Article on Photographer Yu Tsai

Great interview article from Digital Photo Pro!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Yu Tsai: Fearless

From Taiwan to Indiana to California to shooting a campaign for GUESS, Yu Tsai’s clarity of vision and dynamic style put him on top of the fashion and beauty world

By Mark Edward Harris, Photography By Yu Tsai

Yu Tsai’s talent and rapport with women are just a few reasons why celebrities flock to work with him, and his roster features a number of prestige faces, including Anne Hathaway, James Franco and Kristen Stewart. Tsai is a “go-to” name for Flaunt, and his editorial work has led to bigger and better things, including high-profile campaigns for GUESS, Apple, BCBG, Lexus and others. ABOVE: Kate Upton for Guess.

Though born in Taiwan and based in the megalopolises of Los Angeles and New York, Yu Tsai’s roots are firmly planted in America’s heartland. After moving as a child with his family from Taiwan to an Indiana farm, followed by high-school years in Chino, California, where he was a member of the Future Farmers of America, Tsai felt animal husbandry would be his life’s calling. At first glance, his early college years didn’t seem to move him any closer to the path that would lead him to the top of the fashion/advertising/celebrity photography field where he resides today. While his portfolio includes A-list stars from Anne Hathaway to Zhang Ziyi and model superstars from Alessandra Ambrosio to Yamila Diaz, his favorite subject may well be Soy, who he has included in GUESS, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Coca-Cola campaigns—pretty impressive for a model who’s only three years old and is a French bulldog.

Model Caroline Winberg

DPP: You’ve taken a particularly unusual and circuitous route to get to where you are today.

Yu Tsai: Ironically, my father was a photographer, but growing up I had no interest in becoming one. In Taiwan, he operated a commercial photo studio; then, he proceeded to open up one-hour photo-processing studios. He was at the forefront of the technology. He had cousins and uncles running the other studios. So I grew up with strobes popping all around me. Everybody thought my older brother was going to be the photographer in the family, but he ended up a businessman.

When we came to Indiana in the mid-’80s where my uncle was, everything changed. Because of the language barrier, my father wasn’t able to do professional photography anymore. I grew up on a farm there, and every weekend I would be at a county fair showing a pig or a cow or a rabbit. When I was in high school, I was in the Future Farmers of America.

DPP: Was it in college that you focused on photography?

Tsai: Not initially. After high school, I wanted to be an actor for a very short amount of time, so I took drama classes at UC Riverside. I learned a lot about being in front of the camera, and I think that helps me now being behind the camera. I received a B.S., with biology and zoology as my majors, and with botany, business and English as minors. During school, I went to Kenya with professors on a National Geographic research team tracking elephants and giraffes. This experience changed my life and my career path.

DPP: Did you decide you wanted to be a National Geographic photographer?

Tsai: No, but it opened up other unexpected opportunities. I had planned to pursue a Veterinary degree at UC Davis. When I came back—at this point, I was at Cal Poly Pomona to finish my field research—I was told I needed a few more credits to graduate. So I thought I would pick up a couple of easy liberal arts courses. Though I had never drawn, I took a figure-drawing course. The teacher came up to me and said, “You’re not taking this class that seriously, but you have a talent to draw. What are you sketching all the time that I don’t see you turning in?” I told him that I was just updating the journals that I did in Africa, which I needed to turn in to my research professors.

DPP: There’s a tradition of photographers doing great journals in Africa. Were yours along the lines of Peter Beard and Dan Eldon?

Tsai: That’s right! Another instructor introduced me to the work of Peter Beard. In Africa, you end up pressing plants, smearing animal blood on your pages—all these natural processes of creating a journal creates a work of art. My sketchbook was reminiscent of those of Peter Beard. She made a copy of my sketchbook and submitted it for me to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and I got a full scholarship. I thought it would be a relaxing two years studying art, then I would go back to Veterinary Science. I find every opportunity precious. I think that’s why I’ve had so many different journeys in my life. I’m a story-gatherer. I thought I would do medical illustration so I could still stay true to what I thought was my life’s calling. But there was no program for that.

