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"Asian American Still Life" Photographs Reclaim Beauty, Power, and Space
"Asian American Still Life" Photographs Reclaim Beauty, Power, and Space
by The Luupe
Stephanie Shih’s ongoing series of immaculately lit and staged photographs challenges stereotypes by exploring the nuances of Asian American culture and heritage. It also has a major influence on her commercial work.
Shih reinvents the Dutch Still Life tradition, photographing objects from her own experience with those from classic paintings. Watermelon, sunflowers, and eggs share space with kimchi and donuts from local AAPI businesses in Los Angeles.
Her photos and animated GIFs (look closely at the header image!) replicate the light and color we are so used to seeing in European still lifes, but with a sense of reclamation. They reimagine what Shih sees as a long history of exoticizing Eastern food and objects – an opportunity to bridge history with her own experience and perspective.
Beyond her art photography, Shih, a former food blogger, is a successful commercial photographer (brands: you should collaborate with her!) There’s an ongoing interplay between her personal work and the work she creates for major publications and brands. We caught up to learn more about Shih’s obsessions with food, representation, and the importance of personal vision in commercial work.
▲ Breughel's Breakfast. "This work was inspired by Mayly Tao, second generation Cambodian American and purveyor of incredibly joyful rings of fried dough (via her family's donut shop, DK's Donuts & Bakery). I wanted to combine the exuberance of eating a donut with that of Brueghel's bursting florals, as an homage to cross-sensory experiences that make us happy. (2020)"
The Luupe: OK just to start - tell us about your "obsession with cake and flowers."
Stephanie Shih: What’s not to love about them?! But more seriously, I’m obsessed with cake and flowers because they’re both these beautiful yet impermanent objects that are often considered frivolous but bring *so* much joy. These unsettled complexities make them really fascinating to me.
I often admire that portrait photographers can translate the personalities of the people they’re making images of onto the photograph. For me, somehow, I do that best with food and florals–it’s easiest for me to see the “personalities” of objects and the stories they have to tell.
▲ Kurisumasu Keki. "My take on the Japanese tradition of Christmas cake, in wreath form. (2020)"
The Luupe: How does this personal series play off of, inspire, or draw from your commercial work?
Shih: The personal series is where I get to explore a specific topic in deep deep depth–-I get to ruminate on all sides of the project for as long as I want, and this is where I develop a lot of new creative ideas, which then get adapted in various ways in pitching to commercial clients.
I’m also always researching art and art history for my personal work, and that knowledge really helps to feed into the commercial work that I do by putting into perspective where the imagery I’m creating is in conversation with the rest of art/media.
On the commercial side, I love the diversity of projects I get to shoot–every client is different, and it’s about how to meld my photography craft with their vision. This really allows me to stretch my creative legs in broad directions, which oftentimes helps break me out of whatever rut I might find myself in my personal work.
Another thing I love about commercial work is how team-oriented it is: I learn a lot from the stylists and creative directors and everyone on set and appreciate so much working as one piece in a larger machine. Those lessons I learn–ranging from styling to new technical details–push my personal work even further.
▲ The Drip. © Stephanie Shih
The Luupe: We're thinking of two of your commercial still lifes - “The Drip” and “Kari Out,” for example, which share so many elements to your personal work, yet are clearly commercial...
Shih: Oh yes, these are great examples of what I mentioned above. For the egg shoot, I had been looking at early photographic still life work and had been particularly taken with Paul Outerbridge’s black & white geometric egg studies.
What I loved about his approach was that it isn’t like the typical egg photographs that you see often around, say, Easter, which are covered in pastels. His egg images were stark, angular, and really about the lines of shadows and light and how those play with the smooth oval shape of an egg.
This is what I wanted to draw from for my drippy egg photo: how do we sell a sensual, yolk-barely-cooked fried egg by offsetting it with simple, unexpected elements?
The takeout and wine image was part of a series that food stylist Veronica Laramie and I did. I really wanted to think about how to port the still life style that I’d been doing in my personal work into a commercial space, so we created a set of 4 still lifes around moments that you’d be drinking wine.
