Jerry Hsu’s latest photo book, The Beautiful Flower Is the World is weirdly and wonderfully human. The pro skater and photographer creates a compelling collection of art from photos shot entirely on mobile phones. The candid photos come from Hsu’s blog Nazi Gold, which was created back in 2009. The book is a visual journey into the unexpected, where elements of tragedy collide with the comical. He manages to find beauty and intrigue in what many of us would overlook as mundane and helps us see life’s absurdities. I spoke to Jerry about ‘skate-vision’, the story behind the book’s title, and his non-photographic photography.
Hey Jerry! Back in 2009 when this series of photos began, did you think it might one day be a book? How spontaneous are projects like Table for One and The Beautiful Flower Is The World? Are they pre-planned or do they just unfold naturally?
I didn’t really have a plan for a book, I was more thinking in the short term, [I] was really just taking photos and posting them online and didn’t think that seriously about them. The BlackBerry photos were unplanned, they just sort of evolved out of weird photographic habits I had without much planning. The Table for One stuff is a little bit more of an idea I formed before I started taking them because I was always interested in the notion of solitude.
It’s interesting, sometimes people look at those photos and they see loneliness or they see mockery maybe, but that was definitely not my intent, it was more about self reflection. People who see them have very interesting emotional responses, a lot of the time people like what they see, but other times people get offended, maybe because of their own views on being alone or by themselves, or that it’s uncomfortable. That was really what that project was about, illuminating solitude.
The pixel quality of cellphone photos has changed dramatically in the 10 years since you started posting on Nazi Gold. How do you think a similar project captured in 2019 would differ in subject matter?
The thing about the Nazi Gold blog photos is that they aren’t photographic, they are pictures, but they have this kind of very unrefined, amateur quality to them that I kind of like, I think it gives them a certain character and places them in a specific time. A project now would just reflect the technology of today, it would be a little bit more difficult to distinguish.
You look at the Nazi Gold images and it’s obvious that they are from 10 years ago. I am a photographer but I kind of treated the Nazi Gold photos to be less photographic, I wasn’t trying to make photographs really, I was just trying to capture a feeling and an idea.
Like any art in the public space, many people have described what your work evokes for them, but how would you summarise your latest project?
One thing that I wanted to do was to make photographs in an un-photographic way, a kind of non-traditional way to make art. The purpose is basically communication. A low-quality phone photo is just a ubiquitous way to communicate now, it’s sort of a language and I wanted to explore how I used my photography to communicate immediacy within the digital space.
Can you tell us about the release party for your new book, The Beautiful Flower Is The World at NTS Gallery?
It was great! I made some prints and I hung them in a kind of impromptu art show. A lot of friends and supporters came out which meant a lot to me. I was kinda nervous and didn’t know how to act and my face was kinda red and all that stuff. They are always very stressful in that way but I am very grateful.
Do you go looking for your subjects or do they find you?
I document things around me and things that I see so my subjects come about organically or are in my life in some way.
Do you have a favourite photo from the collection?
It’s very difficult to choose a favourite, however there is one photo that means a lot to me. There’s a photo in the book of a group of six or seven people in a hot tub in the snow. That’s a photo that I took of some friends from a trip to Lake Tahoe. I know all of the people in this photo very well, I’ve spent a lot of time with these people individually and their relationships are all very interconnected, they dated each other and there are these weird stories with that group of people.
It’s kind of like when you look at a photo from back home, of people who you are friends with but from a different time in your life, and there are all these interconnected stories. I really like the personal significance of that story. I think about all these people’s relationships and all of the things they went through and what we all went through together [and] it’s a weird encapsulation of that back home feeling.
I’ve got to ask, did you chat to Spider-Man when you took that photo?
[Laughs] No, I was with my parents on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles and didn’t really have time to stop. And I think he was on a break and I don’t think he really wanted to talk to anybody.
You’ve spoken in the past about skate vision and how it helps you notice the unnoticed. Do you believe photography is something you would have been drawn to even if you weren’t a skater?
