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Interview with photographer Felicitas Yang

SHORT BIO OF THE PHOTOGRAPHER: Chinese-German photographer and filmmaker who grew up in France, Felicitas Yang graduated with a BFA in filmmaking at the New York Film Academy in 2016. She subsequently directed a handful of short documentaries, as well as a couple of narrative short films. In 2018, she moved to Berlin where she developed a keen interest for analog photography, leading her to direct “Box of Memories” (2019), an experimental movie that marries filmmaking and photography techniques. To this day, Felicitas shoots exclusively on film.

  • How did it all start out of? What inspired you to pursue photography as a profession (or as a hobby)?

Shortly after moving to Berlin in 2018, I worked pro bono on a student film set as a camera assistant. The hotshot DP proudly gifted each technician a 135 fuji roll as compensation. At this point I had filmed a few projects as a cinematographer, but my interest in analog photography had been mere curiosity at best. Looking back at it now, it’s almost as though I was waiting for permission: there was always a kind of mystique surrounding analog, like something beyond my reach. A few months later, I asked my father if I could steal his forgotten Nikon F3. It was winter and I went on a few walks in the mountains near Heidelberg, Germany. I had no idea what I was doing. I even tore the end of the roll because I couldn’t unwind it correctly. Despite the embarrassment, the instant when I received the developed negatives I felt a rush, like a child on Christmas morning. That feeling never got old; it still gets me every time I receive my scans from the lab.

  • Can you tell us about yourself and your background?

I had a multicultural upbringing. Despite growing up in France, we never spoke French at home and would often travel to Germany or China. My parents work in the Arts and didn’t have the means to hire a
sitter, so my brother and I tagged along to many exhibitions. This probably lead to me wanting to become a painter, until I took a film class in high school. After graduating, I went on to study directing at the New York Film Academy. At the time, part of the school was located in Tammany Hall on Union Square. It was a Neo-Georgian style building with dark terrazzo floors, large lacquered wooden doorframes and exposed plumbing. There was a beautiful auditorium on the top floor with disregarded 35mm spools hidden in the projection room. I remember seeing those and regretting the fact that today’s world ran on video. I had felt the same a year previous during a trip to Iceland where my friend and I visited the Red Rock Cinema in Reykjavik where a documentarian named Villi Knudsen screened his father’s as well as his own volcano-centric movies. Villi invited us and a few other guests into his home for a drink and some dried fish. There, he showed us his old editing table, where he spliced, glued and ultimately edited his movies. This particular instance may have been the starting point for my fascination for analog: the mechanical, tactile and tangible aspect of film fascinated me – to be able to transfix time in silver halides still seems like pure magic. You can’t smell digital, but you can smell analog. It has a scent.

  • Who were your early influences?

I studied filmmaking, so most of my influences are film-related. The Majority of the movies that inspire me come from Japanese cinema. There’s Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha”, Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”, Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff”, Keisuke Kinoshita’s “The Ballad of Narayama”… These films are all on a quest for aesthetics; they have a respect for stillness and composition that I was always drawn to. When I started taking photography more seriously, the first photographers whose work caught my attention were Sally Mann, Larry Burrows, Miroslav Tichy and last but not least, Yukichi Watabe. Shortly after receiving my filmmaking diploma, I found a photo book published by The Wilson Center for Photography. The book gathered photographs taken by Yukichi Watabe during a criminal investigation he documented in the late 50s, following a Columbo-esque detective while he and his partner try to uncover the identity of the one responsible for a gruesome murder in Tokyo. What astonished me was that these photos were more compelling than any film noir I had seen. This may have been the first time I felt as affected by photography as I had by cinema and when I understood how incredible it is that a single image can hold so much power.

  • What are the subjects that you enjoy photographing the most? What draws you to a particular scene or subject as a photographer?

At first, most of what attracted my attention was Nature. I took a lot of macro photographs of plants. Sometime in 2018, a laboratory in Paris introduced me to Washi film, which is a company that handcrafts
specialty black and white film rolls. This sort of unlocked my love for black and white photography: you can focus on texture, contrast, composition and framing. Now, I’m more interested in street photography; peculiar places and situations always spike my interest. I really like to isolate subjects thanks to framing, composition and depth of field. I like taking photos of live shows because the focus of the performers isn’t on the photographer but on the crowd. People look very different depending on whether they’re thinking about being photographed or not. Subjects’ stance and expressions seem much more natural and genuine depending on the instance.

  • What has been your most memorable experience related to photography?

Earlier this year I went to a falconry in Hassmersheim, Germany. One of the staff members had a long and curved scar under her left eye. During the flight demonstrations, the same person brought out a beautiful golden eagle. I had never seen anyone be this intimate with a bird of prey. They are what the falconry calls “married”. I took a photo of her kissing the eagle’s neck and still use that photo as a wallpaper on my phone.

  • What are some of the challenges of photography?

Sometimes I take photos for live shows. With film cameras, you need to pull focus manually, and given the dim lighting I often have to shoot wide open. Despite having worked as a focus puller, it’s still a considerable challenge to get crisp photos, especially when the performance is very animated. That being said, I enjoy the discipline analog requires. Discipline can be a work frame, especially for event and street photography. It teaches us to hone our skills. Not being able to immediately see what you’ve shot pushes you to understand what you’re using and how. Our biggest obstacle in this endeavor is automation. I loathe automation: it may simplify and make technical aspects more convenient, but it also enables idleness and ignorance. Most misconceptions surrounding photography stem from automation and widespread accessibility. They dim down our professionalism and dilute our visual palate. Good photography grows slowly. It may seem
counterintuitive but it takes time to understand what you’re seeing and to utilize your surroundings in order to take good photographs. The only way to get there is to keep shooting.

  • How do you balance between what you see and making it as dramatic and beautiful like a standalone artwork?

No photographer’s duty is to make a subject dramatic or beautiful. Some photographers have purposefully opposing approaches. The point is to find a path and nestle yourself in a spot that feels right; to find your voice. The only way to do this is to experiment and study. You need to know your tools inside out. That’s when you’ll preemptively see what you’re shooting and hence make a photograph look like you intend for it to look.

  • What do you want to capture in your photographs?

The unwavering.

  • Are you always keeping an eye out for what’s new on the camera market?

I like old things, so no. I will however regularly browse eBay to find good deals on used gear.

  • What’s the post-production process like?

Film is forgiving, which probably saves me more editing than most photographers. I do find it necessary to color-grade the scan of every negative, but I rarely go beyond cropping or slight straightening.

  • Where do you want to take your photography career?

I’d like to build a darkroom so I may enlarge my own prints. The process is very rewarding and would give me complete control over the look of the final photo. I’m also trying to find a gallery that’d be open to exhibit my work or even represent me as an artist.

  • What’s the most difficult part of what you do and what advice would you give to up-and-coming photographers?

People are sometimes under the impression that shooting on film is very difficult so it will be avoided under this presumption. I’ve been on several movie productions that shot on film. Every second the camera rolls, it exposes twenty-five stills. In comparison, a roll of 36 exposures seems rather whimsical. We shouldn’t be afraid of shooting film: a large portion of photography is linked to intuition, and when we second guess ourselves we miss the crucial moment that would’ve made a great photo. Affordable rolls may be harder to come by each year, but the solution for this is to scour the internet for the best deals and set aside film stock preferences. The film stock doesn’t determine how good a photo is, nor does the camera. We have a tendency to be fixated on the gear because we believe it will make us better photographers. The most important thing is to find what you’re comfortable using.

  • Where can our readers find you online?

On my website.