Photographer Peter Yang on getting Aggies to pose for their portrait and what makes a good picture.
University of Texas alumni and 26-year-old photographer Peter Yang ventured to College Station for our May issue. He’d previously snapped pictures of sports personalities, but this time he captured the everyday Aggie-on-the-street. Here Yang discusses his fascination with freckles, his modeling days of the past, and his encounter with Spider-Man.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you continue the “mug” shot format you used for the October 2003 article about the University of Texas? What are you trying to convey with this technique?
Peter Yang: The A&M piece is sort of a sister piece to the UT story. The mug shot approach seemed the way to go.
texasmonthly.com: Did you take these pictures at the A&M student union as well? How did the atmosphere compare with that of UT?
PY: I photographed students mostly on the third floor of Bizzell Hall, pretty close to the action. As I understand it, the week being election week was not a typical one. There were students dressed in various oversized animal costumes supporting different candidates. On the last day, I saw a guy in a Spider-Man costume perched on a tree limb. I’m not sure if he was involved in the elections. He wasn’t holding a sign.
texasmonthly.com: How do you approach your subjects? Do you tell them you are working for Texas Monthly or just ask to take their picture?
PY: I learned the fewer words the better. People are generally happy to have their picture made.
texasmonthly.com: Are students or professors more cooperative about having their picture taken? Was there a difference in responsiveness between UT and A&M?
PY: Students at A&M, in general, were a lot more receptive to being photographed than those at UT. While both my assistant and I got a fair share of rejections from Longhorns, only one Aggie said no. Aggies, in general, seemed less rushed and more laid-back. Then again, I did the Longhorn piece in August. It was one hundred degrees outside, and people were drenched in sweat. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be photographed like that, looking all post-Taebo.
texasmonthly.com: Did you give the subjects any direction about how to pose or smile?
PY: You shoot seventy-plus headshots, and you pretty much standardize what you say. The first thing I tell everyone is that I don’t want an Olan Mills [Portrait Studios] smile. Other than that, I just ask them to be themselves.
texasmonthly.com: Can you spot a camera-shy or camera-friendly subject before approaching him or her?
PY: It’s hard to tell if someone will be camera-shy or camera-friendly seeing him or her on the street. Sometimes the uncomfortable subject makes the most compelling one.
texasmonthly.com: You were a member of the Daily Texan staff when you were in college, so you took many pictures in Austin. Had you ever taken photographs in College Station?
PY: I’ve been to College Station two times prior: once to photograph R.C. Slocum (a former A&M football coach) and once to photograph Ja’Mar Toombs (a former A&M fullback).
texasmonthly.com: What makes a good or bad picture?
PY: Cool-looking people make for good pictures. I love radiant skin, strange or interesting features, and freckles are always a plus. Mohawks are good, and so are mullets and comb-overs. I don’t like caps in photos, and there was a plethora of cap-wearers in Aggieland. I didn’t ask subjects to remove them, though. I try to document people as they are.
texasmonthly.com: Have you ever been photographed professionally yourself? Would you ever want to be on the other end of the camera?
PY: I was once photographed by the great Michael O’Brien. He had me stick my thumbs in my pocket John Wayne-style. I don’t mind being photographed. That said, I’m just like everyone else. I don’t want the pictures to come back ugly.
texasmonthly.com: What’s next on your docket?
PY: I’m shooting a couple of Dallas Mavericks at their homes. I love seeing real-life bling, not that fake stuff at the mall.