Thanks a lot for taking the time to answers our questions, dear Hong Zuo
It is a real pleasure and honour to present such a talented artist to our readers.
How and when did you start landscape photography?
Haha, interviews nowadays seem always to start with this question, my least favourite to answer. But I understand. How and why a photography starts shooting usually impacts a photographer's attitude toward photography and future in the field. At least that’s true in my case.
Photography entered my life after a serious illness in 2002. When I was bedridden in Beijing after the surgery, a group of young friends who love photography dragged me onto the Jiankou Great Wall. Their good intention was to help me to strengthen my weak body, which was only supported by liquid food at that time. However, I have fallen in love with landscape photography ever since. Immediately after descending the mountain, I rushed to the photographic equipment store and bought a first-generation digital camera. Since then, the camera has become my "third eye". I took my camera and travelled all over the world, and never put it down again. As an adventurous person, I also tried other forms of photography along the way, but landscape photography has always been where my passion adamantly resides. My photography started with landscape, and to this day, most of my photography still captures landscapes.
What do you do when you are not photographing? How do you balance work (non-photography) and enjoyment (photography)?
First of all, I have to clarify that I don’t consider landscape photography a hobby or just pure enjoyment for me, and I don’t regard it as a career either. It’s actually a special channel for me to cultivate and strengthen my body and mind while simultaneously expressing myself. It has integrated into my life and self-growth. I do not make a living as a photographer; I have my own career and life. The accounting firm that I preside over is busy, but whenever I have the time and opportunity, my inner desire urges me to hit the road. I travel around the world to discover and reveal what nature has in store for us. Talking to nature through my camera has become my preferred way of living. The business in my tax firm is seasonal. I often joke that I am like a farmer, with large separate chunks of work time and leisure time. After a busy tax season, I would enjoy my leisure time through landscape photography, my passion and life essential. For the past two decades, I have juggled between a sedentary work life inseparable from rationality and numbers and an outdoor pursuit of photography where my body and mind are closer to the senses and art. Now, I am more inclined towards allocating more time towards photography, because time flies. I don’t have much time left to explore the world with my heavy gear bag. I want to use this precious, finite time to do what I love most and pursue the more meaningful things in life.
Your photography career advanced stunningly in the past few years, including winning awards, book-publishing, solo-exhibition, and even becoming PhaseOne XT Ambassador in China. How did all these happened so quickly?
I started landscape photography never with the intent of chasing accolades. I always felt like a “minority” among photographers, and I jokingly dub my photography "purposeless photography". Four years ago, I could have never imagined a future where I would participate in exhibitions and write articles and books in photography because I was the type of person who photographed only for my self fulfilment and never bothered even to show my work to others. The process of photography already fulfils me completely. The final work is always just a by-product; therefore, I did not think my photos had any meaning outside of commemorating a process of self healing and growing. Photos from countless journeys spent most of their time sleeping in my disks, away from the eyes of others. I had never uploaded anything to photography websites or social media because I “stubbornly”refused to clutter my mind with the noise of social media to avoid losing my original passion and intent for pursuing photography. I was afraid that any tight connection with social media will ruin the purity and the beauty of my secret practice. Many of my close friends didn’t even know that I pursued photography for so many years, although they would occasionally notice my periodic, mysterious disappearances…… This secretive and peaceful photography lifestyle sustained itself until an unexpected event. Although I never published my work, some of my travelling companions and friends in the photography circle were still aware of my work. In September 2017, a few fans submitted and managed to put 20 of my landscape works to be exhibited on the biggest photo festival in China— Pingyao International Photography Exhibition. I unexpectedly won the “Outstanding Chinese Photographer” prize.
I have won numerous awards since then, but what I am most proud of is the publication of my album "The Song of Life - The Road of Physical and Mental Rehabilitation Behind the Lens" which became a best-seller in photography album category in China. I hope that in the near future this book can also be published in the United States. My solo landscape photography exhibition "The Song of Life" was exhibited in top photo galleries in China and major international photography festivals. I also served as the ambassador for PhaseOne’s latest medium-format camera XT in China and became the first photographer in Asia to gain the title of “PhaseOne Field Professor,” which is the highest professional honour for a photographer given by Phase One…….. Beneath the hustle and bustle, I am still me, the same me who loves to observe the world quietly from behind the lens, the same me who often forget civilization while photographing in the great nature.
What moved me the most was actually an event that happened at the Lishui International Photography Festival. In a gathering of photographers, more than one person told me stories about how their taxi drivers told them: “The best photographer in the whole festival is a woman named Zuo Hong!” Needless to say, there are many outstanding photographers in the festival and I admire them all. But somehow, I feel encouraged and awarded from these words of mouth from everyday citizens like taxi drivers more than a world-renown prize ever could.
