THE FINE PRINT: Tell us more about your background and how did you get involved in photography?
OSCAR OUK: My educational background is actually in the sciences; I know, super random. I studied Physics as my undergrad, and went on to work for Pratt and Whitney, where I tested and developed jet engines. Shortly after I moved on to graduate school at New York University to get my masters in Electrical Engineering. About halfway through I was feeling rather drained and unfulfilled so I put down my textbooks and dropped out.
After that I was free, but really had no plan. I used to play around with my dad’s camera during my undergrad, so I had already taught myself how to use a camera. Through words of encouragement and signs from the universe I found myself at 3rd Ward, a creative institution in Bushwick that offered a variety of classes in different crafts. I dabbled in a bunch of random things – sewing, cardboard furniture making, Arduino programming, painting, drawing, etc, until I finally landed on this four week intensive fashion photography course. On the last day of class we each were given fifteen minutes to shoot one on one with the model. I remember stepping up, retrieving the camera from the instructor, and wheeling around to take aim. I can still recall the surge of emotions and my body going completely numb, and with that first click began the best fifteen minutes of my life. In a way, I think my life began right there and I haven’t looked back since.
TFP: Your work is divided into three facets; editorial, collage, and portraits. Which one is your favorite and which one is most demanding and why?
OO: The editorial work is my favorite. I enjoy working with a team and collaborating with brilliant people. I love the energy on set and the camaraderie. Most editorials aren’t even paid; so I find the mutual effort amongst a talented team working together just to achieve a beautiful image, to be an incredibly moving experience.
The editorial work is the most demanding because it takes a lot of planning. I’m extremely anal and organized and have to be prepared. So I usually need a week to make mood boards for inspiration, hair, makeup, styling, posing, and lighting while also casting models, selecting an appropriate team, and pre-light testing. And then there’s all the post production work I do myself, which is usually about twenty to thirty hours.
TFP: Being a photographer and a collage artist is not something very common. How did you get involved in the latter?
OO: Collaging was bound to make its way into my work. I’m obsessed with deconstructing and reconstructing, warping perspective, and creating new forms through repetition. As an emerging photographer, I was nervous to introduce collaging into my work because I still wanted to be known as a photographer. I feel that there is some negative connotation attached to collaging, as if it’s not a real art form and that it’s meant for the kids in grade school with the glue sticks and safety scissors. But after a while I got over that. I started collaging as a way to record the movement, forms, and compositions that I would see in my head; I can’t draw so this was the only solution. They were initially intended just for my eyes, my private visual diary, but I started putting a few on social media and I immediately received a positive response, and so I’ve continued sharing. For the most part, I’ve kept my photography work and collaging work separate, but in the future I see those two bodies of work merging.
TFP: You have a very fine approach at capturing odd subjects, faces, and expressions. Do you have a preference for the unusual?
OO: I suppose so. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m looking for odd or ugly, I just strive to show something different in my work. There is so much repetition out there – it’s really not hard to make a ripped 6’3 model with broad shoulders, a six pack, and a chiseled face look good. The hard part but fun one comes from making them look cool, angry, pained, contemplative, or conceptual. That’s when a real conversation happens between photographer and subject and you get real results.
TFP: Some of your editorials are, on the other hand, extremely clean and minimal. This really clashes with the rest of your work! Could you explain this broadness?
OO: I like to try new things and I’m constantly working on ways to improve myself and my work. I’ve been told by fellow artists that it’s important to brand yourself and create an identity. But the thing is, we’re all curious human beings. I find it really puzzling when I see the body of some artist’s work that is overly consistent over a period of time. To me, it doesn’t make sense. I find myself constantly developing as a being, and naturally drawing myself to new interests along the way. If I were to choose my “brand” for consistency, I’d hope people could recognize me as the one who has been consistently progressing his work and pushing boundaries. The moment my work becomes stagnant is the moment I know it’s time to go.
TFP: To compare your more traditional photographic work to your collages, I’ve noticed that in your collages, the faces of your subjects are almost always either modified, hidden, cropped or distorted. Is there a reason for that?
OO: I love body language. The smallest lift of a finger or the most subtle twist in the hip can drastically change the mood of an image. And so for that reason I usually focus on the body to tell the whole story through my collages. Also, most of my collages are viewed through social media on a tiny iPhone so that makes the facial expression practically irrelevant.
TFP: What’s in your toolbox?
OO: Photoshop. My dad is a web developer and software junkie, so I began playing with Photoshop when I was eleven years old. And my color deficiency (I can’t see red or green). I guess most wouldn’t consider this a “tool” but in many ways I do. My inability to decipher colors has strengthened my ability to construct well-considered compositions through body language and shaping light. I could never follow “color rules” so this deficiency taught me to just break them, and rules in general. Instead, I heavily rely on how colors and compositions feel to me and what mood they are telling, and for that reason I deeply connect to my photographs on a personal level.
TFP: What do you think is a constant challenge in your industry?
OO: So many! Since everything is digital, the amount of images out there is overwhelming. I wish people would take fewer pictures. We are so accustomed to flipping through images every day that we have numbed our ability to see. I once saw a girl on the subway flipping through a fashion magazine while texting on her phone. She would glance at the magazine about every fifth page and had managed to “finish” the magazine within four stops. I was gagging. There was a time when getting your photograph taken was a privilege – a treasured moment captured and made tangible to keep and revisit anytime you wanted. Now the people practically spend about .9 seconds looking over a photograph. If I can make imagery that can hold the attention of an audience for even one second longer, then I feel that I have overcome a huge challenge right there. Depressing, I know, right?
Pictures are a courtesy of Oscar Ouk.