the instructions and what was going to be difficult, we just kept on talking to each other and so we didn’t listen. We were all just looking at the scenery and it was so nice… there were greens everywhere and the water was very calm at first, then we got on to a little rapid which was fun and exciting.
I remembered none of us were looking at the front, and all of a sudden these German tourists were splashing water against us, and we were like, “We are drug addicts, you probably don’t wanna mess with us or we will start talking about injections and sh*t.” Next thing we know, we were entering some very tight rapids with big ass sharp rocks and our boat got capsized. We couldn’t seem to get hold of the bottom of the river, and I remembered being trapped underneath the boat for a minute. You would think that it would be a perfect cover but the boat (the raft) was underwater already, so literally I was under the boat breathing water. I had one hand on the boat, and the other hand trying to flip the boat over so I could get back on this thing, but the water was going very fast and I was trapped. If I had let go of the boat, I knew I would be pushed to a rapid and violent death.
I remembered me and Simone (yeah she was also on my boat) floated a little bit and was holding on to a branch because the water was so fast that we couldn’t get out. I don’t actually remember how I got from underneath the boat to the branch, this all happened in less than a minute but the water was so fast, I was disoriented and I tried to slip out of the boat, which required me to grab the nearest thing possible. Anyway, we couldn’t pull ourselves out and it was pulling us down. I also remembered that we were all in our bathing suits, but I was wearing white underwear, and my pants were kinda loose, and my pants were slowly sliding down so it kind of showed my underwear, and I had to use my legs in spread eagle to stop the flow of water from taking off my pants. Eventually, Mark, a rugby guy from another boat, pulled me up. And I remembered I was soaked in my underwear which was kind of see through… so anyway I thought that was pretty funny. I wouldn’t have done it as a normal day as an addict.
All of us got back on the boat shaking like what the f**k just happened. Did we just survive that? Darius, one of the other guys from the boat, was washed down stream apparently and we were like where the f**k is he, is he dead? It was just me, Simone, and Kat (the 3rd person). We were scared from this life threatening situation, but at the same time we were crying and laughing like what the f**k are we doing. Can’t believe I came here to save my life from addiction only to find myself in a situation that almost kills me.
Oh and Darius? He was fine, but he floated all the way downstream… it was a while until we saw his head bobbing with his helmet in the water, and out of all of us, he appeared to be the least bruised amongst us.
So you are a photographer?
I like to consider myself an artist with a medium in photography. I don’t really see the point of saying painter or photographer because everyone wants conceptual or abstract art. I mean people don’t really care about the medium of art, they care more about the idea of the art. People mistake most of the time that contemporary art is conceptual, but what I’m trying to bring with photography is that I’m not using just a form of expression, I’m also using a form of science to portray art.
Ultimately, I am color blind; I can’t see what other people see from a young age so I never trusted my own color vision. If I say it’s red or green they may say it’s brown or pink and it’s just not in my color… but every time I see these colors I do see these colors, it’s hard to explain to people my disability. In a form like photography I can have them see what I see. I can use Photoshop to create contrast; that’s what makes my photos unique because I use mainly vibrant primary colors to portray my art.
Why did you decide to come to Hong Kong? Why not stay at the states?
For me, Florida wasn’t a very good scene for artistic value; in fact I don’t believe most Americans understand art at all. Not only do they not appreciate art, but they lack a foundation for understanding of art. I know Americans so well (well at least a specific group of Americans); I line up at Target and they ask me about my goldfish. I don’t care if you care or not care about goldfish, cause if you don’t care then don’t ask. They use these, what do I call it, “time-passers” to try to appreciate and love everything but the fact they do this make them lack personality. I think they have to find a balance for that. For me, some of them are too black and white.
As an artist, and this applies for intellects as well, the case to get out of America is so that I can get out of mainstream and globalization. If you are in America, you will feel like you are in the center of the world and you won’t want to learn. I don’t want to be at the center of the universe, I want to know how center I am.
What do you find most challenging as being an artist in photography in general?
I find most challenging when people see photography as a form of record, for example Facebook or any social media that has photography as a feature or selling point like Instagram or Flicker. You lose the integrity of the photograph after the photograph has been reproduced so many times. As long as it’s digitalised it’s immortalised. Every single photo that has been put up on the internet can get replicated and replicated and replicated in a way that mortality doesn’t exist in that photograph anymore. It’s like you can copy a photo of a dead man everywhere, but if you see him everywhere, it seems like he’s not dead, that suddenly this man continues to have a living soul. I want (my photography) to detach from that.
