DPP Home Profiles Yu Tsai: Fearless

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

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Model Bar Refaeli
DPP: When did you first start shooting stills commercially?

Tsai: When September 11 happened and the economy changed, everybody wanted to go to a one-stop shop. Agencies wanted someone who could shoot and direct and put together a package deal. I began to seek out those opportunities to shoot stills, and that’s when I decided that I needed to better that craft. I don’t know if it’s being Asian, but I never want to hire anyone to do something that I don’t know how to do myself. I had taken a few basic photography classes at Art Center. I read and tested every weekend. I played with lighting. I educated myself. Who is Steven Meisel? Why did I like the work of Herb Ritts so much even before I knew his name? You have to develop your own palette. I love the timeless, the classic images, such as the photographs of Irving Penn. I like to take that and introduce a modern feel. You can learn all the technical skills you want, but it’s the journey that influences you to shoot a picture a certain way.

DPP: That’s where depth comes into a photographer’s images. How did you land the GUESS campaign, which put you in the spotlight as a photographer?

Tsai: They had seen an editorial shoot I had done in a Finnish magazine and called me up. We all know editorial doesn’t pay, but we do it because we know it’s a good calling card. They hired me not just based on my photography, but because of what I could do in a multifaceted environment. I understood branding. Guess, at that time, was expanding to China. I could speak Chinese. Paul Marciano put me on the international map. He gave me one day to test. He said, “I’ll pay for everything. You do your own casting. Find your own model. Do what you would do if you were running the Guess brand.” From that one-day test came a three-year contract to shoot everything under the Guess umbrella. I traveled to Italy and Dubai. I went to China to open up the first Guess store there. I was a creative director and shooter for them. I still shoot accessories for them. It was amazing to learn about fashion, to learn about denim. To shoot denim, it’s not just lighting; it’s about shaping and really knowing how denim is supposed to fit.

Glee cast member Lea Michele
DPP: You often mix fashion and celebrity work. How has this evolved?

Tsai: If you’re based in Los Angeles as I am now, you have to embrace the celebrity fashion world. Fashion has changed so much in the last five years. Endorsements aren’t by models, but by celebrities. It’s all merged. My agents at Opus Reps encouraged me for years to photograph celebrities, and I would say, “They’re actors; they don’t know how to move and work with the clothes!” But it’s actually more challenging and more fun. It requires me to figure out what it takes to bring the most out of this person. It’s the process and the journey that I love, so to derail a little bit on a shoot is fun and exciting for me. I embrace it. Celebrities pick me to work with because they want their photographs to be more fashionable or sexy.

DPP: Such as the series you did with actress Zhang Ziyi in Inner Mongolia.

Tsai: That’s a good example of mixing fashion with celebrity work. Now I’m doing this project called “Sixteen Expressions”—every time I photograph a celebrity, I include time for this series. I’m behind the camera making them laugh and doing things outside the picture-perfect, hand-on-the-waist fashion photography. It’s a book in the works. You only see people like Anne Hathaway and Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson and P. Diddy as who they portray on TV or in the movies or on stage. I wanted to break away from all that.


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