Ka-Man Tse and Aaron Blum offer unique views into communities that are historically stereotyped or underrepresented by popular media, and show how those groups balance their traditions with the modern world. In their respective projects, which I recently selected for Silver Eye Center for Photography's annual Fellowship grant and exhibition in Pittsburgh, PA, Blum and Tse break from a straightforward, documentary format. They photograph their subjects with a rich narrative creating a deepened, yet open ended understanding from within, rather than a purely descriptive documentary processes. Tse's series Narrow Distances, includes portraits and chaotic landscapes that offer a queer lens into LGBTQ culture and identity in contemporary Hong Kong, while Blum's A Field Guide to Folk Taxonomy, combines landscapes and quiet ephemera to portray unexpected intergenerational symbols and mythologies from Appalachia. Each shoots with a large format view camera, which helps them meditate on their communities, through a slow, layered, and poetic voice.
Ka-Man Tse’s Narrow Distances addresses a desire to reconcile public and private moments and establish personal space, identity and community in the face of societal circumstances that favor homogeneity and acquiescence. Specifically, Tse’s work is an exploration of the LGBTQ struggles to claim ownership in a city which, despite being technologically and architecturally progressive, is steeped in cultural and familial traditions that often prefer to pretend that LGBTQ individuals and desire do not exist.
This series hinges on a missed photographic opportunity in 2006 when Tse, who was born in Hong Kong and raised in the Schenectady, New York, was making a large-format landscape capturing the urban density of Hong Kong at night. In the midst of a carefully constructed, timed exposure, two teenaged girls unexpectedly entered the frame, laughing, in embrace. Contemporary Hong Kong, according to Tse, is a place where many live in intergenerational households that often cling to traditional notions of family, and a lack of private space can exacerbate the ability to find moments of agency for LGBTQ individuals. For Tse, it was a perfect photographic moment, her first time seeing a visibly gay couple in Hong Kong, reconciling their existence in the landscape, momentarily free of its usual cultural limitations.
"Suddenly, the nocturnal landscape I was making no longer seemed enough." says Tse. "I had a dilemma. I could rip out that sheet of undercooked 4x5 film, start over again, move the camera and include them in the frame. Or I could approach them. What would I say to them? Could I leave my camera and walk up to them, talk to them? I chickened out, and decided to wait until the end of the long exposure. They disappeared before the picture had finished."
For Tse, this indecisive moment has inspired all of her work since, and might function as its overarching metaphor. The experience encouraged her to approach subjects she knew closely, and she began making portraits from up close as opposed to quickly snapped moments. While the couple she was unable to photograph was a pair of strangers, nine years later, in the summer of 2014, Tse returned to begin Narrow Distances, photographing her friends and a tightly knit networks of men, women, and trans-identified individuals she’s met as the project has grown. For Tse, many of her images can be seen as self portraits as they allow her to better understand herself and understand her relationship to Hong Kong, her family, and own hyphenated Chinese-American identity.
Aaron Blum’s A Field Guide to Folk Taxonomy revolves around the hidden symbols of the communities he photographs, and like Tse, is deeply tied to his own identity and understanding of home. While Appalachia is often popularly associated with demoralizing caricatures of poverty and violence– think Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out Of Carolina, or James Dickey’s Deliverance – Blum’s pictures offer an alternate vision of its legacy of storytelling and mythology, largely tied to his own family history. Blum was particularly driven to make this work, and his earlier series Born and Raised when he moved from his hometown of West Virginia to study at Syracuse University, and was confronted with North East stereotypes about the region. “In earnest they would ask stereotypical questions such as ‘why do you have your shoes or teeth’? ‘Do you guys eat roadkill?’”
These experiences, mixed with his own family lineage helped drive the project to fruition. The use of the word Guide in the project’s title came in an early stage when Blum considered making serialized images of Appalachian salamanders, comparing them to portraits of people in the corresponding areas. The initial idea was to use the Salamander’s diverse population as a metaphor for the region’s actual diversity, but it quickly evolved into a much subtler exploration of the mythical storytelling tradition. In one image, for example, a close friend’s child lays on a patchwork quilt in his dimly lit bedroom. An owl on the table beside the bed makes a subtle reference to corpse birds, which signify a preceding death that will soon come to the family who witnesses it. While that might seem dark on some level, it also signifies rebirth, the passing of life and narrative across generations. These quiet references flow through Blum’s images ranging from warmly lit rural portraits to landscapes that feel like they are living and breathing its history.
Blum’s work sits on a delicate balance of outsider perceptions, his own family histories, and other family stories he’s uncovered over the years in an attempt to eventually resolve his still unanswered question: What does it mean to be an Appalachian? A Field Guide… does not provide literal or immediate answers, but exists as its own evolved narrative genre. “You can’t really escape either influence,” he says. “It is easy to see the truths within the stereotypes, but so much more of it is false, and creating work that rides that line is important because both those things inform my identity.” Blum is particularly interested in how this interplay can influence regional identities. “I really like the ideas of using myths and dialect to create photographs and understand how they support the idea of ‘Appalachianess,’ " says Blum. “Both are often thought of as stereotypical aspects to the region, but for me I can see the beauty in them and look past the simple ideas of twangy language.”