I do think so, it definitely helped me, but I think it [photography] would have been something that I would have been drawn to regardless. As a child I really loved comic books and the artwork. I’d always try to copy it, then I started going into bookstores and looking at the art books and learning about painters. Even before skating, I think I would have gone in that direction. But being able to see as a skater really helped my style of photography, the attention to detail, there’s a searching aspect. Not knowing what you are after but turning a corner or going down a street you’re unfamiliar with, that behaviour informs the photography a lot.
What’s the greatest asset a street photographer can have?
Patience and perseverance. Mostly patience, it’s mostly about being able to go out all day long and get nothing and come back and do it again and again. It’s something that you really have to learn to deal with, and again, skating also taught me that too. And also just to do it all the time, just work.
I’ve gone through long periods where I don’t pick up the camera and then I do and it’s very difficult to get back to it, it’s like being injured. When you come back from injury you’re kinda psychologically injured too, you’re scared and you don’t have timing, you’ve lost everything. So it’s good to be patient and do it all the time. Do the work, that’s all I can say.
In terms of photographers, who inspires you?
I really love JH Engstrom, a Swedish photographer. In terms of street photography, I love seeing Daniel Arnold’s work because he is just out there and getting so much stuff every day and working so hard. I really like his sensibility, the humour, the tragedy. I know him personally and he’s a funny guy. I really enjoy talking to him, so he’s someone that inspires me.
How do you feel about photography becoming more curated in an effort to create that perfect Instagram moment?
Curating and editing is one of the most important parts of photography so it’s no wonder that now, when you see something that someone posts, even if they are not a photographer you have to think about the fact that there probably was a certain amount of editing that went into it. I think people learn over time—we have this device in our hands that can take thousands and thousands of photos [so] why wouldn’t you take photos until you got the right one that you wanted? I just feel like it’s a natural evolution of image sharing, even if they have no sense of photography or editing over time they will start to understand choosing the best one.
There’s also this expectation to have this curated feed of photos that shows everyone what you want to show them, right? You want to show them that you’re having a great time, that you are happy, whatever it is that you want to show, you have the power to create that feeling. Everyone is trying to advertise something with their Instagram or whatever it is and advertising is about creating a feeling, trying to sell a feeling.
Words feature a lot in your work, whether in the form of signs, graffiti, or adverts. Out of all these words, why did you choose the phrase The Beautiful Flower Is The World as the title for this book?
The title of the book is a little grammatically incorrect so it gives you a little bit of pause, you kind of have to stop and think about it for a second, like there’s something wrong with this title. Does this make sense and why is this a little off? It kind of mirrors the experience of looking at most of the photos, the theme of the photos in the book. With most of them, there’s something a little bit off, a little bit wrong with them. There’s something you’re drawn to, something’s a little amiss and it makes you look a little bit longer.
The title mirrors the photos in that way, but the phrase is also a degradation of language. It’s a phrase that came from an English speaking place, travelled to Asia and back again, so when we see it, it’s been jumbled, lost its original meaning and [been] degraded. The photos degrade too, they are taken with a phone, posted online, you pull it off the blog, email it, whatever, it loses something every time it’s screenshot or whatever, moved around. So I thought the title pulled it together perfectly.
As a man of many talents—skating and photography to name a few—what else can Jerry Hsu do that we don’t know about?
[Laughs] Oh, there’s nothing. I can’t do anything else really… that’s really it… I like to cook, I’ve been really into that recently, I’m not that good at it, but that’s been fun, that’s just been a weird thing that I’ve been really enjoying.
What are your plans for the future in terms of skating, photography, and life in general?
Yeah I’m just working on other photo projects, small ones. I’ve been working on a project with these old home movies from when I was a kid skating, mixed in with home movies that my family made. Just about growing up in America, growing up Taiwanese. Both my parents are from Taiwan, they immigrated here, and it’s just about growing up like I did. I’m just trying to make stuff that I want to make.
Jerry Hsu’s ‘The Beautiful Flower Is the World’ is out now, grab a copy here