Bảo Ngô: Stripping back, creating more
Facet Specs #3: Bảo Ngô
Our goal at Facet first and foremost is to render AI legible to human artists. Facet Specs is a new series of interviews that takes up the other side of that equation: sharing the stories and insights of photographers and engaging more deeply with their work and ideas.
An influential figure in the online photography scene, New York-based photographer and director Bảo Ngô is a name on the global radar. Popular on Tumblr as a teen, growing up in a visually hungry and art-accessible world has allowed her taste and her style to develop with eclectic influences and an affection for change. “It’s always comforting for people to do what they know they’re best at, but I can’t be that way and I don’t think I ever could’’, she says. “For me, it’s an ongoing process and it always will be. I don’t think I’d be happy if it were any other way. I don’t like feeling comfortable with what I’m doing.”
Interviewed by: Sophie Xie
Beginning shooting film in 2010, Bảo’s journey towards becoming an established photographer was relatively gradual, with the exception of her unexpected and sudden inception as a full-time creative back in 2017. “I’ve been taking pictures for a really long time but I started full time three years ago. I was working at a restaurant in the meat-packing district and I had this manager that was verbally abusive. I walked out and never came back. I was like, ‘well, I don’t have a backup plan, I have no savings, my only skill is taking photos’, and that’s when I really got into it. Since I started taking pictures full time, I was always in survival mode because I had no other plan, no other skills”.
I’d say consistently, my work has been really focused on performance, with very real emotions behind it. A lot of my work is cinema influenced. I used to draw out storyboards with playlists. It’s all kind of dramatic, I guess.
This only pushed Bảo’s career further with a quickly developing and broad portfolio of work, covering landscape, to portraiture, studio, to hotel hot tub. The major continuing theme, however, is a moody, dreamscape feel, freezing time with a trance-like consistency in Bảo’s color-driven fantasy world. “Normally I’ll pick one color that I really want to be the primary element of the photo. I mean, different colors make me feel different ways and I feel like this applies to a lot of people whether or not you know it. Blue is very calming, red is alarming, it feels dangerous. I’ll start from there. And then I like my photos to have a lot of color contrast so then I’m like, ‘ok if I want this photo to mostly be blue, then what contrasts that is orange or yellow or even sometimes pink’. And then if the blue is a cooler blue and not like a warmer blue, I’ll pick a really sharp orange tone. The way I start my color decisions starts off with feeling and then it gets technical”.
Beyond color, Bảo’s style is also underpinned by film sensibilities, despite moving away from film entirely in 2016. “Yeah, the funny thing is people ask me what film I shoot on a lot”, she says, “but I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to use Photoshop and Lightroom and so, I think if you’re good enough, you can really make any photo look however you want.” Despite bringing a much-loved film aesthetic to her digital work, some habits from her film-focused beginnings continue to make their way into her work. “I feel like I shoot everything but at the same time I’m scared of burst mode. I’ve been told that I shoot pretty slowly. That’s a leftover habit from when I shot film for six years.”
But beyond color and film, Bảo’s subject matter is as broad and and all-encompassing as the dream-like universe she creates. “One really big thing that I think is misunderstood about my work is that I think because I’ve shot a lot of different people who look different from each other, different races, and genders and body types, people try to stick the representation label or diversity label on me. But it’s not about that really. I mean, I’m happy to shoot anyone no matter what their background is, and I think that the stories my photos tell and the emotions they evoke can be applied universally, sure. I just don’t think it’s as deep as me trying to represent everyone or be a champion of diversity.”
I think 2020 has made me really reject excess and has made me reframe my thinking and rethink my taste a little bit.
Away from labels or style, there is one thing easier to pin down: Bảo’s relentless work ethic. But when much of the world’s creatives saw their careers and workflows turn upside-down, Bảo too saw a significant impact on her career. Despite a difficult standstill for her work, lockdown for Bảo also proved to be a welcome and defining moment of pause and reflection. “I mostly slept a lot and watched a lot of reality TV”, she adds. “It forced me to take a break, I used to take no days off”.
Shooting with digicams has really wired my brain in a different way…it’s more restrictive. So…if I can nail it there, I can really get it with any other device.
During this interlude, not only did Bảo’s visual style continue to develop, but so did her physical processes and her transient relationship with equipment. “It’s kind of funny because the last few years, 2018, 2019, everything I was shooting was with full crews, I’d have make up, hair, assistants, other people on set, I was using the most equipment, I was being so excessive. Coming out of quarantine — not even fully out of it — I don’t want it anymore. I’ve been exploring without all the equipment I was using before. I don’t even want to shoot on a nice camera anymore, so now I’m shooting on a thrifted early-mid 2000s digital point and shoot. It’s weird, I think 2020 has made me really reject excess and has made me reframe my thinking and rethink my taste a little bit. Shooting with digicams has really wired my brain in a different way. It’s still digital and I love digital, but with a digicam it’s more restrictive. So, it makes me nail it more, if I can nail it there, I can really get it with any other device.”
