Contemporary Voices in Asian American Photography

Six artists share insights about their experiences making photographs. Reflecting diverse approaches and motivations, their work ranges from a focus on personal narratives and recording transnational histories, to an exploration of experimental practices.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and recognition of the contributions of our Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, the J. Paul Getty Museum presents a selection of contemporary voices in photography drawn from its permanent collection.

Initially originating as a weeklong celebration of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States by Congress in 1978, this recognition was extended to span the entire month of May in 1990. May was chosen because it corresponds with the immigration of the first Japanese person to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, which was made possible by the labor of Chinese immigrants.

The six artists selected from the Getty Museum's collection are of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Taiwanese heritage. Each was asked to comment in their own words about their practice and the works in our collection.

Midnight Reykjavík #5 (2005, printed 2007) by Soo KimThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Soo Kim

American, born South Korea, 1969

Soo Kim employs the techniques of cutting and layering to introduce areas of absence and disruption, challenging viewers’ ability to read her photographs as continuous, two-dimensional representations. She often chooses architectural subjects, sandwiching the cut, layered, and reconstructed prints between two sheets of Plexiglas. Light and shadow intermingle with the photographic image to create magical new cityscapes.   

Midnight Reykjavík #5 (2005, printed 2007) by Soo KimThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Kim describes her 2007 series Midnight Reykjavík as follows:

“This series of 12 works combines two opposite views of the Reykjavík horizon, photographed at midnight during the summer solstice, with the built environment cut out so that the opposite vantage point can be seen through the cut voids of the top photograph.”

“The details provided in the photographs are counter to what is seen: the landscape of a capital city that looks provincial, photographed at midnight though the brightness of the environment to suggest daytime, except the city’s streets are vacant of the people and activity that mark the capital city otherwise."

Midnight Reykjavík #8 (2005, printed 2007) by Soo KimThe J. Paul Getty Museum

“The work can be seen as a commentary on the global housing crisis, with skins and surfaces of houses and buildings removed, and the landscape, both natural and built, seen through the emptied-out houses that populate the city’s landscape.”    

Kim was born in South Korea and moved to Los Angeles in 1980. She earned her undergraduate degree in art from the University of California, Riverside, and a graduate degree from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, combining studies in art, critical writing, and film and video. She lives in Los Angeles and is a professor of photography at Otis College of Art and Design.

Xinjiekou, Xuanwu District, Nanjing (2004, printed 2008) by Sze Tsung Nicolás LeongThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong

American/British/Mexican, born Mexico, 1970

Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong’s photographs highlight the impact of historic and social forces on the reshaping of built environments, cultural heritage, and natural terrains.    

Xinjiekou, Xuanwu District, Nanjing (2004, printed 2008) by Sze Tsung Nicolás LeongThe J. Paul Getty Museum

“In History Images (2002–2005) I explore how the will to erase and rewrite history—aimed routinely at books, education, ideas, identity, dissent—reshapes the very environments that surround us. The series records the destruction of built histories, and reflects on silencing and loss, calculated forgetting, and the strands of overlooked histories that may yet remain and teach us about our present.”

Xinjiekou, Xuanwu District, Nanjing (2004) shows three layers of history—Imperial, Socialist, and State Capitalist—arranged, like geological strata, with the current presiding over the remains of the former two.”

Zili Cun II, Kaiping, Guangdong (2004, printed 2017) by Sze Tsung Nicolás LeongThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Zilicun II, Kaiping, Guangdong (2004) shows a building type developed from the centuries-long process of Cantonese emigrations across the world. Practically, the buildings were built as defensive towers to protect against local dangers. Symbolically, they embodied the extent of a diaspora and its ties to the larger world, the emergence of a global identity, and the hopes for a culture’s future.”

Born in Mexico City, Leong spent his childhood there, as well as in London and in Los Angeles, his current home. He holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard University, and has received the Guggenheim and Rome Prize Fellowships. 

7 Train Exit, Manhattan (2006, printed 2008) by Jeff Chien-Hsing LiaoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao

Taiwanese, born 1977

New York City, its boroughs, and diverse social and cultural geography have been at the root of Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao’s photographic practice for the last two decades. Most notably, he has explored the ethnic and cultural communities situated along the 7 Train subway that runs from Manhattan to Flushing, Queens. 

7 Train Exit, Manhattan (2006, printed 2008) by Jeff Chien-Hsing LiaoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Liao’s interest in the panoramic format, as well as his technical ability to digitally stitch together multiple frames, allows for the depiction of specific moments, and also captures a sense of each location’s ambiance.

“While I’ve been living along the tracks of the 7 Train for years, I am still constantly awed by the complexity of the communities formed alongside it, as well as the harmony in which so many people of distinct backgrounds live. I set out to photograph the ‘habitat’ of the 7 Train as I came to see it, with a focus on the people as a community, rather than specific individuals.”

“I was also interested in the relationship of these groups with their environment. I feel like a vicarious globe trekker on the 7 Train. Every stop brings me to a vibrant community that reflects each of the approximately 150 nations whose people have immigrated here. All my images were composed in Photoshop from several different negatives.”    

7 Train Entry, Flushing (2005, printed 2008) by Jeff Chien-Hsing LiaoThe J. Paul Getty Museum

“While photographing, I try to capture the essence of the visual elements I see in an area over the span of a period of time. After digitalizing the various parts from the shoot,  I digitally reconstruct the separate elements on a computer. By joining the pieces together in post-production, I am able to best represent the atmosphere of the time.”    

Liao was born in Taiwan in 1977 and earned a BFA from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, New York. 

