EDITOR’S NOTE: A few months ago we started following Portland artist Horatio Hung-Yan Law’s “Urban Studies” series on his Instagram and Facebook accounts. Ambling around the city, he’s created and shared roughly 1,400 images of Portland as observed from the streets. They make up a fascinating collective portrait of Portland as a lived-in, ever-evolving architectural space. We don’t see many people in these photos, but we see evidence of their presence everywhere: The images convey a sense of stillness, but with marks of action either recent or imminent. And almost inevitably, Law frames his scenes in ways that help us see things we might otherwise not have noticed.
We asked him if he’d answer a few questions about the project and create a small portfolio of his Urban Studies photographs to share. Here’s what he gave us. – Bob Hicks
By HORATIO HUNG-YAN LAW
Tell us how you got started on this series. Did you know it was going to become a series, or did it evolve into that? How many photos does it include now?
Urban Studies was actually a byproduct of trying to entertain myself while performing my daily walking exercise by photographing my surroundings and the places I passed through during my five-mile walk every other day. No, I did not intend them to become a series, but when I tried to put a framework around these seemingly random snapshots, the title “Urban Studies” took hold. Suddenly, grouping these snapshots under this title made sense, and it in turn motivated me to do more and post these photographs on social media as a group. So far, I have posted almost 1,400 entries on Instagram and Facebook.
How do you decide which images to include? When you go out, are you looking for something in particular, or just waiting for something to hit you?
These images go through a series of editing and corrections—cropping, color, highlight, contrast, etc., and by the end of these processes, certain pictures will inadvertently stand out or speak to me in some way. I don’t usually have something in mind in particular when I go out for my walking/shooting session, other than the interest to explore a certain area/neighborhood. I try to keep my mind/eyes open for something interesting—finding/seeing something different—it may be the lighting, the color, texture, or a reflection. A valuable lesson is when I see something that teases my eyes or tickles my brain, though I don’t necessarily understanding why. I make myself stop and take a few shots, because I may never see it the same way again. One of the benefits or curses of getting older is that I now see the world with all the filters of my life experience behind my glasses. Sometimes ordinary things, when found juxtaposed unexpectedly, could be pregnant with meaning and metaphor; but then sometimes, it could also be just pure visual delight seeing them together.
“Urban Studies” seems in a way documentary, but only occasionally in a “news” sense. You’ve done some images that reflect the turmoil in the city in 2020—some photos of “people’s murals” rising from the BLM movement, for instance—but there also always seems to be a compositional element, a careful and specific framing: Often you reveal visual juxtapositions that most of us just wouldn’t notice most of the time. Do you have a sense of balancing aesthetic and documentary concerns?
I feel I am documenting a place in an extended long view—with repeat visits at different time, situation and season. If something looks spontaneous, it might be more the result of finding something out of the ordinary from repeated encounters, than catching it at the “decisive moment.” When I take a picture while I am in my “Urban Studies” mode I am careful not to take the “tourist” shot, but really to respond to why it caught my eye, and then explore seeing it in different perspectives, both physical and conceptual. Sometimes I will take the “tourist” shot just to get it over with, and then I will be free to do my thing—discovering why this subject, object, or particular view is interesting to my brain. Sometimes I find it and sometimes I don’t. Framing brings out different aspects of a subject/situation—certain subjects require formal framing, others may need to be presented unconventionally. Seeing something indirectly—through a frame/window or via a reflection—could also add context and meaning to an otherwise ordinary situation.
The “Urban Studies” photos don’t often include people, but they almost always include the evidence of people—the marks that people make on their environments. It sometimes seems as if the people just disappeared around the corner, outside the frame. Or am I reading too much into that?
In my experience, the presence of people in a shot often dominated the photograph: Our minds want to connect that person to the place. So, unless someone really belongs to that particular space and contributes to the sense of that place, I usually leave them out. People constantly make marks on their environment, whether they intended to or not. I am interested in how a mural could affect the sense of place, or how and what people plan and plant in their front yard, which can say as much about themselves as about the things they planted. Tagging and graffiti do not interest me that much. But I am fascinated by the efforts made to repaint over them. The marks are always interesting.
The photo series seems to take you into all sorts of corners of the city. Are there areas you’ve discovered that you might not have otherwise? Places you still want to get to? Any that stick out in your mind as especially interesting from an artist’s point of view?
