Norm Yip was born and raised in Canada by Chinese parents. He received his B. of Arts degree (cum laude) in 1984 at the University of Saskatchewan and his B. of Architecture degree in 1989 at the University of Toronto. In 1994, he moved to Hong Kong where he worked as a architect for several years before pursuing his interest in art and photography. As a photographer, Norm’s work has appeared in HK Magazine, WHERE, Global Investor and American Express’ Centurion magazine. Celebrities he has photographed include Zhang Yimou, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Destiny’s Child and Korean pop-star Rain. To many, Norm is recognized for his fine art photographs of beautiful and sensuous Asian males. His work has been featured in 2Blue and Dreamboys 2, both special edition of Blue magazine, known for it’s excellence in fine art male photography. Currently, Norm is working on two photography publications, one called FIFTYFIVE, a photography book in collaboration with stylist Patryk Chaou, whereby sales of the book will be benefit the Hong Kong AIDS Foundation to help children afflicted in China, secondly, The Asian Male – 3.AM, the third installment of the highly successful first two books in the same series.
Question (Q): The Asian Male seems like a long-term project. Tell us more about it. Like how did you start and how you’ve been maintaining the project for years.
Norm Yip (Norm): The inspiration to start photographing the male body and figure started from Derek Lam’s photography book ‘Boynextdoor Hong Kong’, which I helped launch in my first studio in 2000. It was then that I decided to pick up my hobby of photography and to seriously do some shooting. I found several friends that were willing to let me photograph them nude, or rather semi-nude. I posted them online on a Geocities homepage. I continued shooting, posting more and more profiles of guys that I knew. I think people were very hungry for beautiful Asian guys, because the bandwidth kept going over the daily amount. Eventually, I opened up a second Geocities account, linking the two together. But that too went over the bandwidth. I finally decided to buy a webhosting account along with the domain theasianmale.com, thinking that it would be good to separate this from my other photography.
Q: You also published two books titled 1AM and 2AM in 2005 and 2007. Any particular themes of the publications? Any future plan to publish a third book?
Norm: The publication was really something that I always wanted to do. I first approached several of the big publishers with email enquiries about my idea, but I received with very little interest or support from them. Asians men were not a popular genre in the area of gay or main stream photography; it was a very hard sell. I decided that I would self-publish the book, and make it my dream baby. Hong Kong is a printing mecca, and I found that publishing a book is actually not that difficult. If anything, it’s marketing, distribution and promotion that is the real work.
As selfish as this may sound, the photography of the Asian male is really to showcase my photography, more than the guys themselves. I feel that anyone can take a camera and photograph a beautiful looking model, but how do you distinguishes that the photograph is of merit, versus the beauty of the model. For instance, I could take several hundred shots of someone but only end up with one image that truly represents a good photograph. The rest is garbage, but necessary garbage, as that part is part of the process in getting that one good shot.
Thematically, there is very little to speak of. The sets are black, or white, or in the streets of Hong Kong. There is no makeup and hair stylist, and no wardrobe (with the exception of jeans and briefs). So the question is what is there to see? We are not talking about a fashion. Going back to the foundations of photography and art, what I’m aiming to achieve is a combination of the primary elements: light, shadow, color, composition, texture. Deeper, we then delve into artistic expression, and it’s emotional impact and feeling. On a political level, I never felt that my photography was even close to being controversial, but my thoughts changed when I tried to sell the first book in Singapore. I believed the books were on the shelves for no longer than several weeks at Kinokuniya before they were taken down by the authorities.
I am currently working on several different projects, but yes, I do have plans to put together another book in the Asian Male series, hence making it the third in the series, or 3.AM. I hope that I can have all the material ready by middle of 2011. As for the theme, let’s just say there isn’t any.
Q: Your photographs suggest various themes like masculinity in general but are often seen like erotica. Do you aim to achieve this perspective? Any misconception of your works?
Norm: Erotica. Madonna. The album is great for making out. I have played it quite often when shooting a model, as it evokes sexuality in the model, without having to move into pornography. When I am photographing someone, I am not necessarily concentrated on photographing masculinity; I am focused on photographing the person and the contours of body, meanwhile concentrating on the lighting, and how it falls on the subject.
The masculinity comes from the model or subject; it is when he let’s go of inhibition, and can freely be who he is. It is not by accident, but through trust. Yet at the same time, I don’t want it all. Hold back some of it, and that is where the mystery and eroticism enters. That is what I try to photograph.
Yes, I do have something I am trying to achieve in the art; it may not specifically be erotica, but it is a certain beauty of someone. A male friend said to me, ‘Norm, don’t use the word beauty to describe your photography. It’s goes against the grain of guys and masculinity.’ I use it anyway. Beauty is what inspires me to do what I do, regardless of whether it’s a male, female, painting or otherwise.
