Probably one of the few photographers who still uses film to shoot, Nguan has been uploading pastel-y, intriguing shots of the city on his Instagram account. The film and video production graduate from the Northwestern University Illinois has produced several photobooks, with the most recent one being How Loneliness Goes, which was presented at last year’s M1 Fringe Festival as a solo exhibition. We talk to him about his progress, the tools he uses, and what goes into a shot.
What got you into photography?
I moved to New York after graduating from film school. I started taking pictures of people and things I came across, as a way of making notes for screenplays that I intended to write. I never wrote those scripts; instead, I decided that the isolated fragments of time that I gleaned for my photographs were interesting in their own right, and possibly truer than stories with beginnings and endings.
What do you look for in a shot?
I used to think that photography was about waiting for things to unfold, but more and more I feel it’s a process of recognition—a process of recognizing something of myself in the world. My images reflect how I feel or what I want to say.
What do you do to get that pastel-y quality in your images? Did you use any special equipment?
I use a mechanical Fuji camera from the early 90’s, and shoot exclusively on medium format film.
You use the square format a lot.
Because there is less room in a square, you have to select the elements you include within it more carefully. I seek a strong formal quality for my “Singapore” photographs, and there isn’t a shape more formal than a perfect square.
You say you like Brutalist architecture, and you use directional lines to frame your shots.
I suppose I’ve always had an appreciation for architecture. My father was an architect, and at the time I was born he was working on a building in the heart of Singapore that is now one of our major Brutalist structures. I used Singapore’s distinctive vernacular architecture as both scenery and supporting cast in my book How Loneliness Goes. The book is secretly dedicated to my dad.
What do you want to show about Singapore?
Many people–even locals–think of Singapore as being somewhat staid and sanitized. That’s not necessarily an unfounded impression. But I want to assert in my pictures that this is a city risen out of a jungle; wild vines burst forth from cracks in her asphalt. I see Singapore as a country whose true nature cannot be paved.
What’s the best thing someone has said about your work?
The great Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson once said to me, “Nguan, there’s something so alive about all of your work. But I don’t know what it is.”
You can view more of Nguan’s work on his website here and at SAM’s ongoing exhibition, titled, “Once Upon This Island“.