Asian Reporter Info
PROLIFIC PHOTOGRAPHER. Photographs by University of Oregon alumnus and acclaimed photographer Russel Wong are currently on view in "The Big Picture," an exhibit on display through August 19 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon. The exhibit, Wong’s first at his alma mater, features more than 30 images, including early photographs such as "Joan Chen, Los Angeles, USA," a pigment print taken in 1989. (Photo courtesy of the artist)
From The Asian Reporter, V22, #09 (May 7, 2012), pages 15 & 19.
Works by photographer Russel Wong featured in Eugene
Photographs by University of Oregon alumnus and acclaimed photographer Russel Wong are currently on view in "The Big Picture," an exhibit on display through August 19 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA) in Eugene, Oregon. The exhibit, Wong’s first at his alma mater, features more than 30 images from the artist’s wide swath of photographic subjects, which include track stars, celebrities, landscapes, and images for film.
Wong’s character studies, movie-related stories, publicity photos, and evocative landscape photographs give viewers a rarefied glimpse of compelling people and places. The exhibit includes early photographs of Michelle Yeoh, Jackie Chan, Yo-Yo Ma, Joan Chen, and others, in addition to a series of landscapes made during his work on movie sets in China.
Considered the "Richard Avedon of Asia," Wong strives to distinguish his portrait work by re-defining and re-styling glamorous figures with depth, texture, and imagination. Wong was the first Singaporean to break into the Hollywood film and recording industry, and in addition to a star-studded roster of A-list sitters, he was recently commissioned to produce formal photographs of Singapore’s former prime minister.
Wong entered the University of Oregon in 1978, just in time to capture Track Town’s golden age on film. His early sports photography is a who’s who of Oregon running icons, and sparked the artist’s prolific career as a celebrity portraitist and commercial photographer.
Though he wasn’t on the track team, Wong was such a regular at the school’s Hayward Field that he often rubbed elbows with his track idols. Wong came to Oregon from Singapore at age 16 with an analog camera his father had taught him to use. Soon he was taking it to the track, where he caught athletes such as Carl Lewis and Henry Rono in action.
"I didn’t have training, I didn’t have a pass," said Wong. "I was jumping fences and lying to the marshals. It was quite fun that way. I got kicked out a couple times, but it was all worth it. I got my shots."
The rookie photographer soon caught the attention of Nike, and would swap photos for shoes. His first big break came when his shadowy, dramatic portrait of Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe made the cover of Track & Field News in 1982. His foray into portraiture marked the beginning of the end of his career in sports photography.
"I was shooting sports all the time, but I noticed that I enjoyed shooting the portraits of athletes when they were sitting down, contemplating. That’s portraiture," Wong said. "I wanted something with more control, where I could design and conceptualize. That got me more into fashion photography."
Wong said the dramatic shadows and dynamic poses he uses in his portraiture stem from this early work.
"A lot of the portraits I do have some movement. I was able to train my eye to see something in a split second, to see the movement," he said. "I had one crack at it when the runner touched the tape. If I never did sports, I don’t think I’d be shooting the way I do."
After a return to Singapore for national service, Wong attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles to pursue a degree in photography. He worked for the Elite Modelling Agency and started receiving high-profile assignments from the Los Angeles Times magazine. Jackie Chan, Joan Chen, Michael Jackson, Oliver Stone, and other famous faces filled his portfolio.
In 1989, Wong returned to Singapore and started his own commercial studio. He has since shot for Time, Fortune, Elle, GQ, The New York Times, and Vogue Singapore. He also did promotional work for the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which led to work on several major Asian films. He’s now planning on writing and directing his own film.
Today, Wong still watches Duck games and keeps in touch with old college friends. He hasn’t forgotten where his career started.
"Everything ignited in Eugene," he said. "It’s kind of random. People get shocked by it, because they’re like, ‘What? You started there in that small town?’ I think it’s kind of cool."
"Russel Wong: The Big Picture" is on display through August 19 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, located at 1430 Johnson Lane in Eugene, Oregon. The museum is open 11:00am to 5:00pm Tuesday through Sunday with extended hours until 8:00pm on Wednesday. To learn more, call (541) 346-3027 or visit <jsma.uoregon.edu>.