“Untitled (Us in the Field),” Iris Wu
By Jeff Maisey
Something caught the eye of John Lee Matney, the curator and owner of Linda Matney Gallery in Williamsburg — the photography of recent William & Mary graduate Iris Wu.
Matney, a photographer himself who cut his shutterbug teeth shooting human characters in the Athens, Georgia music scene back in the day, was so impressed with her honors student senior exhibition he offered to extend her public appearance with “Echo Fragments: Photographs by Iris Wu,” on display June 17 through July 19 at the highly regarded, museum quality Linda Matney Gallery.
I recently caught up with Iris Wu to learn more about her new life’s work.
VEER: What was life like for you growing up in Guangzhou, China?
Iris Wu: I had a comfortable and mostly happy upbringing. Our neighborhood was small and most people knew each other. Food was great!
VEER: When did you become aware of your personal preference for women?
Wu: I remember thinking a girl was cute in kindergarten, but I didn’t fully realize what that meant until middle school.
VEER: Is being a member of the LGBTQ community difficult for a teenager in China?
Wu: Definitely for me. I wasn’t able to find such a community and didn’t really try to because I did not fully accept who I was. I was too anxious to even think about it.
VEER: When did you develop a passion for photography?
Wu: I always liked taking photos on my phone or just simply collecting photographs that I liked… but it was probably during my freshman year at William & Mary, when I took intro photography and met my mentor Eliot Dudik.
VEER: What led to your decision to attend the College of William & Mary?
Wu: I wanted a liberal arts education. I also wanted to go to a smaller college with a more intimate classroom environment.
VEER: Had you planned to earn degrees in both Mathematics and Studio Art?
Wu: Not really. I was always better at science growing up, but never really knew what interested me. Academics were always grade driven so that I could get into a good middle school, high school, college… I started college prepared to major in math and took an art class my first semester of college out of curiosity and just for fun. I think that class in a way changed my life. I was able to explore and discover a lot of new things. For the final in that class, I ended up doing a photography project. The semester after that I took intro to photography and sometime after that decided I wanted to major in art.
VEER: How have you developed as a photographer?
Wu: Perhaps in the same way that we develop as people, slowly and inconspicuously. It’s hard to answer that now, I think because I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of developing as a photographer. I do think though that as I’ve changed and evolved, my photography has done the same but how is really difficult to pinpoint.
VEER: Do you prefer digital or film? Why?
Wu: All of my work to date has been shot on film, but I’ve just recently started shooting with a digital camera as kind of a sketchbook. I think it’s just easier for me to shoot film because that’s how I started. We were using 4×5 view cameras in the intro photo and I still use one. It’s slower and each photo is more thought out. I also like the technical aspect of film – the idea of light bouncing off of subjects captured and saved by a film emulsion, and being able to hold that event in my hand. I see it as being able to hold traces from the past.
VEER: What are the challenges in presenting such personal art?
Wu: It puts me and my subjects in a very vulnerable position. Reconciling with asking my subjects for that vulnerability and then presenting it to the public can be difficult. It’s a lot to ask and I don’t ever want to make someone uncomfortable.
VEER: The print size of your work varies in size and the staggered placement of the work is interesting. From an exhibition viewpoint, what was your thinking as it relates to the presentation of your photography?
Wu: I think about scale and framing with narrative as well as physical engagement with the work in mind. I’ve been experimenting with the sizes of images and the decision to have an image framed or unframed based on the content within. I can use the white space between individual photographs to stagger the flow of viewing or connect the images. I utilize corners in the gallery as a mechanism for pause and turn.
I want viewers to notice their physical interactions with the work as they look up and down, lean forwards, step backwards, stop and turn. As they become aware of their own body movement, I hope to engage viewers in questions such as why this size for this image, why this specific sequence and arrangement, and how do these circumstances affect the content and meaning behind the images.
VEER: I have read that you have discovered much about yourself in the process of creating work for your “In the Calm of Your Arms” project. Can you share some of your most significant self-awareness moments depicted within the images we will view at the “Echo Fragments” exhibition?
Wu: When I was working on that project, I found that the photographs became a means of expressing my fears and reluctance toward being seen. I still have been unable to broach the subject of sexuality with my conservative family. The narrative I depict in my photographs is one which I have actively kept hidden from them. When including myself as a subject, I was unconsciously hiding my face in shadow or turning completely away from the camera, articulating my fear of being seen or found out.
VEER: How did Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts discover your work?
Wu: Right before the pandemic started, I was lucky enough to meet the museum collector at the Society of Photographic Education conference because I had won the LGBTQ student award. I was getting ready to leave the conference to catch my flight when he saw my work at a photobook stand. I was able to talk to him and right before I left he acquired my prints and zine
VEER: As a college graduate, what are your plans for the next year or so?
Wu: I am going on a road trip across the country right after I take down this exhibition. Right now, I just want to see more and photograph more.
WANT TO VIEW?
“Echo Fragments: Photographs by Iris Wu”
June 17 through July 19
Linda Matney Gallery