With her relationship with digital continuously wavering, this lockdown-fueled shift illustrates another chapter in Bảo’s burgeoning creative story. “I can describe different eras of my work”, she says. “My work changes and it fluctuates pretty frequently, even for me. I was going through my Instagram archive of stuff I published 5 or 6 years ago that is no longer public, and I was like, ‘wow, I can distinctly see the phases I went through in terms of visual elements, color palettes, lighting methods’. But I’d say consistently, my work has been really focused on performance, with very real emotions behind it. A lot of my work is cinema influenced. I used to draw out storyboards with playlists. It’s all kind of dramatic, I guess”.
Beyond specifics, Bảo maintains that the overall process of photography, in its broadest form, continues to drive the process. “I have quite a short attention span, so for me, when I see a photo, it either captures my attention or it doesn’t. If I’m fascinated by it, I can look at it for as long as I want, I can interpret it the way I want. I like the vagueness of photography, I like mystery. If you’re writing, you take what’s in your head and you put it on the page, you tell it how it is. But with photography, you have to make it happen. That’s the fun part, this idea existed in my head and now it exists in front of me”.
The way I start my color decisions starts off with feeling and then it gets technical.
This technical side of photography, and the challenge of physically executing an idea is something that empowers Bảo’s process. “I know some photographers who don’t like to deal with the technical side, and would rather deal with the creative side of it. But I love the technical aspect. I’ve been using computers and technology since I was young… I like figuring out how things work. I had to figure out a lot of it by myself, just through trial and error. That’s how I learned how to use cameras. That’s how I learned how to set up lighting”. On whether idealist post-production can become obsessive, Bảo is conscious of the point, instead enjoying the fastidiousness photographers have at their disposal. “I am a perfectionist, so having an outlet for that was really great for me. I didn’t have that when I shot film, so having something to pour this perfectionism into is good.”
If you’re writing, you take what’s in your head and you put it on the page, you tell it how it is. But with photography, you have to make it happen. That’s the fun part, this idea existed in my head and now it exists in front of me.
Being consistently and inescapably surrounded by tech, computers and social media has not only been influential in Bảo’s development as an artist, but also continues to shape the future of her work. But while Instagram indisputably acts as a channel between Bảo and her fans, for Bảo the platform and those comparable continue to pose conflicting challenges for creativity.
“With Instagram and social media, we’ve been so saturated with imagery and to be honest, a lot of that imagery isn’t different from all the other imagery surrounding it. I think because of Instagram and because of algorithms in general, people aren’t necessarily seeking to make work that makes them feel good, they’re seeking to make work that validates them in some way, socially. So, people reproduce ideas to get the same likes [they see others getting] and then every day we see all these images that look the exact same, all in my explore page because that’s what my algorithm thinks I want to see.”
“That actually made me afraid to take photos when I wasn’t taking photos during quarantine. I don’t want to make images that people scroll by and feel like ‘oh, this is the same as everything else, it’s pretty, it piques my interest for a second and then you never think about it ever again’. That also makes Instagram not the ideal platform to view art on in general because the way you interact with it is so shallow that at one point I just thought I almost never want to take pictures ever again. I think if Instagram disappeared tomorrow, it would affect me negatively in that my marketing would probably really suck, but I don’t think my art itself would really suffer.”
“I think what’s so great about photography is that it’s so accessible, compared to so many other forms of art. It’s so easy to view photography, which is also a double-edged sword. Anyone can create it — it doesn’t mean it’s good — but anyone can create it. I think it’s also bad that I’ve seen photography be used as a tool for exploitation. I’ve seen workers, photographers get mistreated by corporations, also in the sense that photographers have exploited their subjects. I also have issues with not all but some street photography, like with the Black Lives Matter protests that happened over the summer. A lot of protesters were getting doxed because photographers were shooting and sharing whatever they wanted. I think there’s so many good things about photography and I think equally there are as many bad things. I don’t know if we’re more of the right side or more on the wrong. Sometimes it does feel like we’re more on the wrong side, but I would hope that I’m wrong.”
I believe art can never be separated from the artist and who they are. I think if someone really understood me they could start to see where a lot of that comes from.
But in an internet-driven world, influence and talking point for Bảo doesn’t come solely from online, citing her ancestral homeland of Vietnam as the place that gives her the most inspiration. On top of that, Bảo recently returned to her favorite anime, the visually consuming and color-heavy, Angel’s Egg, for a source of visual insight. Beyond that, she cites an “obsession” with political propaganda posters. “I recently saw an exhibition at the Poster House on Chinese propaganda posters, specifically made to illustrate China-USSR friendship and solidarity. I really loved those.”
But all in all, Bảo maintains, regardless of the internet, influences and intentions, art is intrinsically tied to identity. “I believe art can never be separated from the artist and who they are. I think if someone really understood me they could start to see where a lot of that comes from.” As Bảo continues to grow, experiment, explore and adapt, there is no predictability in what she will produce, only the confirmation that it will always be steeped exactly in whatever it means to be Bảo Ngô.
You can see more work from the New York-based photographer on her Instagram and shortly at www.bhngo.com. She will be returning to taking new commissions in 2021.
Written by Ellie Jackson
Previous Features in the Series
#1: Gabriella Achadinha — Always recognize those who have that fire in their eyes
#2: Kristina Varaskina — Extending the artistic brain through the camera lens
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