Behind the Lens: Erica Zhu
Photographer & Graphic designer
As the adage goes, "a picture is worth a thousand words" and this is true. We've all experienced it -- at one point or another, we have stumbled on a photograph and paused, momentarily engulfed by an idea, an emotion, or a long-forgotten memory. We have been touched by an image and in some small way, we have taken it and its image-maker with us, deep into the recesses of our minds.
As we begin our season of Tacit, we turn from the photograph and focus our lens instead on its maker. We converse with photographer and graphic designer Erica Zhu, exploring her history, philosophy and practice. Why make art, we ask?
Occupation: Photographer, Graphic Designer
Visual style: Neutral, graphic, spontaneous, minimal, quiet, muted
A morning ritual: Stretching
Introduction Chynna Lao
Images Erica Zhu
What is your current state of mind?
My current state of mind is pretty tranquil and peaceful but I’ve also been through anxiety and turbulence, I think everyone has so I’m no exception. However, for a graphic designer, over-thinking and being emotional is not really helpful. You don’t want emotion to get into your head too much and shape the way you think. Also, people say you have to constantly work hard to achieve you goals but forget that you have to live your life. I am allowing myself to space out a lot, it’s like a meditation for me. This approach also allows me to embrace every single possibility that may come into life.
Can you describe a typical day?
I am a breakfast enthusiast and always start the day by making myself a great breakfast. While having breakfast I check my emails and organise them so I know which ones I need to reply to first. My schedule varies from day to day since I’m currently freelancing. I will be out for a shoot when there’s a project. On other days I am usually at home doing design or writing proposals. I live on my phone and I document everything that attracts me with it. Visual documentation is just a thing that I’ve been doing for years -- it has naturally become a part of my daily routine, like drinking water. 12 am is time for bedtime reading and then layback.
How would you define your personal style?
I am deeply influenced by the cultures and surroundings that I grew up in and am exposed to when I travel. When I was in school I was influenced by a lot of minimal, Bauhaus, and constructivist artists. Some of my favourite artists are Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Martin, Josef Albers and Donald Judd. I have always wanted to live a minimal life but I am not there yet.
I recently travelled to Santa Fe and paid a visit to Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio and the feeling was a strike to my heart. I realised then that her lifestyle resembled how I wanted to live -- making myself salad, then creating something. In terms of my way of dressing, I tend to wear comfortable fabrics and neutral colours a lot. I hope my way of dressing gives a simple, free and positive vibe.
is just a thing that I’ve been
doing for years - it has naturally become a part of my daily routine, like drinking
What came first – graphic design or photography – and what inspired you to move between mediums? How does your artistic process differ?
As far as I remember, photography came to me at an earlier stage. Back in my high school years in Shanghai, China, I started recording my surroundings because school life was pretty boring and repetitive at that time. I got my first DSLR camera while I was studying graphic design in my undergrad years—during that time I started to study art and design structurally and academically. My school year of studying visual communication design really played a vital role in the shaping of my aesthetics and encouraged me to look at the world through the lens. My understanding and observation of concrete things and situations gradually became more abstract.
Photography and graphic design are so different from each other in its nature but they also complement each other. Design to me is more rational, focused on solving a problem. There’s always logic and research behind design. Conversely, photography to me is more emotional. There are definitely different types of photography but for me it’s very spontaneous and doesn’t have a purpose. I want to take a photo because I have the urge to express.
Do you remember the first objects/subjects you became obsessed with capturing, photographically or otherwise? Does that impact the type of work you do today?
I have been and still am very obsessed with still life. When I see an object I get attracted to its texture, colour and physics as opposed to what it is. The shape and composition of the same objects can be very different under different circumstances. It’s very interesting to try to capture that.
With your work in photography and graphic design -- do you ever feel a struggle to balance commerce and art? Is it possible for the two to coexist?
Art and commerce may sound very dramatically opposite to each other as art is personal while commerce is for mass market. This could be a major issue for artists, but definitely not for designers. Nowadays lots of clients and consumers approach me through the Internet. Their prior knowledge of my design and aesthetic makes the collaboration easier to some extent. Furthermore, no matter what kind of project is it, I insist that my clients and I work together on each part of research, brainstorming and direction establishment. I have never forced myself to try to balance commerce and art because why does it matter? Good work comes from good teamwork between the designer and the client. There’s no way that a design project can go further if the client and the designer are not on the same page.
How do you define beauty?
Why do you do it – take photographs, make art?
They come to me naturally. Taking pictures or making art is just like writing, composing etc. If I have to articulate a purpose, it would be my strong urge to express myself and make things that resonate.