Despite our fleeting, and often digitally schizophrenic age, the cumbersome 4x5 film camera is an important tool for both Tse and Blum. Its process has helped them to maintain an intimate understanding of their subjects, whether it’s a meditation on the landscape, or a deeply interactive portrait session. Their images, composed a single frame at a time, provide a careful consideration that is vital to each of their projects. “In a landscape or still life,” says Tse, “it feels meditative; the process of framing and focusing, and understanding physical space and visual relationships, as well as time and anticipation.” This also surfaces in Tse’s environmental portraits, which, through their attention to soft ambient light and subtle psychological gestures, allow the viewer to feel as if they were part of the experience and interaction between Tse and her subjects. In some images, couples gaze back through the lens, in communion with both Tse, and viewers, while others capture private moments between the couples in their environments. While some of Tse’s more direct portraits borrow from the traditions of large format portraitists like Rinike Dijkstra and August Sander, her gaze holds a uniquely conversational tenderness.
“I can make eye contact,” adds Blum, referencing how the view camera allows him to engage with his subjects instead of looking at them through a viewfinder. “Working with 4x5 it involves a true collaboration with my sitter in a portrait session. Sometimes, I feel as if we have to breathe together. It helps to slow you down and really consider what you are photographing as well as force you to work with your subjects not just capture what they look like.” Like Tse, this process encourages a direct, open gaze when his subjects are looking at the viewer.
Like their thoughtful attention to the people they photograph, they each approach landscape as geography rich with metaphor. On the surface, Tse’s landscapes might appear to be topographical studies of Hong Kong’s rapidly developing urban density; construction sites, tightly packed buildings, depleting greenery. When paired with her portraits, however, they can serve as a metaphor for the construction of cultural identity in Hong Kong, and the struggles it may imbue on the LGBTQ community. In one photograph, a barbed wire chain link fence despite a gaping hole, attempts to protect a construction site with cranes and new buildings hovering in the background. In another image, a tree is sandwiched between tightly packed buildings and construction fencing, interrupting their order with unkempt warmth. “I see the construction sites as a literal way of visualizing that constant contention and negotiation; sites of subtraction, erasure and loss, as well as a covering.” For Tse, they are a reminder of the impact that density and overcrowding can have on anonymizing individuality, and how people express themselves despite its rigidity.
Blum’s Landscapes, like Tse’s, create a steady pace between his portraits and still lifes. On some level, they provide context to the people he photographs, but more importantly, they serve as brief pauses that help visualize the mysteries surrounding the region. Blum describes his process of looking as seeing through “idealized eyes of wonder,” operating in warm, abstract opposition to the eyes of the outside world. “I think that I see my work as a world that I get to create,” says Blum, “so by telling this story I get to see my ideal Appalachia manifest itself. I am an idealist to a fault, and in my mind everything is romantic. After a moment passes, even if it was terrible, I believe that moment will lead to something great.”
While photography may forever face the problem of accurately representing a culture or identity, Blum and Tse’s slowed down, interactive process helps them get a bit closer. Instead of trying, in vain, to re-document these subjects as an untainted vision, Tse and Blum leave things open. They unapologetically acknowledge and combine them with their own lived experience, far more layered than one might expect, creating a complex and fluid narrative. Their work is ultimately an attempt to understand themselves while visualizing the hidden moments in the communities they photograph.
Ka-Man Tse (b. 1981) is the International Award winner for her series Narrow Distances. Tse received an MFA from Yale University in 2009, and a BA from Bard College in 2003. She has exhibited at the Museum of Chinese in America (New York City); the Bronx Museum of the Arts; Cornell University (Ithaca, NY); the Palm Springs Art Museum (Palm Springs, FL); Philadelphia Photo Arts Center; Gallery 339 (Philadelphia); and the Eighth Veil (Los Angeles). Work from her series Narrow Distances was included in the 2015 Lianzhou Foto Festival in Guangdong, China. Tse was a SPARC Artist-in-Residence through the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and completed the Artist in the Marketplace Program through the Bronx Museum of Arts. She is the recipient of the 2014-2015 Robert Giard Fellowship. She is a lecturer at Yale University and at Parsons School of Design. Tse was born in Hong Kong and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. For more information, please visit www.tsewhat.com.
Aaron Blum (b. 1983) is the Keystone Award winner for his series A Guide to Folk Taxonomy. Blum received an MFA from Syracuse University in 2010, and BFA from West Virginia University in 2007. He has exhibited at the Photographic Resource Center (Boston); Pittsburgh Center for the Arts; Corden/Potts Gallery (San Francisco); Houston Center for Photography; Haggerty Museum of Art (Milwaukee, WI); and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. Blum previously exhibited work from his series Born and Raised in the exhibition Continuum: Doug DuBois and Aaron Blum at Silver Eye Center for Photography in 2013. His work is part of the permanent collections at the Houston Museum of Fine Art, the Haggerty Museum of Fine Art, and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. His work has been featured in a variety of publications, such as: Foam, Fraction, Next Level, and Aint-Bad. Blum is a recipient of many awards, most recently including the 2015 Foam Talent Award and the 2015 Magenta Foundation Flash Forward Award. Blum is currently an adjunct professor of photography at West Virginia University, Carnegie Mellon University, and Pittsburgh Filmmakers, and resides in Pittsburgh. For more information, please visit www.aaronblumphoto.com.