From a private person who never showed pictures to others to a photographer pushed into the spotlight who published books, giving lectures, writing articles and reviews and even serving as ambassador for major camera company, including contributing pictures and receiving interview today in 1X, what caused such a big change in your life as a photographer?
It is kind of interesting that I actually met , the Founder of 1X, and , one of the best North American landscape photographer, at the "Four Apertures" Photography Exhibition in Shanghai 5 years ago where and when I did translation job for them. We talked a lot in those few days but I never told them that I pursued landscape photography for quite some years. If they saw me today, they would probably refer to me as: "that beautiful Shanghainese girl,” which is their impression of me at the time. And this is also indicative of my attitude towards photography. To me, photography is just like eating, drinking, and breathing. It is a need for my physical and mental health. It blends into my life. I have never regarded it as a special thing, and I have never regarded myself as a photographer. And also photography to me for a long time was just the process of photographing itself, without any add-ons. I never expected to publish books, hold exhibitions, give lectures, write articles and reviews, and serve as an ambassador for a major camera company. But the enthusiastic reaction from audiences in several photo exhibitions have indeed changed me. If photography can also bring inspiration and happiness to people aside from just healing me, then I am more than happy to share. Being an ambassador for Phase One also gives me responsibility and opportunity to share my work with others, give lectures, and hold exhibitions. I am also honoured that 1X invited me as a VIP to post my work on your website and to conduct this interview. Through these platforms, I look forward to having more voice and sharing in both East and West photography circles.
What are the distinctive characteristics of your landscape photography?
These three words best reflect my photography philosophy and my pursuit towards realistic portrayal of the nature and pure expression of myself.
My photos will always be a snapshot representation of a moment in reality to portray my mind and heart from the objective world at a certain moment. In post-processing, I absolutely refuse to substitute/move elements or replace entire skies and landscapes. Everyone has the freedom of expression. There are photos that express thoughts and emotions mainly through heavy post processing. But I choose to adhere to authenticity, the principal characteristic of photography as a visual art. Especially now, with the rapid advancement of post-processing software, people who wanted to replace the sky but didn't know how to can now easily change the sky with one simple click. Sitting at home, they can easily and comfortably combine different images into a “perfect" picture. Consequently, most of the “blockbuster” perfect pictures we see nowadays are no longer authentic; they’ve lost the only unique documentary characteristic of photography. Lastly, I don’t purse perfection in photography, because the world is inherently imperfect. Out of respect for the uniqueness of photography to record reality, my insistence on real images bears significance and may be deemed more “precious” in an age where people are shifting to a more “artistic” expression style with limitless options to alter elements during post processing.
I do not depend on photography to make a living, so I have the luxury to do whatever I want without any consideration for financial profit, other’s expectations, current trends, and authoritative opinions. What you see in my photography is purely a true self-portrayal of the nature and world. I stubbornly insist to follow my own heart and express my own feelings using my own language.
The immersive process of shooting photos in the nature is a main reason why I love landscape photography, so I explore the world tirelessly, especially seeking to travel the road less travelled.
Do you use a medium format camera all the time or do you also photograph with other equipment? When would you use a medium format, a full frame, or a cell phone?
I am not a gear head, but my pursuit of image quality has always been uncompromising. My bag always contains two sets of camera systems. Currently, my main camera is Phase One medium format XT IQ4 150MP. But I also always carry a set of top-quality full-frame mirror-less camera system. I used Sony 7RM series for the longest time but I also used Nikon Z7 for a while. Now I am using Canon’s latest R5. 135 full frame camera with zoom lenses is fast, flexible, and impulsive; therefore, it’s ideal for my exploring and compositions. If I’m satisfied with what I captured with the 135, I will shoot in the meanwhile with my medium-format camera to obtain a top-quality image that can be enlarged in print to a much larger scale. Actually with the release of Phase One XT camera system, medium format technical cameras have greatly improved in both automation and portability. Now I find myself using medium format XT more and more while using my full-frame mirror-less less and less.
The equipment is just a tool to achieve my vision for my photos. What is the “best” camera for you all depends on what you are capturing and what you pursue in photography. I regard myself as a sensual photographer. I always seek to minimize the technical factors while shooting to let myself focus more on the capture of the fleeting moment, composition of the picture, and emotions experienced the instant I press the shutter. And as a female photographer, I always seek to minimize the weight of my camera bag as much as possible, too. Aside from top-notch image quality, the portability and weight of the camera are also my primary considerations.
Nowadays, everyone carries a phone. I usually don’t use my phone for serious landscape photography since I’m already equipped with two sets of cameras. But I often use my phone to take some titbits and impromptu documentary pictures. The convenience of the phone is irreplaceable.
