With a portfolio featuring some of Asia’s biggest cinematic icons, photographer and director Wing Shya is one of Asia’s best-known artists.
Discovered by Wong Kar Wai after seeing his student work, Hong Kong artist Wing Shya made his name as an on-set stills photographer on some of the most iconic film productions of the late 20th century.
After studying in Canada and returning to his native Hong Kong in 1991, Wing realised that an entire world of intoxicating neon lights and dimly lit interiors lay before him, waiting to be documented. Having previously overlooked the possibilities of his home, time away had refreshed his perspective and he now found the medium of photography apt for capturing the rich textures of Hong Kong.
“I love the extremely strong, contrasted colors of the late 80s and early 90s,” he explains. “When I moved back to Hong Kong from Vancouver in 1991, I thought ”Wow, this is so noisy!’ People talked too loud, and the colors – they were so crazy.”
Wong Kar Wai, seeing Wing’s rich collages, and recognising his unique eye for composition, invited the photographer to shoot stills in Argentina for the 1997 Palme d’Or nominated film Happy Together.
“I was out on the street most of the time, because my apartment was too small, so I would go out every night and spend a lot of time talking to the youth who hung out there. I picked up a camera and I thought, well maybe I’ll just shoot it noisily, with lots of contrast, because this is what Hong Kong is.”
The inexperience Wing showed up on set without a soundproof box for shooting so was restricted to shooting in between takes, since the shutter on his camera was too loud.
As a result, a new, behind-the-scenes narrative evolved, free from the constraints of script or direction, with a different, more relaxed chemistry between the lead actors.
Wing recalls the lessons he learned from Wong Kar-Wai: “He would never give up. He would keep shooting and really believed in each movie. It wasn’t about technique or art direction – it was about attitude.”
Wing and Wong’s relationship became almost telepathic during the shooting of Happy Together that the pair later worked together on In the Mood for Love, Eros and Acting Out.
In a country that prides itself on technical proficiency, Wing’s haphazard and instinctive methodology goes against the grain. The happy accidents arising from Wing’s technical mistakes perfectly reflect the romantic moodiness which Wong Kar-wai evokes so delicately in his films.
Wing said of his practice: “I change my direction regularly. It can be very sudden. I’m a very moody person. I find the traditional a little bit boring…”
Having legendary actors such as Tony Leung as his models has helped Wing’s rise to fame, but since working with Wong Kar-Wai he has gone on to become an auteur in his own right, shooting some of the region’s top talent and collaborating with designers and magazines on meticulously staged campaigns. He has also been exhibited in a solo retrospective at the Shanghai Centre of Photography as well as having released various books and is included in collections at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
Wing’s photography is immediately distinctive with its heavy grain and saturated tones, and a sense of suspended uncertainty which exists in the moments between fiction and reality.
His early lack of technical proficiency is superseded by a clear understanding of mood and emotion. Capturing the imperfections of urban life in Hong Kong, it is this understanding of a metropolis’ idiosyncrasies that offers any city-dweller sympathy in their day-to-day lives.
“When I take a photo, at that moment, I fall in love.
If I keep my distance, I keep that fresh feeling.”
All images © Wing Shya