DPP Home Profiles Peter Yang: Master Of Ideas & Light

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Peter Yang: Master Of Ideas & Light

Peter Yang builds perfect portraits out of props, concepts and lighting

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Shooting covers for Esquire, Fast Company, Rolling Stone and Wired among others, Peter Yang is one of the most sought-after photographers working today. His keen wit and sense of humor are major assets that help him produce his iconic celebrity portraiture. Above: Crooner Lyle Lovett for Texas Monthly.

Punk rock legend Iggy Pop in Miami for Rolling Stone.
Peter Yang has fans. It’s not like he needs bodyguards to escort him down the street to avoid being stopped for autographs or stalked by paparazzi, but photographers love this guy. And rightly so. He has a masterful style, at once hilarious and theatrical, serious and subtle. Lighting gravitas meets prop comedy. Yang combines the two into a body of work that has made him one of the finest portrait photographers working today—a fellow rightly deserving of his fame.

Yang’s portraiture is fairly conceptual even if the concept doesn’t always draw an overt connection to the subject. Amy Poehler wears a single feather in her headband. Matt Lauer sports a Ron Burgundy-esque mustache and polyester suit. Michael Cera sits contemplatively on his roof, wearing a tinfoil hat.

Then-Presidential hopeful Barack Obama for Rolling Stone, June 2008.
“Ideas come to me very easily,” Yang says. “I usually come up with 50 ideas, write them down, don’t like them all and start from scratch. In the end, what I try to do is just be really prepared at a shoot and bring as many things as I can; just be ready to do it and let the idea come more organically. I’m not interested in making fun of the subject. It’s more like having them in on the joke.

“I used to have the energy to bring all these ideas to the shoot,” he says, “and then try to figure out what they will or won’t do. But by the time we’re ready to shoot, the production costs have been raised and everything is more involved, so I really need to know ahead of time whether or not they will do something. The hardest thing is preparing a ton of ideas on an editorial budget and having them shot down one by one. It doesn’t matter how much of a hot commodity you are in the photo community, they all look at you as the photographer. Everyone gets turned down the same way.”

Christopher Walken for Esquire, March, 2009.
Says Yang, “Props are such a tricky place to go. There’s such a fine line between having it be whimsical and cool versus it being gimmicky. I think restraint is the biggest challenge. I’ve shot a lot with props that I’ve looked at later and thought, oh, that was a terrible idea.”

Most clients don’t think Yang has come up with many terrible ideas. Regardless, his other forte is lighting, so he’s able to make riveting portraits without props thanks to sheer photographic aptitude. This came to him early through constant exploration and innovation, and these days it’s the kind of thing he still works to refine.

“If you look at my pictures and you don’t see a lot of lights,” Yang says, “that’s kind of the goal. For any kind of outdoor shot, there’s almost never fewer than three lights, and there’s usually more than that. I like to re-create the look of an early-afternoon or high-noon sun—basically, where you have sun on your shoulder, on the top of your head and a shadow on the ground. But it’s not like a big, long shadow; like a little circle on the feet. That accomplishes a few things. Indoors or outdoors, it adds another dimension to the pictures. You start lighting the tops of things—the top of the ground, the top of the shoulders—it adds dimension and it pulls the person off the background.


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