DPP: What did you end up studying?

Tsai: I went in as a Fine-Art Illustration major. At the time, everybody wanted to be an illustrator for Disney. But then the technology changed. CGI came in. All these computers came on campus. So I jumped on the computer bandwagon, becoming one of the first people to work on Macs doing Photoshop and After Effects. But I was a horrible illustrator. I can art-direct and articulate what I want as a final painting, but I wasn’t technically able to execute them because I didn’t have the foundation of an artist who had been drawing all his or her life.

The second year at Art Center, an Illustration professor named Peter Liashkov told me, “You need to change your major. You’re great at what you do. You need to do what you were meant to do. Get into art direction, become a creative director, hire a painter to paint what you want them to paint.” I’m so blessed; I’ve always been incredibly supported by my teachers. I consider myself an old soul. My professors are my friends.

I thought it would be a relaxing two years studying art, then I would go back to Veterinary Science. I find every opportunity precious. I think that’s why I’ve had so many different journeys in my life. I’m a story-gatherer. I thought I would do medical illustration so I could still stay true to what I thought was my life’s calling. But there was no program for that.

Actress Mila Kunis

One of my instructors recommended that I meet with director Tarsem Singh who had come to the Art Center campus looking for help for the visual development treatment of a movie that would eventually be called The Cell. So I did. Tarsem started telling me the story of the movie, that it was going to be a psychological thriller involving a woman going into a trance set of dreams, and he told me his ideas and thoughts on the visuals, then he asked if he could see my portfolio. I said, “I can’t paint those things and I can’t draw those things. But I can tell you that the problem with your script is that it’s driven by all these visuals, not driven by psychology—the actual core of what this movie should be driven by.”

He’s an amazing visual developer. I walked away thinking I didn’t get the job, but four hours later he called, telling me to assemble a team. I didn’t know what a producer was, but I was producing without knowing it. We dissected the script. I incorporated my English literature and psychology studies, my nightmares from the malaria pills I took to go to Africa, and my logical thinking in the sciences and physics to redefine and reinterpret the script. We took three or four weeks to build the visual treatment for Tarsem. This was one of the most confidence-building and industry-learning experiences for me. After the treatment was sold and made into a film, I was sought out by a lot of directors to visual-rewrite commercials, as well as do three days of consulting for DreamWorks on Minority Report. I was also asked to consult on visual billboards. After I graduated from Art Center, Microsoft became my first client as a visual consultant. I also started directing commercials. I love to do branding. All this became the foundation for my career in photography.

DPP: When did you first start shooting stills commercially?

Tsai: When September 11 happened and the economy changed, everybody wanted to go to a one-stop shop. Agencies wanted someone who could shoot and direct and put together a package deal. I began to seek out those opportunities to shoot stills, and that’s when I decided that I needed to better that craft. I don’t know if it’s being Asian, but I never want to hire anyone to do something that I don’t know how to do myself. I had taken a few basic photography classes at Art Center. I read and tested every weekend. I played with lighting. I educated myself. Who is Steven Meisel? Why did I like the work of Herb Ritts so much even before I knew his name? You have to develop your own palette. I love the timeless, the classic images, such as the photographs of Irving Penn. I like to take that and introduce a modern feel. You can learn all the technical skills you want, but it’s the journey that influences you to shoot a picture a certain way.

DPP: That’s where depth comes into a photographer’s images. How did you land the GUESS campaign, which put you in the spotlight as a photographer?

