people standnig in front of paintings

Interview with Lucien Liu


“For me, doing photography, or I would call it "working with light" is a good way to let me know more about the world I am living in. What I am doing is actually building a bridge between me and the world through my photographs and that might be the best form of engagement.”
-Lucien Liu

Interview with artist Lucien Liu was conducted by curator Emmanuelle Namont


E: Who is a big influence in your life as a photographer?

L: My dad had a big influence on me. He is an engineer. He always says: if you have a problem, you can solve it. I guess it just influenced me in my photographic practice. If I cannot find a perfect camera, how about I make one? If the paper doesn't work, you can make the paper by yourself, right? I have a specific idea of what the image should look like. So I have to create all the ingredients on my own. This is a way of solving a problem, and it's a way for me to engage everything. For every step from the shooting to printing, that's the engagement.

E: A lot of your former work is in black and white, I am thinking about your previous Series “Petrichor” and your remarkable self-portraits. Now you moved onto color photography. What do you think about this transition between black and white to color?

L: I never worry about doing black and white or color. I know that I have been associated with being a black and white photographer but I am not attached to either one. Everything is a tool, ready for me to grab. I just pick the best one to fit the subject/topic I am working on.

E: I was thinking of the work of Christopher McCall. What do you think is the difference between his work and yours?

L: Chris is definitely a big influence on my work. Like him, I build the cameras but I choose a different way of exploring the impact, the burnt of the sun.


E: Could you tell us how you make the photographs?

L: I collect all kinds of containers. My mom calls me “Garbage Man!” I use for example a can, a tin box, a cookies box. I paint it in the inside with matte black paint and I create a tiny pinhole. I then calculate the aperture. It can be really small which gives me very sharp images and a great depth of field. Then I put the photographic paper inside and expose it for many hours: a night, 15, 20 hours. I then process the paper, scan it and see what happens. The most interesting part is that I never know what colors I will get. It varies with the paper, the exposure time but I never know. I might get a lot of cool tones or warm tones. There are no rules here, it all happens by accident. In the end, it does not matter which color I get, they ‘ve all been created naturally.

E: So the sun is not only burning the paper, it’s giving you the colors of the images.

L: Yes and the weather too. I noticed that when it’s foggy (and it’s often foggy in San Francisco), the moisture actually wets the paper; the colors change and you can then even see my fingerprints. I really love it: everything is there, preserved, even my touch. That’s really what alternative processes are about.   

E: What I find interesting also in your practice is that in terms of photography, your process transcends the idea of photography, as the common idea of representation, which is that a photograph is a representation of reality. Your work is very different because you’re not so much photographing a scene as recording the impact of natural elements on paper. These physical elements whether they are the humidity, the sun, the fog are creating an object more than a representation, they are “building” something tangible. So when I think about that, I think also about landscape photography. Your images look at first like landscape photography but they are anything but traditional landscape photographs.

L: Yes, in a way, they are more reflective of my emotional landscape on the day of the exposure. I wake up, I look outside, I go though my day experiencing a series of emotions and feelings. Somehow the pictures register these events, they are markers of what I have experienced over a specific period of time.

E: You started this project during the lockdown. How much that period of time influenced the work

L: Somehow, the lockdown time gave me an alternative way to think about our environment. I became even more fascinated by details that I started to notice in the city, like a specific tree, the shape of a fence a random cat on the street and I wanted to record that from an alternative point of view. This is how the project came to be.

 E: Light is the essential element in photography and in this project you are literally grabbing the light on that day. In your project light does not as much create the image, as it destroys the photograph.

L: Yes, it is a gift. First, I consider the ability of "observing" as a gift for me to see the world in a more objective way. Observation can slow down my emotional reflection on things/events. It leads me to see things from different angles. Second, I think photography is a gift from the light. With light (or the original definition of "photography": drawing with light), I get unlimited possibilities to make art works. Pinhole is just a tiny part of this photographic world. That is one of the reasons I love to create the project One Day Solar: to "grab some sunshine in a container".

E: Who are the artists who influence you the most?

L: I would say that first it is Adam Fuss. I had the chance to meet him twice in New York. It was the first time I discovered alternative processes. I was thinking: what the hell is that? How could he make these photographs? Those are really big prints, you know, but you can’t figure out what they really are. You think you see a waterfall but you learnt that it’s just been created in the bathtub. And of course he's a camera less photographer. He is a great photo explorer working with different photographic processes.

And then there is Raymond Meeks, a wonderful storyteller. His works always keep some room for the viewers to fill in the photograph with their imagination. He builds bridges between the viewers and the artist. Of course, a lot of other artists really influenced me. But those are the top two for me.

E: You talked about this idea of engagement with the medium

L: For me, doing photography, or I would call it "working with light" is a good way to let me know more about the world I am living in. What I am doing is actually building a bridge between me and the world through my photographs and that might be the best form of engagement.