I want people to see photos as art, and so I want to detach myself from immortality. Like Diesel ads use edge to make luxury happen; they use this scheme of grittiness and dirtiness and chaotic and uncleanness to symbolize a super expensive Diesel jacket. People need to understand what’s between of that and the photograph. I hate it when people look at a Diesel ad and go like, “I’ll buy it because Diesel is selling it” or “I want to be like them (the models)”. What they don’t understand is that a photo is a creation and selection of a time, it’s not just a perception.
One of my favorite photographers is Diane Arbus, a famous photographer in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. She said in her own shows that she would put poor people and rich people together in photographs because it seems like the object of time equalises us and make us not feel like rich or poor to be an attribute that we care about.
It seems like lighting is the only thing that is common, as in in other medium of art such as painting, the art may just be a perceived version of the subject, whereas photography captures the true authenticity of the subject, and essentially photography does this through capturing light. However, people are always trying to pick out different things (from the photograph). People should look at the photographs as a whole, not just by isolating subjects or the landscape. They should look at them like paintings. It’s like focusing and saying Mona Lisa’s 35th hair is prettier than her 36th hair, although you can’t really do that since it’s not high def, but in a photograph you may be able to see the difference. People choose to judge, especially in photography since high def is possible, although I admit that high def can be good as it raises the bar for photographers.
Ultimately, I think seeing too much makes us unbelievers, or nonbelievers. We become somebody who is constantly in doubt of reality because it’s not photographed.
What should we take into consideration when taking photos?
People fret too much about the technical skills. In my experience, I’ve never really cared about technical skills, even though I know how to use them and I do use them, but the thing is I never use them until I really understood them. I think photography is like anything else, it’s about looking; it’s about observing the world through a moment. I think constantly in moments and I hope that if anybody wants to be a photographer, they think of the world in moments. If they do, they will become great photographers. Split the world into moments.
Would you mind sharing us how you create these photographs?
Basically, my working process… from the idea in my head I structure it first, and it helps that I have a photographic memory. I pin down the places I wanna go and the mood I wanna set for my series. I pick projects to express ideas, and I rather create a series rather than one singular idea or photo, since a series has more perspective to see and therefore it allows more opinions to be spread from it.
Secondly, I will go and choose the camera. This is important. I can either go for film or digital, both mediums of worth. However, I think film is more artistic as there are less things you can change, so I think more photo journalists should be using film cameras instead of digital. Photographic artists like me should use digital. I think Leica is doing a great job for the digitised market. I love their rangefinder cameras as I feel like they give me an advantage in choosing atmospheres. I could capture the depth and details more than anything with them. With those cameras, I can see the whole scene and not just through the viewfinder, not just through the lens like the DSLR. With this advantage, I can become more aware of the light, the structure, the composition, the mood, the action, and the time in general. Even though rangefinders may not create the image that you exactly see in your eyes, the image will have the essence of what you saw, and that’s the most important. We perceive with our eyes first then process it with information and I want to blend both processes together.
The next step for me would be choosing models. In general, my experience tends to be choosing my friends. But please note that most of the time, I’m picking these people not because they are models, but because they are individuals. Sure, models for me have the aesthetic beauty of a human being, like the perfection of the ratio of limbs or whatever. But I think nowadays, the modern comparison is so much more advanced than the Greek proportions that were considered beautiful but yet restrictive. There’s no need to look like a Greek god or goddess to be beautiful anymore. A lot of people have distinct looks. I choose my models because I know their lifestyles and how they are and how they can help resemble a picture. It’s almost like fashion photography, and I do like fashion a lot.
Ultimately I think modelling has been forgotten as an art and people just treat it as merely a job now. I think that in the 1800’s or something, the models that Auguste Renoir picked fell in love with him that they actually decided to stay as housemaids after as well. Anyway, I pick a person because I like the person, and not just the face.
So most importantly, I create my photographs based on model selection, location selection, and camera selection. My creative process involves just looking at what’s the most vivid or the most trendy thing that we perceive all the time. I also follow Andy Warhol’s dream of equalising money and art.
How do you define your photographs?
In a sense, my photos are illustrative. At first look they are illustrative, second look confusing – confusing because when I tell people this is a photograph, it raises a lot of questions as I’ve turned the photo more into a painting.
