Jonathan Blaustein interviews photographer Kurt Tong.
JB: You and I met, as I have with several people I’ve interviewed, at Review Santa Fe in 2009. I don’t think we’ve seen each other or spoken since. I’ve got to give a shout out to that class of ’09. This is right off the top of my head, but you came out of there. Susan Worsham. Jesse Burke. LaToya Ruby Frasier. Emily Shur. Ben Lowy. Susan Burnstine. (I know I’m forgetting another handful. Apologies.)
KT: It’s been fun. I’ve kept in touch with a few people from that Review as well. They’re all doing well. Kind of crazy.
JB: You went there a young guy, just trying to get his work out into the world. And in the ensuing three years you’ve evolved into a photographer with an International exhibition record, you’re represented by Jen Bekman, one of the biggest galleries in New York, you had a book published by Keher Verlag. It seems like it all came together for you in a relatively short period of time.
KT: Before Santa Fe, I had this plan to shoot a project, “In Case it Rains in Heaven,” which is the one that got published and exhibited a lot. I’d done the leg work in the two years leading up to Santa Fe. Doing the reviews. Meeting the curators. So I had my network ready. I went back to Hong Kong and shot the project, and I was able to show it to a lot of people in a very short period of time. From there it snowballed.
JB: So this was really a 5 year process for you.
KT: Yes. If I’d shot that project in 2007, before I started doing the circuit, it wouldn’t have exploded so quickly. It’s because I’d just put my foot through the door.
JB: We all have so many different things going on at the same time, it can make it difficult to give our best effort in any one avenue. You’re living back and forth between London and Hong Kong. So that must resonate with you, the struggle to be our best self.
KT: I have been working hard. Pre-2009, I was shooting a lot of events and weddings. Then that project came out, and people started taking notice. I planned an 18 month stint in HK with my family to work a different project that’s due to come out soon.
JB: What’s it called?
KT: “The Queen, the Chairman and I.” But, with what you were saying, trying to do everything at once? I didn’t. I made the decision that I would concentrate on the fine art, I didn’t do any events jobs or weddings. The benefit of that is showing. Within the last 18 months, I’ve got signed up by 3 commercial galleries, including the Photographers’ Gallery in London. I’ve had a book published, and have been working on a lot of shows. That’s a full-time job.
I think wedding photography is a full-time job. I had a wedding that I shot a year ago. A year later, the couple is still hassling me to get the album right, or get some new orders. So I had to give that up to concentrate 100% of my time on my personal work. Which involves a lot of social networking, and turning up at festivals, making book dummies.
I think that’s paid off. But at the same time, a lot of that work doesn’t pay. Which is what I’ve been struggling with.
JB: You chose to stop working for pay so you could pour all of your energy into something that wasn’t actually paying your bills. And you’ve got kids, right?
KT: In college, people hint at it, but they don’t tell you how it works. But did you see, sometime last year, Aline Smithson did a blog post about the cost of success?
JB: Yeah, I saw that. Is that what you’re dealing with now, trying to figure out how to afford to show your work around the world?
KT: Absolutely. I gave myself 2 years to shoot a new project, and really try to see if living off print sales alone could work. People tell me it doesn’t work, and I found out the hard way. I’ve been doing OK with the sales, but as Aline’s blog post suggests, every show comes with printing and framing costs, without any guarantee that you can even make your money back.
JB: It sounds like you saved up some money and saw it as a phase where you put in the time and energy now for long-term results. And now you’re two years into it, and it’s starting to hurt a little bit. Is that it?
KT: Yeah, in a sense, I’m kind of running out of money. I’d been living on print sales until August or September, and that’s when the financial markets started going a bit bad again. It is reflected. Once the stock market dropped, the print sales stopped. You realize that Art is such a luxury commodity.
JB: It’s perfect that you brought that up, because you have a solo show up right now at the Jen Bekman gallery in New York, as we speak. You came up through the ranks of the Hey Hot Shot competition. You were chosen as their Ne Plus Ultra one year. And when people think of Jen Bekman, they often think of 20×200. $10 to the artist for each 8X10 print. How does that work? You talk about surviving on print sales, but you can’t survive on $10 a pop.
KT: When I talk about print sales, I’m talking mostly about the galleries representing me. Jen Bekman has only 2 of my prints on 20×200 (2 more were launched with the exhibition). It’s only those two prints sold through her that are from $10 a pop. My other prints sell for considerably more. They range from $600 to $6000.
I think a lot of people have issues with Jen Bekman’s model, 20×200, bringing the cheap prints into the market so people don’t buy the expensive prints. But I’ve got to say, at the end of the month, they’re the only ones who guarantee me a check every month. Whether it’s $200 or $2000, they never fail to sell something. Whereas my other galleries often go through 3 or 4 month dry patches.
JB: So the fact that there are 2 images out there for very little cost is not having any adverse effect upon the higher market value of what you do?
JB: People are going to want to hear that. It’s a controversial subject, and you can only speak for yourself. But I have talked with Joseph Holmes about it in the past, who also works with them, and he’s been very positive about how the 20×200 program works too.
KT: I think it’s important what work is put onto 20×200. Obviously, they have a very strict curatorial process. They pick the best work, so as a photographer, with all the publicity it gets, it’s tempting to give them your best shots. But it’s important to put some of your best work aside.
JB: And what was the opening of the exhibition like for you?
KT: It was exciting. I had the best experience ever, last year, when I had my first museum show. That kind of spoiled me, but I had a fantastic time in NY.
