HUAN LIU of Analogical Photos sheds light on his approach to his portrait photography, and how he balances technology with traditional processes in his work. He also discusses his interest in digital and film photography and what you can expect at a photo shoot in Hong Kong with him.
Give us an overview of your career and experiences with portrait photography.
I grew up in mainland China and in Canada, and came to Hong Kong in 2005 for a career in finance. After 13 years, I felt I needed to do something I really enjoy. I’ve been an amateur street photographer for a long time (you can actually still see some of my street works in my IG), and in 2018, I decided I wanted to pursue portrait photography full-time.
I first went to London to study with Magnum Photos. While there, I realised that learning the technique of photography is fairly straightforward. What really matters is the art in photography – and this must come from outside of photography. As a business major in school, I found myself wholly lacking in appreciation of art. What is art exactly? What is beauty? Those questions are all philosophical in nature. So I went to study for a degree in philosophy from scratch. At the end of 2022, I felt I was ready, and I founded Analogical Photos to translate my philosophy into something concrete.
Do you prefer analogue/film photography, like your company name implies, or do you use both?
I shoot both film and digital. I actually treat a digital camera as just an easier film camera. I rarely do much post-production in my digital photos because I use the best possible sensor and precisely set up my light during pre-production.
The reason I still use an analogue process is to keep me grounded. As an artist, the aesthetic problem I’m trying to solve is the problem of “taste”. We all know how fashion and taste change every few years; popular taste is a moving target. So if I want to produce something to stand the test of time I need an anchor, something I can stand on. The only plausible anchor I can find is authenticity – not only authenticity in the final result (AI is fully capable of producing authentic-looking photos), but also authenticity in my process. That’s why I insist on developing and scanning the physical film by myself.
What’s the secret to good portrait photography?
I think “good” is an increasingly subjective term in today’s world. But the standard I use to judge my own work is whether there is human connection in the portrait. I’m sensitive to a tendency towards objectifying the subjects in a lot of portrait photographers’ work. Their aim may be different from mine, which is documenting the connection between the photographer and the subject. And like any connection, it presupposes a certain equality between two parties. Once a subject is being objectified, you know the connection is lost. To me, that work becomes uninteresting.
What can someone expect during a photo shoot in Hong Kong with Analogical Photos?
I don’t really have a “formula” when taking a portrait because everyone is different. How I shoot will depend on how I respond to the person I encounter. But I can tell you what you shouldn’t expect: a factory-like photo session where the photographer gives you a pose book to go through. I don’t really pose people, and I allow both myself and my subject to “go with the flow”.
Tell us a bit about your cameras and equipment.
For my digital work, I mainly use a Hasselblad 503CW, which is a 30-year-old fully mechanical film camera, attached to a PhaseOne IQ180 digital back. It gives me the largest digital sensor size available in the market, delivering that true much-coveted “medium format” look.
For film photography work, I use a Mamiya RZ67 camera besides the Hasselblad. I also shoot large format film if a client requests it. But my favourite is the medium format black-and-white film.
If you could set up a photo shoot with a famous person, who would it be?
I just love to photograph anyone who appreciates my art and is willing to reveal their true selves to me and connect with me personally and authentically, regardless of their fame.
What’s your prediction for the next big thing in photography?
Everyone is talking about generative AI, but most people don’t realise there’s a counter-current to this technological advancement: film photography is actually making a comeback.
I always think the term “new” is a descriptive rather than normative term. It’s not true that the newest thing is the best. Advances in technology have made being good enough so much cheaper that the value of artisanship has become much higher. We have seen this in other industries, too, including luxury watches and high couture. It’s a part of human nature to want to differentiate yourself from the crowd. I think people will look to do things that AI cannot, which is an authentic documentation of reality, by a real human being.
To find out more about Huan Liu’s portrait photography or to book a photo shoot in Hong Kong, visit analogicalphotos.com.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.
Enjoyed reading this? Find more interesting profiles in our Living in Hong Kong section.