The exceptionally talented Peter Yang has made a name for himself as one of the premiere portrait photographers of his generation. His self-effacing personality combined with an acerbic wit has landed him regular gigs with Variety, ESPN the Magazine, Men’s Fitness, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and more.
For GQ’s annual Comedy Issue, Yang was tapped to photograph five different comedians, but it was his image of Mike Judge that really caught my eye. We spoke via FaceTime because he doesn’t Skype.
You shot a bunch of portraits for the GQ Comedy Issue. How’d you land the gig?
I work with GQ a lot. Out of all the magazines [I’ve worked with], they demand the most out of you in a good way. There’s a very specific idea phase where we come up with tons of ideas, and then we present them to talent and it goes back and forth. And then it goes into production. It’s a pretty major process compared to most editorial that I shoot.
They have a relatively small pool of photographers that they work with because it’s an intense process. They must like the way that I do it – not just the photo part but the communication and process part. Out of all the stuff I do, working with them on these issues is among the most that I use my brain in photography [chuckles].
Love the Mike Judge homage to Norman Rockwell. How did you come up with the concept?
That took about 10 seconds. That picture was so obvious to me because [Norman Rockwell’s image was] literally the first painting I ever saw, or maybe the very first painting I ever remember seeing. I was born in Taiwan and I moved to the States when I was five, and I remember seeing it at a very young age and just being fascinated with it. And I don’t even think that I understood the joke that he was painting himself as a different person than what he was seeing. I just thought it was cool, and it was the first time I thought about a human reflection.
I don’t know how many people today get the reference, but on my Instagram I probably got more comments than I ever have. It kind of blew me away because I really like the photo personally, but it was definitely not something that I thought other people would like.
When it came to the actual drawing that was on the [easel], I saw it going one of two ways. One was that it was either Beavis or Butthead. And the other way I saw it was a King of the Hill version of himself. All I was sure of was I wanted a pipe in his mouth, and I left these lengthy notes to him about what angle everything was at. He chose the Butthead version.
So you came up with the concept and you run it through his publicist?
I sent it through GQ, and there were all sorts of ideas. This was one of them. One of them was definitely him doing the Cornholio, and there were some other random ideas there. And this was the one that got approved right away.
Did you get feedback from Mike Judge about the final image?
I have not. I’m never someone who’s gonna ask. You know when you’re eating a meal and someone asks, “How was your meal?” and you just have to say it was good regardless, but sometimes it just really sucks? Me? I don’t put them in that situation.
What was the lighting set-up and gear?
Film or digital? It was digital. Just kidding. No one asks that any more.
I would say the much bigger part of the shot was the set design, which resulted from finding a really great set design team and showing them the painting. And two weeks later, I got everything I asked for. In terms of the lighting, I was looking for something fairly shadowless. It was two medium softboxes above camera, straight on. I almost never use softboxes, but it was the even light that I needed. We had another light as a kicker to his face – you can see it in the mirror how there’s a bit of an edge light. I thought I could get it back from the light bouncing off the mirror and hitting him naturally but I had to supplement.
And you’re shooting medium format right?
Yeah. I actually really don’t like using medium format. Except for the file size, I kind of dislike everything about the process of it. I use the Nikon, uh, D, uh, uh, D810 pretty exclusively. [sarcastically] You can tell how much I think about my cameras.
I have a Canon 5Ds for when I need that 50MP file, but I don’t want to shoot medium format. But in this case, all this time and effort was put into the set and I was shooting on tripod. I think any time I’m locked down on tripod and I’m shooting a set, I almost always use medium format because it’s going to be the nicest file. And I also love that 3:4 crop on medium format when it comes to vertical [orientation]. But for magazines now, I shoot so many spreads where the actual 3:2 of [full-frame] is perfect. I was using a Hasselblad with an IQ250 back, and some kind of medium-ish lens setting. [chuckles].
Editorial doesn’t pay well compared to commercial, but is it fair to say that you enjoy the work?
I’m lucky to be at a point in my career where I’m only taking editorial jobs that I’m excited about. I really do enjoy the process, but the fact of it is, I couldn’t get the commercial work I get without shooting editorial. I don’t think commercial clients are inspired by Kraft Cheese ads – maybe don’t quote me on that because I would love to do a Kraft Cheese ad. It’s my favorite cheese!
Commercial clients are really inspired by editorial. Those are always the pictures that people ask about. And I feel with commercial work, there are so many cooks in the kitchen, and there are so many drawings that you’re following and people you’re talking to, that a lot of it is creating the best image you can amid a lot of constraints. Versus editorial, there’s the willingness of your subject, and a few constraints of the magazine, but by and large it’s the closest thing to my vision.
After shooting so many celebrities (including President Obama), do you still get nervous working with the talent?
I get a little nervous on every shoot. I gotta tell you though, my nerves have very little to do with the talent, and a lot more to do with my preparation and if I understand what I’m trying to get out of a photo. If I was going to take a nicely lit portrait of anyone in the world, I don’t think I’d be very nervous. But if I was going to take a funny photo of someone who doesn’t want to be funny, that drives me crazy. Or if I’m doing a concept that I don’t think is funny, but somehow this is where we’ve landed, that always makes me a little more nervous.
Who do you want to photograph that you haven’t photographed?
Just one person???
Ryan Gosling because he’s super dreamy.
I’ve always wanted to photograph Tom Waits. I’m such a huge fan of his music. Visually, he’s such an interesting looking person. He’s just this amazing looking person, and that’s someone that I’ve been trying to photograph for as long as I can remember, and it just hasn’t happened yet. He hardly does any photo shoots, but maybe one of these days.