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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yu Tsai: Fearless

From Taiwan to Indiana to California to shooting a campaign for GUESS, Yu Tsai’s clarity of vision and dynamic style put him on top of the fashion and beauty world

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Yu Tsai’s talent and rapport with women are just a few reasons why celebrities flock to work with him, and his roster features a number of prestige faces, including Anne Hathaway, James Franco and Kristen Stewart. Tsai is a “go-to” name for Flaunt, and his editorial work has led to bigger and better things, including high-profile campaigns for GUESS, Apple, BCBG, Lexus and others. ABOVE: Kate Upton for Guess.

Though born in Taiwan and based in the megalopolises of Los Angeles and New York, Yu Tsai’s roots are firmly planted in America’s heartland. After moving as a child with his family from Taiwan to an Indiana farm, followed by high-school years in Chino, California, where he was a member of the Future Farmers of America, Tsai felt animal husbandry would be his life’s calling. At first glance, his early college years didn’t seem to move him any closer to the path that would lead him to the top of the fashion/advertising/celebrity photography field where he resides today. While his portfolio includes A-list stars from Anne Hathaway to Zhang Ziyi and model superstars from Alessandra Ambrosio to Yamila Diaz, his favorite subject may well be Soy, who he has included in GUESS, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Coca-Cola campaigns—pretty impressive for a model who’s only three years old and is a French bulldog.

Model Caroline Winberg
DPP: You’ve taken a particularly unusual and circuitous route to get to where you are today.

Yu Tsai: Ironically, my father was a photographer, but growing up I had no interest in becoming one. In Taiwan, he operated a commercial photo studio; then, he proceeded to open up one-hour photo-processing studios. He was at the forefront of the technology. He had cousins and uncles running the other studios. So I grew up with strobes popping all around me. Everybody thought my older brother was going to be the photographer in the family, but he ended up a businessman.

When we came to Indiana in the mid-’80s where my uncle was, everything changed. Because of the language barrier, my father wasn’t able to do professional photography anymore. I grew up on a farm there, and every weekend I would be at a county fair showing a pig or a cow or a rabbit. When I was in high school, I was in the Future Farmers of America.

DPP: Was it in college that you focused on photography?

Tsai: Not initially. After high school, I wanted to be an actor for a very short amount of time, so I took drama classes at UC Riverside. I learned a lot about being in front of the camera, and I think that helps me now being behind the camera. I received a B.S., with biology and zoology as my majors, and with botany, business and English as minors. During school, I went to Kenya with professors on a National Geographic research team tracking elephants and giraffes. This experience changed my life and my career path.

DPP: Did you decide you wanted to be a National Geographic photographer?

Tsai: No, but it opened up other unexpected opportunities. I had planned to pursue a Veterinary degree at UC Davis. When I came back—at this point, I was at Cal Poly Pomona to finish my field research—I was told I needed a few more credits to graduate. So I thought I would pick up a couple of easy liberal arts courses. Though I had never drawn, I took a figure-drawing course. The teacher came up to me and said, “You’re not taking this class that seriously, but you have a talent to draw. What are you sketching all the time that I don’t see you turning in?” I told him that I was just updating the journals that I did in Africa, which I needed to turn in to my research professors.


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