Updated: Apr 27
Daren You is a fine art photographer from Suzhou City in the Jiangsu province of East China. He currently lives in San Francisco, CA. When I contacted Daren, he was on a trip to China and was scheduled to be back in California mid-February, but due to the COVID-19 outbreak, he is currently prevented from returning to San Francisco. We chose to conduct the interview through Skype and email. We discussed his ongoing series, Chaos, which has been featured in Fotofilmic, LensCulture, and the Sony World Photography Awards.
How were you introduced to photography?
I got my first DSLR when I was 22. I bought it because I like how it looks; it’s a white DSLR.
How did you come to study photography in the US?
In 2014, I started at the Maryland Institute College of Art for an M.F.A. in Photographic and Electronic Media, then I transferred to Academy of Art University in San Francisco because I wanted something that focused more on Photography.
Any artists that inspire you?
I like the work of a street photographer from Japan, Daido Moriyama, and William Eggleston.
How did this project, chaos, begin?
It started in 2016. I took a class named Contemporary Experimental Photography. Our teacher encouraged us to “play” the photograph, then I started to try to merge the photographic techniques I learned together.
Does your background in mechanical engineering influence how you approach your work?
Yes, it taught me how to explore something you don’t know.
How did the connection between photographic development and non-linear systems come to you?
One definition of chaos is when nonlinear things are impossible to predict and control. If law and order rule the universe, chaos, by contrast, is the totally disorganized opposite. The coincidence happens during the process; I leave space to let the images develop themselves which is beyond my control.
I know it varies from image to image but can you walk me through some of your creative processes?
I re-photograph each image with a camera more than 5 times and process them with the high-temperature developer. I use reticulation in every image. Because I’m a quiet person most of the scenes I captured are quiet, and reticulation will bring the dynamic to the quietness. I use the balance of the dynamism and stillness to explore the essence of the chaos. However, after reticulation some images are still very quiet and stable, that’s when I choose to include things like caustic painting. The fluid feeling of the encaustic painting will break the outline of the subject to create the dynamism. I am also a fan of Solarizing.
In this image here, I used solarising to strip away the identity of the individual. I feel our identity is defined by our environment rather than our faces. The changing of the environment will lead to the changing of your identity.
Then there is this one which I rephotographed more than 8 times. I wanted to build a subtle balance between the black horse and the white horse as the metaphor of chaos. So I solarized some parts of the horses to give them positive and negative feelings.
You’ve said, “I re-photograph each image with a camera more than 5 times.” Why do you stop? Are you interested in what results you would get if you repeat this process infinitely?
I have tried but I don’t like it. If I repeat the process infinitely there won’t be anything in the photograph.
I sent you this link to an Instagram account that seems to be similar to what you’re doing but more in a tongue-in-cheek manner. I was hoping to get your reaction to it.
Yes, the idea is similar; repeating a process to degrade the quality of the image. The difference is I use the traditional photographic process, he uses the digital technique. I like this work a lot.
The fact that you use historical and contemporary techniques and are working with an image over and over for an extended amount of time, it feels like the past is constantly present in your work. Do you feel this to be true?
I feel the process converts time to be a blurred dream, you can’t find that clear moment in the photograph anymore.
“I have been exploring how to let images create themselves and avoid manipulation by photographers and cameras.” What do you think are the limits of this exploration? What is absolutely necessary from the photographer and camera?
I feel that gradually I could predict the results; that’s something that limits my original idea. I feel what is absolutely necessary from the photographer is passion. The camera doesn’t matter, you can easily transfer the digital image to the film by using digital negative nowadays. You can even go cameraless.
What’s interesting about your work is that you’re trying to give your images concepts that we usually attribute to humans like autonomy and liberty. Do you feel like you are giving human characteristics to these non-human objects?
No, I don’t feel that way. They are in their own world. Daido Moriyama, the photographer I mentioned, is more than 80 years old now but still photographing everything in the street almost every day. All his photographs built a photo world belonging to him. I’d like to do the same thing.
“In order to liberate my photographs completely, I have intentionally introduced chaos into my images.” In your perspective, are chaos and liberty connected?
I feel chaos is beyond liberty. liberty is still quite subjective, but the Chaos is completely objective.
What does order mean to you?
I don’t care too much about order in itself, I would more like to show order and disorder together. I consider my photographs as a world where they exist simultaneously.