Photographers，like other artists, are always looking to innovate. What do you think about change?
Nowadays, we are all constantly talking about change and being different. However, I do not seek to change purely for the sake of changing and be different just for the sake of being different. Sometimes you will lose yourself in destructive nature in the process of changing. Everyone has their own unique “self” and language. There is no formula for one’s particular style and way to express themselves. it’s all about each person's own unique experience, knowledge, upbringing, genetics, etc. Whether to stick to oneself or to change is always two sides of the same coin. When you do things with too much imposed intent, you might bury yourself and lose your own language. Picasso said, "I want to paint like a child.” I also hope that I will always maintain my original intention and innocence for photography. I do not want to pay too much attention to other people’s expectations and trends. All I want to capture in my photos is what touch my heart at that particular moment. So I try to express it in my own way and in my own language. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t enclose myself. My curiosity and adventurous spirit propels me to explore different perspectives and expressions. The bottom line is never giving losing sight of myself.
While you live mostly in the States, You often travel and photograph in China. What do you see as some of the differences in landscape photography between the East and West?
Last year I returned to China and went to shoot in the remote West for half a year. Urged by the ongoing pandemic in 2020, most photographers chose to record this special historical moment by focusing on the humanities. Every photographer has their own photography language. As a photographer who’s accustomed to keep her eyes on nature, I still chose to focus my lens on the mountains, rivers, lakes and seas to let the silent nature speak for itself.
I’m constantly thinking about this question while shooting in China.
Chinese landscape aesthetics focus on creating the unity of nature and mankind. Chinese photographers naturally tend to embed meaning into landscape photography. They pay much attention to the "artistic mood" of the scenery. And the pictures are usually flat and simple with objects commonly seen in life. In comparison, the expression of Western visual art is more concrete and objective, focusing more on light construction and three-dimensional composition. A large number of Western works, including masterpieces, seeks to reproduce nature’s beauty, often some places not easily seen in everyday life, but not to actively express the photographer’s subjective thought and feeling. Chinese artists tend to think that if the object is captured in a very concrete way, the artistic expression of the artist’s feeling and intention will be destroyed. But Western photographers tend to think that too much "intention" imposed on the "object" will destroy the beauty of "object" itself.
Two aesthetics pursuits have led to two different orientations, each with its own strengths. There’s nothing good or bad, right or wrong in art. Everything comes down to what you want to say and how you would like to say it. With the rapid globalization and a boom in communication, the aesthetic and conceptual differences between the East and West are shrinking. In fact, the similarities now outweigh the differences. At this point, the differences between individuals arising from unique growth experiences and visions are relatively larger than cultural differences. Remember, we are not only photographing nature, we are also photographing culture, most importantly ourselves.
My childhood was steeped in Chinese culture as I grew up in China. But attracted by Western culture later on in life, I also saw beauty in the unapologetically in-your-face sceneries that convey an undeniable sense of realism. Influenced by both Western and Eastern cultures, my photography seeks to capture a scene’s grandeur as accurately as possible while also conveying my emotions behind the lens at the moment of pressing down the shutter. By embedding a subjective poetic beauty into an objective scenic beauty, I hope my landscape work can invoke a viewer’s unique philosophy, emotions, and sentiments. It’s hard to clearly describe in words what you see and what you want to express in visual arts. Just shoot with your heart and the pictures will tell everything.
What is your plan once the pandemic is over？
The COVID-19 pandemic pressed the pause button for the whole world, and the damage is immeasurable. However, there’s always unexpected good to be derived from negative experiences. My work pace has slowed down, and I had time to reflect and read books which I did not have time to read in the past quite some years of fast-pacing life. This was a rare opportunity for learning and growing. Having let go of some chores and profits, the world has become less noisy, less rushed, quieter, and simpler. It allowed me to separate myself from the hustle and bustle, to give up burdens and move forward with ease. At the same time, I did not stop during the pandemic. During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, I spent more than half a year shooting in China, Europe, and Canada. As the situation gradually improve, I hope that the world will open up as soon as possible, and bans between countries will be lifted so that I can explore nature more conveniently and freely. I want to go to places I originally planned to go to but couldn’t and do some special theme projects that I have always longed to do but didn't have time to. I am also looking forward to giving more lectures and curating more exhibitions. My album dedicated to my trips in Tibet and Xinjiang and other remote areas in China during 2020 will be publish in the later part of this year. I also have plans to open a photography gallery in the United States, for which I already started the ground work.
In short, "touch my own heart and touch other people's heart.” Touching hearts is what my photography is all about now and in the future.