In reality, I think there is a difference between having a show in New York and a show in Europe. It’s the buzz afterwards. In London, if you have a show, and you don’t manage to get the newspaper or the bloggers down at the opening, they stop talking about it, and the show just fizzles out. But in New York, a lot of people didn’t come to the opening, but since I left, it’s kept going. I think it’s a much more vibrant scene of online art critics, in New York, I find.
JB: I want to switch gears a bit. I know that you were raised in both Hong Kong and England. In one of the statements on your website, you referred to yourself an others as “Us Honkeys.”
KT: I did.
JB: So with the rise of the Internet and more affordable air travel, national boundaries seem to mean less than they used to. You’re a living embodiment of the mashup of East and West. A global citizen type. What’s your take on that?
KT: It’s funny you said that. I lived in Hong Kong until I was 13, then I went to boarding school in England, and stayed here and married here. Throughout my twenties, I saw myself as a citizen of the world. I spent a lot of time in India, and Eastern Europe. So I thought wherever I was, I was home.
It wasn’t until my daughter was born that I started feeling Chinese again. Once you become a father, you want to be prepared when your children ask you about their identity. So that’s when my work completely changed. Up until then, I wanted to travel the world, so all my projects were done out and about. Since the kids, all my work has been shot in England, Hong Kong or China. Really, I was trying to find my own identity, in a way.
JB: Do you speak any of the Chinese dialects?
KT: I do. My mother tongue is actually Cantonese. The last two years I’ve been learning Mandarin, for a couple of reasons. A., because I wanted to, and a lot of my work is shot in China.
JB: B., because you saw the writing on the wall.
KT: (laughing.) Exactly. I want a gallery in Beijing.
JB: No doubt. You’re talking about surviving on print sales. You’re no dummy. You’ve got to go where the money is.
KT: It’s interesting, actually, because a lot of the big galleries are opening branches in Hong Kong, precisely for that reason. White Cube, Gagosian. It’s definitely where the money is.
JB: Can you talk a bit about the differences between mainland China and Hong Kong?
KT: It’s hard for me to say. When I go to China, I don’t face the same scrutiny as a Westerner would. Because I don’t enter on a passport, I enter on a Hong Kong residency card. I can almost infiltrate.
JB: And unlike me, you’re not a gringo with a goatee, so you can perhaps blend in a little easier.
KT: I have no secret police following me, I don’t think. I certainly know of photographers who’ve done work in Tibet, and their room gets ransacked. But I never had that problem. Certainly, in Hong Kong, there’s lot more freedom. No doubt about it. You can openly criticize the government, which you can’t do in China.
JB: Is that something that people expect to continue?
KT: China still needs Hong Kong. Companies and now galleries like to open in Hong Kong, because things are done more legitimately. Money and Banks. There’s none of the corruption. So China needs to keep Hong Kong a certain way, but they also want Hong Kong to rely on them. A lot of the businesses and hotels and tourist industry relies purely on the Chinese tourists. So if China wanted to stop Hong Kong, they could just stop tourism. They can definitely control Hong Kong in certain ways.
JB: Do you think you’ll stay in London, or move back to Hong Kong?
KT: We’re thinking of moving back to Hong Kong, actually. It would be good for my children to learn Mandarin. And I get more work done from there, in terms of making contacts and pushing my projects, living in Hong Kong as opposed to living in England.
JB: Why do you think that is? Because China’s hot right now?
KT: No. When you’re here in England, you might know a curator, be acquainted, but they have lots to do. When I try to show my new work, I keep getting pushed further down the diary. But when I email from Hong Kong and say I’ll be in town for a couple of weeks, I tend to get the meetings. It works a lot better.
At them moment, in London, I’m struggling to meet people I know well because they’re so busy.
JB: Sometimes, we imagine that you have to be in the biggest of big markets. One of the reasons I left New York, (other than the fact that it was kicking my ass,) was that I started nosing around Chelsea, really paying attention to the CV’s in the exhibitions, and and I noticed that at least half the artists that had representation were not living in New York. They were in random and far-flung places.
It resonated with me, because I always felt like I was swimming upstream in the Big Apple. I knew if I came back to Taos, living in the mountains with the fresh air, that it was more likely that I’d make the most of myself.
KT: Living in London, my friends often get sucked into going to openings, meeting the same people. As you know, lots of photographers like to talk about themselves…
JB: Oh my goodness.
KT: So you come away from the openings completely depressed. I won’t name names, but one of my friends is a photo-journalist, and she’s so jealous of a few of the female photo-journalists that are doing well at the moment. Every time we go to an opening, they’re there, showing off, and she becomes very depressed. I’ve got to ground her a bit, and say, “If you really look at the CV, they’re not doing that well. They’re having a nice run, but you’re doing just as well.” It’s hard to distance yourself from that if you live in a city and see people every Thursday at an opening.
JB: That was what happened to me. I got really insecure, and I think that competitiveness can be incredibly destructive to one’s creativity. I’m trying to learn not to judge myself by others’ success. I want to judge myself by how hard I’m working, whether I’m growing and getting better. Learning how to avoid the problems that in the past would have tripped me up. It’s easier to say that than to do it.
KT: Very few people are living off their art. But living in a city, going to artist talks, you get the impression that they are. I think it’s important to know that’s not the case.
JB: You’re ticking all the boxes on what would be considered success, and yet you’re dealing with the same problems as all Global Middle Class citizens. How can I make enough to support my kids? How can I keep it together? Acclaim is still not equated with material success for most artists who are not already super-established.
KT: Absolutely. I went Paris Photo recently, and it is the same 8 or 10 photographers who are dominating the whole scene. It’s almost like they’re eating the main meal, and there’s another 200 photographers eating the scraps around it. And I’m not even eating the scraps.