My original route was only from my home near Ladd’s Addition to my gym in the Lloyd District, and back. But after a while I started to vary my route each time, with the same end points. Then I began to branch into different neighborhoods with multiple visits. And there are days I find myself just wandering with no destination in mind. This project has definitely taken me to places that I would have never gone before! I am quite familiar with the Southeast, Northeast, Northwest neighborhoods and downtown. I would love to explore more the Southwest side of town, East Portland, and the newly designated South Portland neighborhood. Having grown up in big cities (Hong Kong, New York City), I found myself drawn to places with a good mixture of commercial and residential environments, as well as areas that are going through changes.
A few other things/places that stick in my mind: The smog caused by wildfires altered our senses and the landscape so quickly and massively. The quietness of the city at the beginning of the COVID lockdown. The smell of pepper spray that lingered in the park across from the Federal Courthouse.
Other realizations from working on this project: Going to a new place has its obvious excitement, but revisiting familiar places allows me to spot things that I have overlooked before, and different conditions—lighting, time of day, seasonal changes, etc.—could bring out unusual aspects of a familiar space.
Tell us a little bit about your background. You were born and raised in Hong Kong, correct? How did you get from there to Portland? What impact does having lived in two cultures have on your art?
I grew up in Hong Kong and immigrated to the U.S. with my family when I was 16. Got my high school education on the Lower East Side in NYC. I left for college in Baltimore to study biology, returned to NYC to work, and received my BFA from the School of Visual Arts. After finishing my MFA in St. Louis, I moved to Portland in 1994 for the artist residency at the former Oregon School of Arts and Crafts, and eventually settled down in Portland.
Growing up in British colonial Hong Kong, I didn’t have the self-knowledge that I was living in two cultures—I only realize now in hindsight, after seeing how people in Hong Kong struggle to retain their identity and freedom against China. My immigration experience had been one wild ride—going from Hong Kong to Augusta, Ga., first, before moving to NYC. I found myself not only affected by my Chinese heritage, but also by the multiple worlds that I live in—Chinese, British, American, and gay. As an artist, my strategy is to put myself on the fringe; only then I would be able to see things more objectively. The East/West difference in cultural outlook, particularly in the consideration of individualism vs. communal identity, plays a great role in my work. But events like the AIDS pandemic and 9/11 also energized and shifted the course of my artistic development.
Can you tell us about your “other” art, your practice outside of the “Urban Studies” series? You’ve spent a lot of time on public art projects and social-practice art, correct?
My art practice now is primarily public art and installation with a social practice lens; and focus on making creative projects with communities. Currently I am working on The AIDS Memorial Pathway project in Seattle. For several summers I taught installation workshops with students from Oregon State University’s Low Residency Creative Writing program in Bend, Oregon. In the past few years, I have also collaborated with Artists Repertory Theatre on a play called Caught, and most recently collaborated with Unit Souzou, a Portland-based contemporary taiko group, on their Otherness project. I have curated several exhibitions of Northwest Asian American artists for the Portland Chinatown Museum. I also created Project RayOn, an ongoing curating project that presents exhibitions by Portland artists who wish to explore new work that represents their intense forays into milieu outside of their current artistic paths. The works are shown anonymously under the guise of the collective alter-ego RayOn.
What’s surprised you about doing the “Urban Studies” project?
I honestly thought I would stop after a few months, or that I would stop finding interesting things to photograph or to say. But the city is ever-growing and evolving, and the changing seasons also usher in different light, colors, and textures. Then came the COVID pandemic, BLM protests, wildfires, and now the election. With almost 1,400 postings on Instagram and a little bit over a year later, I am still finding the project engaging and evolving! Instead of photographing out of boredom of walking for exercise, I now can’t wait to go walking, because I want to discover new things/situations to photograph.
Any further plans for the series? An exhibition? A book?
I would love to have an exhibition of a curated group of images from the series, and perhaps a book if there is interest for that. Another item on my wish list is to do Urban Studies on other cities. That would involve staying in those cities for extended periods of time.
What would you like to say that we haven’t talked about?
I don’t really use any fancy equipment for my photographs—all my photos are taken with my iPhone SE, and I use Apple’s Photos App on my iPad to edit my images. I like the snapshot qualities of the shots, and the easy and relatively low-tech operation of the iPhone. It reminds me of the time when I started to photograph at age 10 or 11, using my Chinese New Year lucky money to buy my first camera, a point-and-shoot Kodak Instamatic with the cube flash light and 126 cartridge film.
My MFA was in printmaking. Even though I am doing photography, I often find myself seeing thing in layers—especially the images with window reflections. They convey a feeling of compressed layers of different space and time.
I really appreciate the feedback from viewers. Many have reported that seeing my pictures helps them to see things a little differently, and maybe they’ll pay more attention to their surroundings.