My photos are adjusted with different saturation settings according to my eyes, according to my perception of colors. By the way, I don’t know how to grade myself on how color blind I am. In fact, there really is no grade given in general, it’s either you are really color blind or not really color blind. Anyway, so I don’t know what the temperature of color should be, I just sort of play around with the photo like up the clarification of it (which is important to photos). By using the Photoshop clarification, I could bring out the forgotten backgrounds or hairs on the faces, bring out the patches, bring out the dirt on the arts. I could even bring out the shine on the wine glass to give off that certain mood. Without the clarification, we perceive colors scientifically.
The brain can only see colors when there are lines. When there are no lines to separate objects from objects, you can’t see color in general, and what I’m trying to do is add those lines back to reality by using the technology that we have. I think it’s artistic to also add my perception of it towards the art, which is a reality to myself (like my own perception of the lines, of dimensions) – to add something which is a supernatural to the natural world.
Also, drug addiction is a very big part of my art. Drugs affected my perception of the world, and I’ve taken almost everything (except heroin). These things make you feel different, it can get you hooked and somehow in the midst of addiction, I don’t know why, you have an obsessive control of yourself regardless of whether you are taking drugs or not taking drugs.
I think with art, it really widens horizons of addiction and obsession because everyone’s obsessed with something and everyone’s obsessed with images and it’s good to bring back the authenticity of images. The creation of photographs isn’t just a record. Even though I accept my past, a lot of people in this society don’t. They use their mindsets to fit me in their different brains, and what I want to do is provide them and give them a chance to have them feel what I was like under substances and under drugs.
If I asked you how I could learn to appreciate photography more, what would you say to me?
I think that learning how to appreciate photography is different if you are working as an artist in the medium of photography. You can’t appreciate your own work, only other people can and you can tell them how to.
For a viewer, I think the best way to appreciate photography is to look at it without composition, without any sort of regulation on what looks good or looks bad. In my standards, there’s no good art or bad art, it should be influential. Ultimately, photography is the study of light. That object we call photograph, that we can hold in our hands, if we look at it as a scientific record or evidence, our appreciation of it will be a sad one. Instead, look at these photographs as study of moments. As portals of imagination. And if you do that, you will love photography.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Haha myself! As an artist I can hardly differentiate my selfish childhood memories and self beliefs that I brainwash myself with. But besides that, inspiration from love in general from other people and the acceptance of other people.
Before, I couldn’t call myself a real artist because I was split between the perspective of me and you. Art becomes selfish if it’s only focused on me, but it becomes too commercial if it focuses on just you. So the best balance is in the “betweener”, getting inspiration from other people and myself, innovators, pioneers, philosophers, poets, writers, people who see the world in the future and can see the world from a sense of distance. People who can see the past, present, and future together and not one at a time.
I also love Oscar Wilde, and I love everything about the Renaissance period. I understand art in general, I understand the foundation of aesthetics, but Renaissance really changed aesthetics and what art really is. Then the industrial revolution came and all these revolutions suddenly started throwing out policies, throwing out old sh*t, and throwing out old thinking. There was a time when art could exist with that but I think people now are too busy thinking of industrialisation, thinking of commercials, and not having the time to think about art. It seems that the depth of today’s society is far different from the depth of older societies. People today accept what we have without thinking, whereas in earlier periods when the artists did not have technology, they were both artists and philosophers. What I want is to bring back the idea of seeking. I’m not saying we should digress into Renaissance or the Romantic era or the medieval century for designs… ultimately what we have to do is combine what we have now as resources, which is technology.
Technology has boomed in advancing our visual perceptions, like right now we are looking at virtual realities, things of wonder, things that we dreamt of and you can still dream of, and now you can actually record a virtual reality, you can record a dream, and that’s amazing. I don’t know how much technology can bring us as humanity goes in existence, as in what it can do for us when we are still alive. Life itself only goes from point A to B, and technology can help us record this progress. But technology allows us to explore at the immortality of life because progress will always be one direction instead of the other. But I think technology can help us bring back the morals and values of the Romantics or Renaissance or Picasso.
We are closer to world peace more so than the history of human existence (yet we still are far away from achieving complete world peace), but we are closer to cooperating with each other than any time in history. It’s time to start blending the culture with the people. Instead of trying to separate people and culture, the thing is people make culture and they do not need to be educated.
