Picture Perfect

Peter Yang has parlayed his love of portraiture into a successful photography career. So, what's the secret?

texasmonthly.com: Was it your idea to do the "mug" shots of people for the October issue on UT?

Peter Yang: I have to give [ Texas Monthly art director] Scott Dadich credit for that one.

texasmonthly.com: I understand you spent a lot of time hanging out at the Texas Union. What was that like and how did you pick your subjects? Was this a difficult assignment?

PY: I chose the West Mall outside the Texas Union as a place to scout for students. That area gets some of the most foot traffic around campus and is centrally located. It's a great place to people watch.

Picking subjects was one of the more interesting parts of this assignment. Aside from getting good diversity, my goal was to look for interesting people. I was surprised how many students said no to having their pictures made while others were beyond excited. Several students obediently had their pictures taken, gave all their vital information, then asked as they were leaving, "Now, what's this for?"

texasmonthly.com: Despite the fact that each photo is taken in the same manner (face shot), the personalities of your subjects come through. How were you able to do this? What is the key to taking a great portrait?

PY: Everyone comes with a distinct personality. My job is to make them feel comfortable so I can capture it. Some people don't require much talking to. You can see right away that they're totally comfortable, though there are times a tinge of tenseness or nervousness can make a compelling image. When the subject is completely nervous, I resort to my bag o'comedy. I watch plenty of Conan O'Brien so my jokes tend to be self-deprecating. You know, the usual—failed prom dates, bad hygiene, pasty allergies to the sun.

texasmonthly.com: Your portrait subjects have ranged from former UT quarterback Chris Simms to actor Robert Duvall. How do you approach each job?

PY: Quickly. There's usually not much time.

With celebrities, I usually go into the shoot with at least an idea or two. Some are personable while others treat you like a business transaction. I was happily surprised with how easygoing and down-to-earth Robert Duvall was. He got so into talking world cuisine his girlfriend had to remind him he was there for a photo shoot.

texasmonthly.com: You also work in fashion photography. From your standpoint, how is fashion photography different than portraiture?

PY: I don't really differentiate the two. To me, everything is portraiture. There's some utility to fashion, though. Sometimes you have to show the accessories. Stylists definitely get sick of me asking, "Do we have to show the shoes?" I really get lost in the human face.

texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite kind of photo? Why?

PY: My favorite photos are the ones I would never think to take.

texasmonthly.com: Do you use any special techniques to capture the perfect shot? If so, what?

PY: I'm very particular about lighting. I like to create images that are painterly rather than photographic. My technique is very deliberate. I'm more likely to create the moment rather than capture it candidly.

texasmonthly.com: How did you first get interested in photography?

PY: I was a business major at UT, depressed about spending the rest of my working life in a cubicle. One day, I saw a flyer asking students to try out for the Daily Texan (UT's student newspaper). I thought it sounded fun, and since I had just gotten an instant camera for Christmas, I figured I'd give it a shot. At tryouts, I realized I was way out of my league. I was in a room full of folks with big professional cameras. Mine lived in a small pleather pouch, Velcroed to my belt strap. I had, in my entire life, shot two rolls of film.

Long story short, I tried out with the passion of an American Idol contestant. I asked a lot of stupid questions, and was blessed with an editor, Andy Rogers, who saw my enthusiasm and not my ignorance. I couldn't sleep for a week. All I could see were pictures, even when I closed my eyes.

Recently, I met a student at UT who was trying out for the Texan. She felt a little nervous about her chances, but told me she has one thing on her side. She heard that once, some guy got on staff trying out with a cheesy point-and-shoot camera.

texasmonthly.com: Where do you see the future of photography headed? Digital? Or are you a film person?

PY: There will always be those who love film, but the future is digital. The convenience factor for digital has always been there, but now the technology has caught up. Digital is beginning to have soul.

texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite photo you have taken? Why?

PY: My favorite photo is usually the last image I've made (granted it isn't a terrible image). I'll bask in my handiwork for a few moments, pat myself on the back, then proceed to the next project.

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