Chinese photographer Erin Yueying Wang documents her reality through a personal lens, capturing human experiences and life journeys as they unfold in nature. Wang’s autobiographical images function as visual memoirs that portray snapshots of her life, her childhood, and her extensive travels. The artist expertly manipulates the reality of her compositions by experimenting with shutter speed. By combining technology like drones, scanners, and projectors with traditional printmaking techniques, Wang renders complex, layered images. This June, she participated in Agora Gallery‘s group show “Summer Solstice: Untold Stories,” which featured seven international artists working across various media. In the show, each artist’s work joined together to invite viewers to investigate personal stories that lay beneath the picture plane. Wang’s work contributed to this narrative with her series of photographs that document her solo journeys through various landscapes. Wang has an undergraduate degree in Landscape Architecture from Chongqing University and a BFA in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design.
Fine Art Globe: When did the urge to document your life through a lens first develop?
Erin Wang: The urge began with selfies. Ten years ago, in middle school, what every girl wanted was a cell phone that had a camera function that could connect them to an emerging, image-based social network based on images. My passion for documenting my life started from there when QQ Space (an early version of Instagram) provided a virtual platform to share one’s life beyond the classroom. At that age, the act of taking selfies and snapshots as a daily ritual fulfilled me by helping me discover a more beautiful side of my life. Many years later, I learned more about one’s uniqueness and started to trace background stories via photography; I still remember the initial excitement of putting on a wig and colored contact lens for a selfie. Maybe documentation for me is accomplishing the moment that I’ve become the person I want to be, who is fueled by today’s image-saturated culture.
What is your aesthetic, in three words?
Deep, detached, and naive.
What is it about being solitary that you find so appealing both in life and in your art? Are there any childhood experiences that drove you toward embarking upon these ‘heroic runaway journeys’ of self-reflection?
Everyone is born with some factory settings. Being raised in a single-parent household, I cannot tell if solitariness chose me or if I chose to be solitary. My departures could symbolize a childhood game of hide-and-seek, an adolescent biking adventure into the woods alone, or a struggle to change majors and transfer to a new country, turning away from the expectations of others. These runaway journeys were my protest, treatment, search, and even my performance in every lost moment. They are emblematic of an attitude towards the imperfection of life.
Whatever the reason, I want to follow my passion and be true to myself even if I get the wrong scripts in life.
From 2019 to 2020, I traveled around the United States on a train to work on my thesis project. Spending day and night in a moving car, I traced time elapsing second by second while capturing the fleeting landscape frame by frame. Holding my eye close up against the viewfinder, I fell into an image world that was cropped, flattened, and manipulated; everything else receded into the darkness beyond the rectangular edge until it was only me and my vision. I believe every photographer shares the same solitary space when looking into the small black box of a viewfinder, but it is up to the photographer to know how to define that space.
China experienced a second industrial revolution beginning in the 1980s. How much of this rapid growth and its results: ease of travel, advancements in technology, or economic stability, has influenced your work?
Economic prosperity at any historical stage promotes diversity in art and culture. The 1980s economic reforms in China encouraged local markets to go global by promoting foreign products. What influenced me the most was the introduction of Western media like magazines, music videos, and cinema. They aroused my earliest interest in images and became my first ‘teacher’ of photography.
You studied landscape architecture in college. How often does this discipline intersect with your artmaking?
Landscape architecture deals with the relationship between humans and the natural outdoor environment, which overlaps with the subject matter of my work. Both fields aim to bridge the concept and the final design expression. Landscape architecture approaches it through serious analysis, yet fine art resonates with this idea through loose and diverse narratives. They both require observation, documentation, and creation.
As photobooks play a more important role in photo display, sequencing and contextualizing skills become vital for photo artists—especially speaks to what I learned from landscape architecture, which emphasizes information collection and humanity studies to make the design harmonize with the environment, just like making photographs live within the right historical/cultural context.
While earning your BFA in photography at RISD, how often did you travel throughout the New England area to explore and document its unique landscape?
In my first year in RISD, I visited almost all the parks on Rhode Island. Immersed in the natural environment, I went through pure observation and discovery process in my early stage of art exploration. Later, I began to insert myself into the landscape and integrate my stories and feelings through metaphors. My favorite spot is Colt State Park, located in Bristol, where I shot for Elle Magazine.
Your compositions explore the sticky transition between past, present, and future. Which of those three temporal aspects do you feel is your “natural” default?
As Joy McCullough wrote in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, “A person in her twenties has been a child for most of her life, but as time goes by, that portion that is childhood becomes smaller and smaller, more and more distant, more and more faded….” Compared to what I am approaching, I prefer to hold more emotions towards my roots and past. Memories are full-bodied dreams; the present, however, is too sudden. Honestly, I do not want to grow up.
You execute photo-based work in both black & white and color. Do you have a preference for one tonality over the other?
My preference depends on each photo. B&W accentuates the light and sculpture while the color describes a temperature. What I like about working digitally instead of analog is the ease with which I can see how things look before making any decisions.
How important is scale when it comes to creating your work?
Scale is important when it comes to print. Every picture should have an ideal size depending on the photo details, subject, quality, and the space it resides. Sometimes there is no absolute answer. The scale could match the subject’s size in reality and go against it to create other dramatic effects.
Briefly, please share how you blur the boundaries of reality by playing with the shutter speeds on your camera.
On a moving train, I saw trees passing by in a big block of green. I realized that my eyes moved much slower than the images in front of them and would never be able to separate each instance from another, which makes the overall vision muddled. However, a camera lens can ‘recess’ each instance so that a series of still images can be produced from what the human eye reads as a blur. By setting the shutter speed from 1/2000 to 1/2, time elapses more slowly in a photograph, and the image becomes more and more abstract. Reality is never a matter of fact but a series of changing measurements.
How does the title of your recent group show at Agora Gallery, “Summer Solstice: Untold Stories,” resonate with your work?
The audience might not know every detail of my solitary journeys and my motivation behind them. Still, the message from the title is strong enough to remind people of my individual perspective and one of the varied possibilities of the man communicating with nature.
The past 16 months have been very challenging to humanity due to global shutdowns resulting from the pandemic. How has this calamity affected your practice?
Staying at home gave me more time to organize my past work and code my web pages. I pushed back my travel plans and was able to make more sketches instead. It was also good to join lectures on Zoom and stay connected with people.