Howard Huang: The Photo Hit Man

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.

Busta Rhymes on Wall Street.

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.

One of the images from Huang’s 2012 Leila Shams Lookbook shoot.

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.

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