As for misconceptions, I have had many people misinterpret my work. One young critic said I have no idea behind the photography that I do. Fair enough. A second critic said that my work is pornographic, because I had muscular male bodies without clothes on. Yeah, right.
Q: The project is distinctly interesting as in Asian society, being photographed nude is still not liberally perceived as being in the West. What do you think of this restriction? Do you face problems when you approach a model?
Norm: My grandmother used to hide her face to me whenever I held a camera to her face. She believed that a part of her soul would be ‘taken’ when photographed. It is a belief structure that is embedded into society and culture and we must respect that in the individual. The body to me is both sacred and an object of beauty. Sacred because it is the holder of your Soul. I never force anyone to remove their clothing. It is up to them to decide when they are ready.
Honestly, I never gave it much thought when I started photographing the guys here. As it turned out, most of my initial male models were from abroad and were western educated, and they didn’t have the fear of nudity. I guess vanity ruled, and they were glad to have me photograph them. However, Hong Kong guys were more cautious. They questioned everything and were less trustworthy of my intentions. So yes, there were some difficulties in finding models for that very reason.
Q: Any artists that have inspired you in this project?
Norm: I greatly admire the photography of Herb Ritts. He was a photographer that could capture beauty like no other. His sense of composition, space, and color (although he photographed in black and white) was superb. I truly believe that in art and perhaps life itself, simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve. If you think of a soprano Maria Callas, ballet dancer Nureyev, or painter Monet, their artwork or craft appears effortless and fluid. This is the kind of photography that Herb Ritts could do with the human body. It appears effortless, yet it it not. Another great photographer is Richard Avedon, whose portrait and fashion photography is something that very few could attain. His portraits in particular, were visionary.
Q: How do you differentiate your works with them?
Norm: I believe in the initial stages of learning a craft, we gravitate to the idols or mentors we admire. Now, I don’t try to differentiate my own body of work to them. They were in different times, different circumstances and surroundings. Their connections and influences are not my own; I have to create my own set, my own circumstances and surroundings, and live by them. I believe my work will stand on it’s own ground, but I feel I have so much to learn and explore. Creating an image nowadays is far easier than before, but the execution and ideas still cannot be rushed.
Q: Do you think this form of photography is popular in Asia, as a fine art approach to masculinity?
Norm: I don’t believe that this type of photography will ever be perceived as popular; I think it will always be a very special, niche market. I know of very few photographers here in Hong Kong or Asia that approach the human body from an art perspective, so it’s hard to see it becoming a trend. If anything, there is a commercial side that is taking appreciation of the male body. We see more advertisers using the male body as a vehicle for selling their product.
Q: How are the reception of your works, let’s compare within the Asian regions. Where have you exhibited them before?
Norm: Believe it or not, I have not exhibited photography that often, compared to my paintings and drawings. However having said that, I have exhibited in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. They were all well received in terms of turnout and interest within the gay community, but media and press seemed to shy away from them. This is somewhat disheartening, as a lot of effort goes into setting up even a small exhibition. Yet, it is always a thrill to put up an exhibition of new work. For those that haven’t done it before, you get a natural high from the experience.
Q: Any thoughts on the general LGBT-art in Hong Kong? There’s the Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival happening next week, how is the reception of such events? How about art exhibitions?
Norm: Now I feel bad, as I have not been to a see a showing at the HKLGFF in several years because of work. But I do support the organizers for doing a stupendous job, as it really takes an enormous amount of time, money and effort to pull it all together. My accolades to Joe Lam and his team. Many will know that the founder of the festival, Wouter Barendrecht, passed away suddenly last year, and his presence will be sorely missed. But if it’s the Wouter I know, his spirit will be right here in Hong Kong. I will try to make it to several of the screenings this year. I know several of the directors, including Quentin Lee for his short ‘Little Love’ and Scott Eriksson for his ‘No Asians… It’s just not my thing’.
Art exhibitions are something I attend every so often if the timing works out well. Mind you, I don’t choose to go to ‘gay’ art exhibitions. I choose based on the artwork, which may or may not be gay-related. Some people think I go to art exhibitions to get ideas for my own work, but usually, that is not the case. I can get ideas from the web and from creating on the spot. Art exhibitions are a good way to network with like-minded people, and to gain insight on what people’s perceptions of art is on the whole. The last exhibition I attended was just last week, filled with the young and trendy crowd, obviously an affluent group. I think I only spoke to the bartender.
Q: Any last words for the LGBT community?
Norm: I believe that the LGBT community in Asia is progressively moving forward, although maybe not at the pace we would like it to be. There are many avenues for making your voice heard, be it friendly demonstrations, art exhibitions, dances and events, or in writing. The host of channels in which to disseminate the information is greater than ever. Today we have the convenience of the internet, Youtube, and facebook. So long as forces don’t block the sharing of information, then we all have a say in what is rightfully ours, and that is to be who we are, without shame or fear.