Artist Spotlight: Noa Lin
Dara Swan and Dayna Weissman
Dara Swan ‘21 interviewed Noa Lin ‘21 about his photography as part of a series for the Method section highlighting artists at Wesleyan and showcasing their work.
Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Dara: How and when did you become interested in photography?
Noa: I think one of my friends in middle school, like 7th grade, had a camera and we would just play around with it and take photos of each other and stuff, for like, Facebook—it was really goofy. From that, I wanted to get my own camera because I had just been using his, so my parents got me one for my eighth grade graduation and then I just started playing around with it. My dad had done a lot of photography back in the day, which I didn’t know about, so he kind of showed me how to do it and got me started, I guess. At first it was just a fun thing to do, but then I started looking at other people’s images and started to really like the artistic value of photography. But that was later.
D: It started out of a social activity for you but then it became an artistic one.
N: Yeah, and I think part of it was just that the technology was cool. It was a digital camera that he had, a nice DSLR, and it was just cool to take high quality photos, cause everyone else had been taking low quality iPhone pictures. So it was cool to do it. That’s how I started.
D: That’s interesting, because for me when I was younger, I remember being interested in the more grainy, crappy-looking film aesthetic. So that’s interesting. That kind of goes into the next question: do you prefer working with film or digital?
N: I really don’t have a preference at this point. I think they both offer different things for me. One thing I really like about working with digital is that I can shoot in color more easily. I mean, I would love to shoot in color film but it’s kind of expensive. There’s other limitations, like I’m trying to shoot 4x5 more but 4x5 is really hard to get processed. It’s just expensive in general. So I like that about digital, that I can shoot in color. I also think that people value film a lot more than digital, but I like digital a lot. It’s honestly more practical to use. But I do like working in the dark room as well. So it can go either way.
D: Do you think that part of why people like film more is because it looks more like fine art photography, as we’re much more used to seeing digital images?
N: I think that’s one part of it. I think there’s definitely a current trend of retrospection, where things that were cool back in the day are cool again, but I also think there’s some authority given to a film photo given that it’s film. Like anyone can take a digital photo, but film is harder to do and more niche. But in terms of quality, they’re almost comparable, particularly when you get into larger formats.
D: Do you think it’s important for photographers to learn film as an introduction to photography, or do you think it’s not necessary since film is kind of dying away?
N: That’s a hard question because I feel like I’m biased because I learned digital first, but when I got to learning film, that’s when I started valuing photography as an art form, I guess. So I would make an argument for learning film first. But I feel like digital practically is a lot more accessible, and people can shoot on their iPhone, so I feel like that already is an introduction to photography. I would say that if you want to get into more into the fine art world, definitely study film. I don’t think you have to do that first, because that isn’t possible when everyone is exposed to photography through the iPhone and stuff already. But I definitely think film is very valuable.
D: Have you felt like it’s difficult to legitimize photography now because everyone has a camera in their phones? For example, Instagram started as an app for photography, but now it’s kind of just social media, but also people who are interested in the artfulness of their images. A lot of people will say things such as that it seems more valuable to learn how to paint than to be a photographer at this day and age.
N: I really disagree with that, I think photography is still as vibrant as it has ever been. Given my limited knowledge of the fine art photography world, it’s honestly harder now to take a good photograph because of the pervasiveness. Just cause so many people have a camera, it might dilute the medium, but just in a way that it makes it harder to find a good photo, which I think is honestly enriching to the medium because it forces you to really look outside of the box to find different things to shoot because there are so many photographers. I think that making your mark, or having interesting photos, is much harder in today’s age because of that.
D: Do you have any strong influences, like people who stand out to you or general practices in photography that are large influences to you?
N: My taste in photography has really changed over the years. Right now I’m interested in a lot of portraiture. People who photograph their families are really interesting, and there’s a big canon of that in contemporary photography. I’m looking at this guy Doug DuBois, he photographed his family, and I think those portraits are really interesting. Also, I remember Sasha [Sasha Rudensky, a photography professor at Wesleyan] showing us a lot of interesting work last year. I think it was Sasha, really, who put me onto color photography—people like Joel Sternfeld and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Today in class we got to meet this photographer named Jillian Freyer, whose work I really like. She photographed her mom and sister a lot. I really liked Sam Contis’s book as well, called Deep Springs. But I think more influential than any photographer’s work, really, have just been the teachers I’ve had. I think Sasha honestly has really changed my perception of photography a lot. But also my high school teacher really pushed the fine art value of photography. A lot of teachers will just stress the technical aspect.
D: Are there any subject matters that particularly interest you?
N: For me, right now, I guess I’m interested in my family and the way the dynamic of my family is changing as me and my brother are getting older and kind of moving out of the house. I think that dynamic is what I’m focused on right now, and I think that’s why I’ve been gravitating to a lot of work that other people have done about their own families, and I think it’s kind of enriching although it’s definitely an established topic.
