Taiwan-born, Hawaiian-raised, New York-based Howard Huang considers himself an urban fashion/celebrity photographer. Comics and Japanese anime are building blocks for the fantasy sets he creates for musicians, models and actors, from Lil Wayne and Jacki-O to Ice-T and Nicki Minaj. Huang often composites photographs to achieve his inner vision or an art director’s storyboard idea.
Huang creates color-bursting magazine features for publications ranging from VIBE and Billboard to Maxim and The New Yorker. His corporate clients include Panasonic, Nintendo and Verizon. His book Urban Girls, published by Taschen, shows off his work in the niche market of African-American and Latina bikini models, collectively known as "urban girls."
DPP: Where do the ideas come from for your vibrant, high-energy setups?
Howard Huang: I grew up in Taiwan and was fascinated with comic books and anime, so a lot of the ideas come from that. As I got older, sci-fi films like Star Wars, Blade Runner and such also had an influence on me. While most little boys wanted to be a fireman or an astronaut when they grew up, I wanted to be a graphic novel artist or a hit man.
DPP: A hit man?
Huang: Action films and comic books portrayed hit men in black suits or trench coats with sunglasses and guns. I think I was more into becoming an Armani hit man with a flair for fashion. Maybe I should say that I wanted to look cool and feel like a superhero. I was never a bad boy. I grew up in a very normal middle-class Chinese family. If anything, I was the bad ass among nerds. I never thought I would be a photographer.
DPP: How did your evolution into photography develop?
Huang: I actually wanted to be a fine artist when I was in high school, you know, the kind that smokes and drinks at a café all day, has an attic studio in Paris and paints beautiful women for a living. That was, of course, an unrealistic fantasy to my Chinese parents at that time. So the middle ground of what my parents thought was good for me—going to school and majoring in business versus my fantasy of being a fine artist—was that I learn graphic design as a real job skill to prevent me from ending up on the streets. My design courses led me to discover photography. Once I did, I was hooked.
DPP: What was it about photography that attracted you?
Huang: In my first basic photography classes at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, I discovered that the actual process of photography amazed me. It’s like magic when you first see your image coming up in the developer in the darkroom. Though I’ve gone over to digital, that feeling of magic has never left me. Digital imaging technology has evolved to the point where we can now do it all better and faster, exerting much more control over each individual aspect of the finished work than we could in a traditional darkroom. I like to be able to produce the entire process from start to finish. I use digital manipulation and composite work to enhance my inner vision, but I rework an image in Photoshop in a way that the treatment isn’t obvious.
DPP: How did your style evolve?
Huang: Since I came from a traditional darkroom background, this whole new computer graphic thing opened up brand-new possibilities for me. Even in the traditional wet darkroom, where I would spend hours developing and printing, I was drawn to alternative processes like cross-processing, cyanotypes and Polaroid transfers. While in college, I would experiment with different backgrounds and combine them with the model I photographed using Photoshop. I created mostly alien fantasy types of images. After college, I kept on experimenting while I was a digital assistant for photographer Michel Tcherevkoff in New York.
DPP: When you went out on your own, you became known as a master of photographing urban girls. Why the fascination?
Huang: I didn’t choose to be in this niche market. It kind of just happened for me. I wanted to do fantasy-themed shoots with agency models for fashion, but it turned out the urban fans love my vibrant color and style. I started to shoot for XXL Magazine, and one magazine feature led to another. I was soon doing photo shoots with urban girls on a regular basis. Years later, Taschen saw my work and decided to publish my body of work in a coffee-table book called Urban Girls, featuring African-American and Latina women with nice curves. I had the pleasure of working with hundreds of sexy women, most of the time getting to execute my vision. Hey, I can’t complain about that.
DPP: How would you describe your style?
Huang: I have a taste for the dramatic, and I often see photography as a still frame of a movie. I love action and a single frozen moment of time that engages you.
DPP: Tell us about your experiences working with rapper, singer, songwriter and actress Nicki Minaj. Do you suggest ideas to her, or does she come in with her own ideas, or is it always collaboration? Your photographs are able to capture and cultivate her multiple identities.
Huang: I started working with Nicki a few years ago before she was internationally known. From the first time I met her, I felt that she was going to be a big star. She’s not only talented, but she has a big presence and a very exhilarating attitude on set. We hit it off right away. I presented my ideas to her and she loved them and totally went into character. Nicki is still the same creative eccentric artist even after her album Pink Friday dropped and she made a big name for herself. The difference is, now the sets have become more elaborate and she has more ideas of her own. But we just play like we always do. We have a great collaboration. To me, photography is to create a fantasy in a still frame, and her multiple identities fit perfectly into this approach. Both Nicki and I believe that photographs with a story behind them are the most interesting kind of image.
DPP: What equipment do you work with?
Huang: The Hasselblad H2 with the Leaf Aptus back or a Canon EOS 5D Mark III, depending on the job. I have a bunch of cameras like any photographer, and the camera I use the most is my iPhone. We had a beautiful girl last year, and I’ve been trigger-happy with my phone’s camera. She has her own Facebook page, and I Instagram almost daily. Someone said the best camera is the one you have on you at the time. It’s so true.
DPP: Between the medium-format and the 35mm, when do you go with one system over the other?
Huang: Whenever I’m in the studio, I try to use my medium-format camera with the Leaf back. But when I need fast focus or I’m shooting in low light on location, I use my Canon. The thing is, I shoot fast. That’s one trick when photographing celebrities. They don’t have much time. The faster you do a great job, the better. That’s why I originally chose the Leaf over the Phase One because of the capture rate. But I’ve yet to test the new Phase One IQ2 and the Leaf Credo side by side. I usually will choose the fastest capture rate over the largest sensor. If you missed the moment with a 100-megapixel back, you might own an amazing piece of equipment, but you still missed the shot.
DPP: What’s your typical lighting setup?
Huang: I try to match my background light when I do the compositing work, so I usually shoot it first and then match the lighting in-studio with the model. I often use grids to control the light and create contrast. Sometimes I use a ringlight flash set to a low power setting to catch a little shine on the skin, especially with darker-skinned models. I often have a top light and backlight. I own a bunch of Dynalites, which I’ve been using since school. They’re small and easy to transport. I also have some Profoto 7Bs that I use on location. I usually rent all Profotos when I shoot on location or in other studios, especially when I need fast recycle times and short flash durations. I have a live/work loft in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s not too big, but good enough to do the small shoots. I’m near Fast Ashleys Studio, so I often rent there. And there are a lot of other studios in my neighborhood, too. If the client wants to be in Manhattan, then there are, of course, even more options. I recently shot in China, and it’s all Broncolor there. I liked using them, too.
DPP: How are you able to get such vibrant colors in your work?
Huang: I’m using some gels, and I’m doing some post work to add some colors to my liking.
DPP: Do you still retouch and composite all your own photos?
Huang: Yes, mostly. But now I have assistants to do some of the cleanup work, and I do all the compositing and finishing touches on them. It’s hard to tell people how I want a certain contrast—darker here, a little lighter there—as well as positioning and blending composites just right. It’s a long process, but it’s like painting, so I do enjoy it.
See more of Howard Huang’s photography at www.howardhuang.com.