The Luupe: How do you see it standing apart? What makes your commercial work distinctively "commercial"?
Shih: I think the major difference between my personal work and this commercial work is that the commercial work is in service of selling a product, so the product has to be immediately readable in the image, which is what I worked to achieve in the wine still life. In my personal work, on the other hand, I often try to blend the products and objects seamlessly into the scene, so they might not jump out to the viewer at first.
But that’s the goal for my personal work: I want someone to walk by it in a gallery and think, “pretty still life” and then do a double take a few steps later and back up and say, “wait a minute… is that… kimchi???” Commercial work should be readable in a split second; fine art work should stand up to a viewer looking at it for a long time and give up its secrets more slowly.
The Luupe: Outside of the art world, has this work helped you get opportunities photographing for brands based on your personal vision?
Shih: I’m not gonna lie–having a distinctive vision sometimes is a double-edged sword. People don’t think of me as a generalist, and so I don’t perhaps get as many calls as a generalist might–or even someone shooting in a more widely used style might.
As an emerging photographer, it’s hard to stick to your guns and not just try to shoot the way you think the market wants. But, I find that I get a lot more response from art buyers, photo editors, and brands when I show work that’s based on my personal approach to still lifes, rather than work that is more all-purpose or trend-chasing.
And the projects that I land are ones that I absolutely love to work on and are super excited about, and for that I’m really grateful. This may be a bit odd to say, but my work in the art world has really helped to make sure I stick to my authentic creative voice in the commercial space and not get too pushed/pulled by fleeting trends in the industry.
▲ Onggi with Six Kimchi. "Pickled cabbage—and especially kimchi—is such a prominent part of Korean and East Asian cuisines, as well as an important export touchstone into new Asian American fusion (e.g., LA tacos!). This work is a Los Angeles-centric collaboration featuring onggi-inspired pots by ceramicist Eunbi Cho and handmade kimchi by Oliver Ko, Korilla Kimchi. (2021)
The Luupe: Back to your personal work, how did you select the specific objects/foods for your Asian American Still Life series?
Shih: The objects and foods in the Asian American Still Life series are usually chosen for their stories and symbolism–and sometimes (though more rarely), just for aesthetics. I think one thing people often don’t realize about the still lifes is just *how many* objects go into each one!
I’m constantly on the hunt for objects that might want to be in a still life somewhere down the road (like many of my food photography/prop styling friends, I am a bit of a hoarder in this respect!)
Oftentimes, I’ll find things at flea markets or on the side of the street even–in the case of Asian objects like vases or bowls, I often think to myself that I am “repatriating” these items by giving them a place in one of these still lifes, bringing them back under an Asian (American) gaze.
▲ Hansel and Gretel © Stephanie Shih
The Luupe: Many - if not all - of these photographs feel like shrines.
Shih: Oh, I love that characterization of it. And yes, you’re right in that still lifes are sort of like shrines to the both revered and mundane everyday objects around us. They’re often loaded with symbolism. In the European tradition, for example, cherries being a symbol of Paradise, flies symbolizing corruption, flowers from all seasons symbolizing wealth. Insofar that my still lifes also engage in such symbolic conversation with the objects and food, then yes–they’re very shrine-like!
▲ An Auspicious Start to the Year of the Tiger. "A celebration of luckyfruit, daily life, the new year, and a classic nature morte reminder ofmortality. The mandarins are kishus, a varietal transplated to the US fromJapan in the 1980s. The pomelo-looking citrus are oro blancos, which were bredin Southern California from a cross between pomelos (which have a long historyin SE and E Asia for new years’ celebrations) and white grapefruit. Thenon-traditional oro blancos are here as a symbol of the continued developmentand remixing of Asian American experiences. (2022)"
The Luupe: Each image is immaculately/thoughtfully/ sculpturally organized. Can you talk a bit about your styling process?
Shih: Thanks! For this personal series, I felt very strongly that I wanted my “artist’s” hand in each bit of the creation, so I style the pieces myself. Actually, most of the building happens in my head before I even get on set: I’ll mentally construct each image in a pretty meticulous fashion (and sometimes use sketches if I can’t hold it all in my head at once), and then the job on set is to translate what I see in my head already to the objects/table in front of me and then in the last step, to the photographic image.