Cosmic Universe III (2018) by Christine NguyenThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Christine Nguyen

American, born 1977

Christine Nguyen works in a cross-disciplinary manner with photography, drawing, painting, and installation. She draws inspiration from the complexities and mysteries of the natural world, as well as from artists, astrologers, biologists, botanists, naturalists, and philosophers from the 19th century to today who have similarly been inspired by nature.    

Nguyen writes the following about her practice and about these two images that she created by silk screening an image of a sunflower on sheets of unprocessed color photographic paper coated with a solution of salt water:

“My work draws upon the imagery of nature, the sciences, and the cosmos, but it is not limited to a conventional reading of these realms. It imagines that the depths of the ocean reach into outer space and that, through an organic prism, vision can fluctuate between the micro- and macroscopic.”

Cosmic Universe IV, Christine Nguyen, 2018, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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“This series is inspired by looking at Anslem Kiefer's unique artist’s book Die berühmten Orden der Nacht (The Renowned Order of the Night), 1996, and coming across his mention of Robert Fludd, a cosmologist, astrologer, and occult philosopher who believed that every plant in the world had its own equivalent star in the firmament. I interpreted this as every plant having a corresponding star in the cosmos, in which direct connections can be made between the microcosmic earth and the macrocosmic celestial space. I chose the sunflower as a subject that represents both the cosmos and memories from my childhood.”

Nguyen was born and raised in California. She received her BFA from California State University, Long Beach and her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. She currently resides in Denver, Colorado, and maintains a studio in Long Beach, California.

After Electric Dress A Positive 4 (2001, printed 2002) by Kunié SugiuraThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Kunié Sugiura

Japanese, born 1942

Since beginning her practice in the late 1960s, Kunié Sugiura has worked in experimental ways with photography. She combines photographs with painting, prints on canvas, and creates camera-less photograms. She is drawn to natural forms, in particular flora and fauna, but fellow artists have also become collaborators in her work.

After Electric Dress A Positive 4 (2001, printed 2002) by Kunié SugiuraThe J. Paul Getty Museum

After Electric Dress A Positive 4 recreates a 1956 performance by Japanese avant-garde artist Atsuko Tanaka.

Sugiura reminiscences about her "Artists Series," which After Electric Dress is part of . . .

“I got the impulse to propose that some artist friends collaborate with me around 1999. I thought working with flowers, little animals, and using X-ray films was limited psychologically and hoped to engage more with the outside world. They would come to my darkroom, bringing some props to include in performances or re-enactments of their activities."

Kunié Sugiura Cp (2011) by Kunié SugiuraThe J. Paul Getty Museum

"At the beginning, I was not sure about the results of the project, but the images were encouraging. They were very reductive, minimal shadows, but when I used names as titles, they became unusual artist portraits. They do not give realistic information; they are obscure abstractions that trigger memories in the viewer’s mind.”

“One day I stood in front of a sheet of photo paper pinned to the wall of my darkroom. I had never made a self-portrait before but found it fun to be synchronized with flash. I was contributing reviews to the Japanese art magazine Bijutsu Techo from 1986 to 2002. I thought my writings about art and artists had nothing to do with my own photograms, but finally they merged together. I continue the 'Artists Series' whenever a willing subject appears in my darkroom.” 

Sugiura was born in Nagoya, Japan, and moved to the United States in 1963 to study at the Art Institute, Chicago. Upon completing her BFA in 1967, she relocated to New York, where she continues to live and work.

Li Min Gyong, Pyongyang Schoolchildren's Palace, North Korea (2006) by Hiroshi WatanabeThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Hiroshi Watanabe

Japanese, born 1951

For the past 20 years, Hiroshi Watanabe has made photographs that document the people he encounters and the places he has visited with compassion and curiosity. In 2008, he won the first prize of Santa Fe’s  Center Project Competition for his photographs made in North Korea. An accompanying book titled Ideology of Paradise was published in Japan the same year.    

“Around 2004, while spending a few months in Japan, I noticed there was so much news about North Korea; especially regarding North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. As I followed the various news stories, I became intrigued by discrepancies in the reporting on the horrible conditions in this isolated nation and the seemingly normal lives of individuals.”

Songdowon International Children's Camp, North Korea, Hiroshi Watanabe, 2007, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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“I decide to visit and see with my own eyes. I did not come to any conclusion on the questions and preconceived notions I had, but I realized there are many similarities between the people of North Korea and Japan. They are the same people. Considering geography and histories, their ancestors must be our (Japanese) ancestors as well.”

Born in Sapporo, Japan, Watanabe received a BA, with a specialization in photography, from Nihon University in 1975, and shortly thereafter moved to Los Angeles. He earned an MBA from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1993.

Credits: Story

© 2021 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

These photographs appear on Google Arts & Culture thanks to artists Soo Kim, Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong, Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao, Christine Nguyen, Kunié Sugiura, and Hiroshi Watanabe.

For more resources:

Soo Kim's Website
Soo Kim on When It's a Photograph Exhibition
Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong's Website
Sze Tsung Nicholás Leong and Museum MARCO Talk (in Spanish)
Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao's Website
Jeff Chien Hsing Liao in Conversation with Sean Corcoran
Works by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao in Getty Museum's collection
Christine Nguyen's Website
Art in Embassies 3 Questions Digital Series with Christine Nguyen
Kunié Sugiura on Aspiring Experiments Exhibition
Kunié Sugiura and Hirshhorn Artist Diaries
Hiroshi Watanabe's Website
Artist Talk with Hiroshi Watanabe and Edelman Gallery
Works by Hiroshi Watanabe in Getty Museum's collection

To cite these texts, please use: "Contemporary Voices in Asian American Photography" published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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