N: Recently I’ve been thinking about this kind of new masculinity that’s kind of beginning—I feel like it is—especially under Trump. The way masculinity is presented somewhere like Wesleyan versus where I’m from in rural New Hampshire is so different. That’s not really an idea, but I’ve definitely been thinking about that.
D: That’s something you would be interested in for your own work?
N: Yeah, and just in general, not even pertaining to art. There should be a space for that right now.
D: What do you think of the role of art in our society right now, in a time where political dialogue is so easily and widely circulated?
N: I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that! But we’re definitely living in a very politically charged time. I think if you look at most contemporary art, it’s probably related to that, because it should be. I feel like art and culture go hand in hand, and our culture right now is very ingrained in these social issues, so art is probably a reflection of that. But honestly, that makes me sound like I know everything about the contemporary art world right now, which I don’t, so yeah, don’t quote me on that one [laughs].
D: Do you, or have you always identified as an “artist,” or does that feel like a weird thing to call yourself?
N: I definitely don’t think I’m an artist. I don’t think I have the qualifications to label myself as anything other than a college student. I don’t even know if my photographs have any credibility to be anything right now than just work I’m doing for school. I’m still figuring it out. Honestly, I don’t know at what point...I’m just becoming comfortable with giving myself enough credibility to ask my parents to, like, do weird shit for me in photographs. I don’t know what that means, but yeah...I definitely don’t think I’m an artist and I might not ever be. We’ll see.
D: What advice, if any, do you have for someone who is questioning the worth of their work?
N: Oh man, I don’t know, I honestly do the same thing. Like I constantly question if my photographs are actually good or not. I feel like I’m coming to terms more with it now. I wouldn’t shoot what you think people are looking to see. But I think that’s such cliché advice. I don’t know, I just think everyone gravitates towards certain things. If you notice you’re doing that, just follow your instincts, don’t get too caught up in trying to make art or anything, because that’s stupid and you probably will fail [laughs]. Just take photos of things you want to take photos of, and then people can ascribe value to that later.
I mean, honestly I think that for me, especially with social media, I don’t think this is unique to me, I get very caught up in thinking I’m making photographs for like Instagram, or something. Like, I want people to look at my work. For a long time that’s what I was thinking: I gotta take cool photos so people are like, “Whoa, that dude’s good at photography,” or something very egocentric or vain. But now I think I’m more just willing to take the photographs I want to take for just myself, which I think is an important thing. I think a lot of people take pictures for Instagram, I don’t think it’s just me. I hope. Yeah, don’t shoot for Instagram.
D: No, I definitely used to take pictures with the intention of posting something because it will look good on my feed.
N: Yea. I mean there’s nothing wrong with posting your photos on Instagram but I just think that the mentality has to be like, “I like this photo so I want to share it,” instead of, “I’m shooting this photo so I can look cool on Instagram.”
D: Have you noticed any motifs in your pictures that have revealed something about yourself?
N: I don’t think my work is developed enough for that yet. Something that I’ve noticed psychologically?
D: Well, Sasha pointed out that in my work there is a lot of iconography and symbolism that I didn’t notice or think about, but that I’m clearly drawn to in my work.
N: I guess recently I’ve been shooting a lot of figures in isolation. I don’t know what that says about me, maybe I’m, like, hella lonely or something [laughs], but yeah, usually when I shoot a portrait it’s singular. But I don’t know. Something about isolation, something about light.
N: I guess I haven’t really been shooting with the mindset of anything traditionally artistic. I’m still working on the aesthetic principles of photography for sure, and I feel like meaning is something I can focus on later. I still have to get better at actually taking photos. Because I’d say that more than half of photography is how it looks. You can have some crazy concept and deep psychological meaning but if the picture is ugly or doesn’t look good, no one’s going to care. I don’t want to look at a shitty picture even if it means something. I think the most effective pictures, to me, are both aesthetically pleasing but also have some psychological weight or some concept, and I think that balance is hard to find and that’s what makes a good picture.
D: That’s like what I do, go into it with an aesthetic mindset.
N: That’s good, focus on the way it looks, and then people will find meaning in photos even if there is none.
D: I was just thinking of this photographer Thomas Ruff. Sasha showed us his work. Some people in the class thought his pictures were not pretty. Just in terms of the aesthetic, I think those are weightier in concept than in how purely beautiful.
N: Yeah, I think so. But I also think those are aesthetically interesting. They don’t have to be beautiful, I just think they have to be interesting photos. And I do think that the concept helps for his work, but I also think they’re interesting photos to look at.
D: Are there any other mediums you like to use?
N: No. I’m not a very artistic person, so I’m taking Drawing 1 right now and it’s pretty hard. Photography is easy, because you just click a button.
D: That goes against everything you just said!
N: [Laughs] I mean, technically. Conceptually and mentally it’s difficult.
Dara and Noa mention Professor Sasha Rudensky. You can find her photography here.
Artist Spotlight is an opportunity for the Wesleyan community to learn more about one another, to share our work and stories. If you would like to be featured in or involved with the series, please contact Dara Swan (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Dayna Weissman (email@example.com).