Tsai: They had seen an editorial shoot I had done in a Finnish magazine and called me up. We all know editorial doesn’t pay, but we do it because we know it’s a good calling card. They hired me not just based on my photography, but because of what I could do in a multifaceted environment. I understood branding. Guess, at that time, was expanding to China. I could speak Chinese. Paul Marciano put me on the international map. He gave me one day to test. He said, “I’ll pay for everything. You do your own casting. Find your own model. Do what you would do if you were running the Guess brand.” From that one-day test came a three-year contract to shoot everything under the Guess umbrella. I traveled to Italy and Dubai. I went to China to open up the first Guess store there. I was a creative director and shooter for them. I still shoot accessories for them. It was amazing to learn about fashion, to learn about denim. To shoot denim, it’s not just lighting; it’s about shaping and really knowing how denim is supposed to fit.

Glee cast member Lea Michele

DPP: You often mix fashion and celebrity work. How has this evolved?

Tsai: If you’re based in Los Angeles as I am now, you have to embrace the celebrity fashion world. Fashion has changed so much in the last five years. Endorsements aren’t by models, but by celebrities. It’s all merged. My agents at Opus Reps encouraged me for years to photograph celebrities, and I would say, “They’re actors; they don’t know how to move and work with the clothes!” But it’s actually more challenging and more fun. It requires me to figure out what it takes to bring the most out of this person. It’s the process and the journey that I love, so to derail a little bit on a shoot is fun and exciting for me. I embrace it. Celebrities pick me to work with because they want their photographs to be more fashionable or sexy.

DPP: Such as the series you did with actress Zhang Ziyi in Inner Mongolia.

Tsai: That’s a good example of mixing fashion with celebrity work. Now I’m doing this project called “Sixteen Expressions”—every time I photograph a celebrity, I include time for this series. I’m behind the camera making them laugh and doing things outside the picture-perfect, hand-on-the-waist fashion photography. It’s a book in the works. You only see people like Anne Hathaway and Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson and P. Diddy as who they portray on TV or in the movies or on stage. I wanted to break away from all that.

DPP: Do you ever think to yourself, I can’t believe I’m telling this megastar what to do?

Tsai: I don’t get starstruck, but I was really moved when I photographed Janet Jackson. She’s an extremely shy person and she trusted me. A photo session is a dance. We can have a horrible dance and step on each other’s toes or we can have a great tango together. There can be sharp edges, but as a whole I want it to have been a beautiful dance. It’s nice to lead and be led through the process.

DPP: What equipment are you working with for your pas de deux?

Tsai: Mostly a Hasselblad with a Phase One back. I also love my Nikon D3X. Their old 105mm defocusing lens is incredibly sharp and beautiful. I also love shooting with the Nikon wide-angles, like the 28mm. I always have both cameras on the set. If I’m on the beach and my model is running around, I’ll ask for the Nikon. If I’m shooting a beauty portrait, I’ll use the Hasselblad.

After I graduated from Art Center, Microsoft became my first client as a visual consultant. I also started directing commercials. I love to do branding. All this became the foundation for my career in photography.

DPP: What about your lighting?

Tsai: I love natural light. I don’t like the look of photography shot outside with strobe. I get it that you have to strobe against the light if somebody can’t open their eyes. But why would you go against that one light that’s made for us? Know your light. Know when that beauty light is going to hit just right and shoot then.

DPP: But when you have an all-day shoot, you don’t always have a choice.

Tsai: But you do. And I manipulate my light using reflectors and such. For instance, for my swimsuit shoot for Sports Illustrated, I didn’t use any strobes. Of course, when I’m shooting at night or doing studio portraits, I’m strobing it. But I still go by less is more. I’m not very complicated with my lighting setups. The only thing I care about is what I need to use to capture the beauty of that picture.

DPP: Your life and career demonstrate how to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. Would it be fair to say you have no fear of the unknown?

Tsai: I take every opportunity seriously and never for granted. I encourage derailing. I don’t know what’s next. I hope it’s feature film directing. I have a writing partner. I love storytelling the most. Right now I’m telling it one frame at a time.

You can see more of Yu Tsai’s photography at his website,

  • lead.jpg
  • 1-sm.jpg
  • quote-left.gif
  • quote-right.gif
  • 3-sm.jpg
  • 5-sm.jpg