What is your ultimate goal in 5 years or 10 years?
Ultimately, I would want to have established The Stallery (my studio/gallery) and have my name linked with the brand of The Stallery. What I want to do in Hong Kong district is to brand with the ones that I find interesting and have a feel for art and sell art. I would want to continue expanding The Stallery in Sheung Wan or Aberdeen and sort of give these artistic places and art galleries a localised feel or life.
I was fortunate to live not only in this good community which I’ve discovered two years ago, but also knowing a lot of my friends that I do now and sharing everything and the communal love which is important for art because art is for people; it’s for sharing. Some people might put their art piece in an attic or a drawer and never share with other people. For those people, you can call yourselves a drawer or a painter, but don’t call yourself an artist.
Anyway, I’ve chosen Wan Chai to be the perfect place to open the first The Stallery not only because it’s a great place to localise all kinds of art, but this district comprises of both the rich and the poor, and it creates a buffer zone for people to live in, where people do not have to define themselves and label themselves all the time. I want my gallery / studio to be a place where people do not have to care (about their statuses) and do not have to judge or be judged.
Any artists that we should be aware of? Or that you look up to?
Andreas Gursky. He’s amazing… he puts structure into this chaotic world. He had a series of photographs from North Korea as presentations to outsiders, and you know North Korea is a f**ked up country, but you look at the photo and he puts a lot of composition and matter and structure in a f**ked up, off balance place, as if he’s trying to ameliorate the perception of North Korea.
Other artists to be aware of – Takashi Murakami, Diane Arbus, Alex Katz, Andy Warhol.
How do you live your life? As in what’s your way of living?
By eliminating time. That’s the best way to live happily ever after. Well right now, the best way is not to think of any concept or structure or unlearn the idea of time, but time is stress and stress means no productivity, and I will just become depressed and die. Time exists when I’m sharing with someone else, but time doesn’t exist when I’m alone. When I’m alone, I get into a space where life in general for me is a mystery and I continue looking no matter what I find.
When I share with someone else… well, I haven’t really shared anything in common with a lot of people, common as in things such as hobbies and stuff, so sometimes I just feel alone and solitude. But ultimately, I have friends and I unwind from that experience (with them) and that’s how I can live my life.
My life alone is more a philosophical life than anything, and life with other people is a social life, and I live with the combination of the two.
So tell us about the details of The Stallery.
I attempt to combine the production of art with the execution of art. I feel like the whole “store” is an art piece, and I want to help people experience and understand the production process instead of having people just look at an art piece and guessing what it means. So The Stallery is a studio gallery. The gallery part is open for everyone, where they can look and see and feel the gallery, whereas the studio is for the people to feel the whole atmosphere of art instead of just the perfected, presentable version of any art piece. So having the studio there combines the grittiness of art, which mixes well with the gallery display.
There are going to be three surfaces. One for the exhibition of art, one for art portraiture, and one for the portraiture of photography in general, and workshops for photography. I will try to do some teaching, portraiture, and some exhibition. The name The Stallery is so fitting because it really involves a lot of processes of art.
Also, just because you may not be able to afford my photographs, that’s not something bad. I would still want you to enjoy my photography as much as other people do and hence the birth of this place. I want this studio gallery to be a sanctuary, a place where other people and I can feel creativity, free, and a place where we can think freely without judgment or forced perception.
It’s very important that I am an independent artist and that I don’t have to listen to anybody. It’s important for me to have an artist to control the gallery.
In January, I plan to launch The Stallery in a grander scale, like finding Tatler magazine or Prestige magazine or any local magazines that would advertise me.
Whew. Well if you’ve managed to read all of the above, I just want to say congratulations. Over 5,000+ words right here.
The soft opening of The Stallery will be this coming Friday on Dec. 12, 2014. The location is 82A Stone Nullah Lane. Ernie will be showing all of his art. He will be partnering with Tai Lung Fung for a dinner and art event. The event will be something for mainly friends and close clientele, but he’s also encouraging anyone who’s reading this post to come as well. Please RSVP to [email protected] first to ensure admission, and say you were referred from Ryan Z Lee’s blog.
If you can’t make it, no worries. It will continue to be opened after that date, from 12pm – 7pm. I urge you to go because I’ve seen his work on his iPhone and his photographs are strong, amazing, stunning, and appealing. You can visit his website at www.thestallery.com.
*originally published on Dec. 9, 2014