While I wish I could say there is a method or theory to how I organize everything, I do a lot of the styling by feel: where does this flower feel like it wants to be? Where does it feel like something’s missing? Or where does it feel like there’s too much? I often start by coming up with a shape of how I want the viewer’s eye to move through an image, and use that geometry as a skeleton to build from.
So for example, in the “Ugly Duckling” still life, I knew I wanted the viewer’s eye to tumble from top left to bottom right, and then it was a matter of filling out that path.
▲ Ugly Duckling. "A symbol of celebratory feasts in Chinese cuisines, a duck is judged most by the quality of its skin. This work features local LA staples: Cantonese roast duck from Sam Woo BBQ and Peking duck from Moonhouse. Protector bone club by Lucien Shapiro. (2021)"
The Luupe: A crucial part of this project is your commentary on the tendency of the Dutch masters to appropriate and exoticize Asian cultural objects. You go deeper than just RECLAIMING the gaze - you’re also working with local Asian business owners and creators….can you talk a bit about this collaborative process and why it’s important to you?
Shih: It was really important for me from the get-go with this project to disrupt the erasure and glossing over of the Asian presence that the Euro-centric still life tradition so often does, and to break open the practice of still life in art to be able to represent not just European/Anglo experiences.
For these reasons, I’ve been very thankful that my collaborators entrust me with their work and stories in the still lifes: I try my hardest to imbue their creations with the reverence and weight that still life objects often carry.
▲ Dad's Favorite, Summer. "Watermelons were another of my dad's favorite fruits. After dinner during the summers, he would pull a giant watermelon out of the fridge and proceed to expertly carve it into cubes that were too large for anyone's mouth but his. My mom and I would watch him fill up the special watermelon Tupperware bucket, while complaining vocally about the size of the cubes and cracking open spiced watermelon seeds, which my dad despised. (2021)"
The Luupe: There’s also a personal tie-in - for example, your “Dad’s Favorite" images. How does your own upbringing, family history, etc play into this work?
Shih: Honestly, I think there’s a difference between cultural history and family history, and up to now, I’ve drawn most heavily on the cultural history part of my upbringing–for instance, with the persimmons in “Dad’s Favorite, Fall.” I’ve focused mostly on the shared food or Asian diaspora-in-America experiences that happened to not just me and my family but to many others with similar histories.
There are still stories I want to tell that touch much more deeply on my personal family history, but I haven’t quite moved into so intimate a space yet with the project.
The Luupe: In a Buzzfeed interview with Pia Peterson a few months ago, you mentioned wanting to expand the scope of the project, telling wider and more expansive stories… has this continued and where do you see the project continuing to evolve?
Shih: Yes, the work continues! A larger piece I made since the Buzzfeed interview is “Preservation/Perseveration,” which includes flowers that I dried throughout the last 2 years of working on the series…so not only is it physically bigger as a scene but also it’s more expansive on the temporal dimension too.
I have been working on applying for grants to expand the project. I’m at the point where creating my bigger still lifes have me leaning over the railing of my tiny home studio in order to get everything in frame–not particularly good on the set safety front! So please keep your fingers crossed for me!
▲ Preservation/Perseveration. "The flowers here were saved and dried from other pieces through the series for 2 years, and placed alongside persimmons scavenged from a neighborhood in Hollywood and hand-massaged hoshigaki. (2022)"
The Luupe: We will! Lastly, what might signify an “end” or sense of completion to the project?
Shih: People often ask me this question, and the honest answer is that I don’t see an end! There are so many AAPI stories to be told. To this day, there are still artists out there creating Eurocentric still lifes–so why would we expect an end date or a sense of completion from a project on Asian diaspora experiences?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Luupe is a one-stop production company that is raising the bar for professional brand imagery on a global scale. With a highly curated and diverse network of professional women and non-binary photo and video creators across 80+ countries around the world, we are reinventing how brands produce original, local, and authentic visual stories that connect with a global audience. Our mission is to champion and amplify diverse perspectives from around the world — in front of and behind the lens.