Interview: Photographer Patrick Tsai

I wrote a smidgen about photographer Patrick Tsai just recently in accordance of his self-published book, "Barnacle Island." I've known Patrick from his early days helping Giant Robot Magazine when we were in downtown LA in the 90s to our move to the Westside of LA. Patrick went to college at NYU and has since pursued photography. I remember him as being creative with a twist of oddity. His work appears online and includes "My Little Dead Dick" which is a blog "hit." In 2006-2007 Patrick unabashedly chronicled his relationship with photographer Madi Ju in words and pictures. This series takes you on a journey in Asia that's a romantic and cinematic masterpiece of wanderlust and love.

Of late, his work captures not only moments of his own life, but of simple Japanese island living through his omniscient images. The over used idea of "a camera being dropped in" to make record of moments, happens here. His work is able portray something mundane without needing words and still be thought provoking.

After following his work periodically for years online, I thought it was the perfect time to catch up with Patrick upon the release of his new book. The questions and answers took place over a few back and forth emails and I particularly enjoy his candor and truthfulness which well-explains his surroundings and beliefs.

You moved from Hatagaya, Tokyo to an island. What made you pick that island?

Patrick Tsai: I was hired to write and make a children’s picture book about Shodoshima one summer. I stayed for over a month and fell in love with the place.

How would a job like this arise? It sounds fairly obscure since it’s one of so many little islands.

PT: There is an arts festival here every few years. I was invited to participate in it once.

How did the change of pace affect your photography?

PT: It didn’t affect the pace, but maybe made things softer. For the book, I had to ask everyone, who appeared in it, for their permission, including children, the elderly, and the police. Unlike living in a city where most people don’t really know who you are or care about what you are doing, living on island is the exact opposite. If you don’t get consent, there usually will be trouble, so I wasn’t able to do something as edgy as I would have really liked to do since I needed everyone to say yes.

What would you have liked to do?

PT: Originally Barnacle Island began as a blog, but because writing honestly about one’s own life often crosses the boundaries into other people’s privacy, I was asked to stop, so for the book version, it is just photographs.

How’s the poodle that you decided to adopt?

PT: Genki.

Your photo includes the dates on them. I’m guessing your SLR camera does that? Is that something you’ll keep doing?

PT: It depends on the project. Since Barnacle Island is a photo diary, it helps me keep track of when things happened. In addition, people in general have a natural revulsion to it, especially people who like art since it looks very amateurish and it reminds them of their fathers taking pictures on family vacations, which is something that I think everyone hated when they were kids. So that’s why I do it - to push people’s buttons on an unconscious level and to challenge them to see if they can eventually appreciate something that they dislike.

I actually had a conversation with someone about the fact that you use it, and I think I felt the same and although I’m not a dad, I now appreciate the aesthetic and am happy to see it.

PT: Great, I am glad. Like natto (for foreigners), I think it’s an acquired taste.

Do you think you’ll move back to a city like Tokyo and then perhaps back to America?

PT: I will probably back to Tokyo one day because it is hard to make a living here as an artist, but deep down I prefer to live in a place like this.

Regarding America, I doubt I will ever move back.

What challenges does your work take on if you were to move back to America?

PT: Probably I would have to start from scratch in regards to establishing myself… And because I usually shoot film, I would probably have to quit that because I heard that there are only a few places that still do it and they are very, very expensive. But digital cameras are really good these days, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world for me.

From my outsider’s point of view, it seems like America is really obsessed with technology in contrast to Japan since Americans are always interested in the next new thing. Contrary to popular belief abroad, Japan is very slow on the uptake of these kinds of trends and changes… I think it’s because the culture is very uprooted in tradition as well as another big factor is that they are taught to not want something they don’t really need. For example, you don’t see anyone rolling around on a bluetooth hover board here.

In regards to photography, film is still going strong in Japan. 

Is it important to capture the moment and feeling of the time, or could it be simply a well composed photo or wild moment with less meaning to you?

PT: The moment and feeling are of course important, but I am also very cautious of taking explanatory pictures, which is a photograph that tells people exactly what they see with no room for thought or interpretation, so I try to shoot pictures with not just one thing going on, but hopefully two or three at the same time.

I think you mentioned heta-uma as perhaps your style, yet unlike a drawing, if a photo is reproduced and framed, it’s hard to discern heta-uma, right? I was hoping to understand how heta uma applies to your work.

PT: A lot of photographers go for perfection, so they try to compose their photos as precise as possible and make this shiny and that smooth like silk and make sure that the highlight in the upper corner is not blown out to the point where you can’t see any detail, etc., but for me that kills the very essence of art because life’s not perfect, but terribly flawed. Those flaws, which I find poetic and revealing, are what I want to capture and reflect in my work.

Yet, I can see your work looking great on a wall. Is there a print buying audience for your work?

PT: Since I am not represented by a gallery, I don’t sell prints. I focus more on making books or showcasing my work online.

Your writing seems to live well with the photography especially on a blog. A lot of photographers may choose to not contextualize their work with any more description that a title. But you go for it. Is there a reason for it versus not 

PT: At the core, I believe that art is about creativity, so instead of doing what everyone else is doing, why not try something different and see where that takes you? Just like with the date stamp, people tend to not like text with photography. I guess it is because of Henri-Cartier Bresson and other influences that the photograph - the single photograph - still feels sacred and that it is wrong to mess with purity of things. Maybe it is better not too, but life goes on. While technology and culture gets more and more complicated, there needs to be new ways to express this complication.

Most of my best works takes a lot of time to go through, but in return there is a different kind of payback than viewing traditional photography. Lots of strangers - not just photography lovers but people who normally don’t have an interest in art - write me all the time saying that they stayed up all night or spend all week going through My Little Dead Dick or Talking Barnacles because it sucked them in like a good novel, which is something that a photograph, or a typical photo book, can’t do 

It seems that you’re sort of part of this wonderful movement of Japanese photographers (whether you like it or not). Can you tell me about why there’s interest in it as a current movement? I frankly notice it at the LA Art Book Fair, otherwise I might not have noticed, sans artists like Mika Ninagawa, and the fact that the Getty Museum has worked with many females Japanese photographers.

PT: Actually I am not clumped in the Japanese photography movement. Whenever there is a book or exhibition showcasing “Japanese photographers” as the theme, all my peers/friends are always selected but I have never been invited. The reason is simple: I am not Japanese. To be fair, when the foreign art scene wants to showcase Japanese photographers/photography as well, it is the exact same thing. Discrimination or not, I don’t think my personality could fit, or prosper, in any scene even if I were invited because I have always been a loner, and I guess that’s what fuels my work (and maybe the real reason why I now live on an island) 

So does this mean each show you do is sort of an uphill battle? I see a lot going on for you and inclusion into events. It makes me think you’re included in more than I’d expect.

PT: As a photographer, I exist in a very weird place since when it comes to my art, I refuse to play anyone’s game. I just make art for the sake of making art, especially not for money, and because of this, my work sometimes gets critical praise and awards since it is very sincere, but the commercial art world won’t touch it for the exact same reason, as well as it looks too casual and unmarketable. They tend to focus on art that looks like art, so rich people will buy it.

I grew up being told that it is not cool to sell-out. Even though times have changed since then, I can’t shake it off, so for money and for a living, I find other ways to get by. 

This seems similar to the street, skate, and graffiti type of photography that’s been “hot” at least in the media I peruse. I’m not sure if it’s getting to commercial galleries or selling in the least bit. Is there a lot of that type of work in Japan as well?

Sorry, I’m not very familiar on this subject.

That's Patrick Tsai above and you can see his previous and current work at his website,


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