Most of photographer Natalie Yang’s work is created in bathrooms, bedrooms and other private spaces. Dismantling concepts of intimacy and sexuality, the 23-year-old Californian has spent just under a decade documenting female communities and coming-of-age stories through a deeply personal lens.
“I lived with five of my best friends for about four years in this very special house that acted as the centre of our lives in sleepy Santa Cruz,” says Yang of her beginnings as a photographer. “It was where we slept together, ate together, everything… We also all worked together at the local grocery store a block away. A lot of my work during this time was very personal in the sense that I was essentially just documenting my life within this extremely femme-centric home my friends and I had created.”
From honing her craft in a very intimate and personal manner, the photographer recently made the move to New York. With that location change came a shift in focus and style. “My work still holds important elements of this time period in its soul, but since moving to New York, I have definitely zoomed in and focused more on very particular elements in which I wanted to further make work around. As I’ve grown my work has become much more intentional.”
This year, the artist is looking to take her work into real-life spaces, translating her hefty online presence into tangible experiences. Next up, an exhibition at Soho’s Axel Arigato in March.
Undine Markus: How old were you when you first picked up the camera and how has your preferred subject matter changed since then?
Natalie Yang: I started playing around with photography when I was sixteen or seventeen, but it wasn’t until I was nineteen that I knew taking photos is what I wanted to do with my life. Growing up in California with so much access to nature…my work is rooted in the relationship between figure and feeling. A lot of my work is based on my close relationships, which at the time were with other young women. I lived with five of my best friends for about four years in this very special house that acted as the centre of our lives in sleepy Santa Cruz. It was where we slept together, ate together, everything… We also all worked together at the local grocery store a block away. A lot of my work during this time was very personal in the sense that I was essentially just documenting my life within this extremely femme-centric home my friends and I had created, while also becoming a woman and figuring out what that meant to me. My work still holds important elements of this time period in its soul, but since moving to New York, I have definitely zoomed in and focused more on very particular elements in which I wanted to further make work around. As I’ve grown my work has become much more intentional.
Undine: Your work negotiates concepts of intimacy and femininity, often times zooming in on domestic environments. How did you first arrive at the idea of capturing individuals in such private spaces?
Natalie: I lived in a house with five or six of my best friends for four years. We shared clothing and basically everything else. Living in a communal space like this, it came naturally to make work about it. So much of my life before I moved to New York was centred around this house we lived in, called Clay house. We always had friends crashing with us, friends camping in our backyard, constant company. Clay house was the centre of our lives, I think each of us made it ‘home’ in our own individual ways. We built this intimate space together and photographing it was so special. It was a beautiful time period in my life that I will be forever grateful for.
“It’s all about respect and communication – checking in with subjects to make sure they’re comfortable and opening the communication in the very beginning by letting them know that their comfort comes first.”
Undine: Who do you like to photograph?
Natalie: I am drawn to photographing people I’m personally close with. Since moving to New York, I definitely look for interesting characteristics in a new face – and I am drawn to mellow energy. My favourite subjects to shoot will always be my friends and lovers.
Undine: How do you go able building that sense of trust and comfort with your subjects?
Natalie: Being a young woman of colour, I am always aware of how much space I am taking up, I am always aware of my position in a space. As someone who photographs predominantly other women and femme-presenting people, I make it a priority to be sure that whoever I am photographing is comfortable and at ease. It’s all about respect and communication – checking in with subjects to make sure they’re comfortable and opening the communication in the very beginning by letting them know that their comfort comes first.
Undine: Tell us more about your long-term project surrounding underwater portraits. How many have you captured so far?
Natalie: I started working on this project nearly a year ago. I’d like to photograph around fifty or so people before I fully publish the series. I think I’m about halfway. The first few months I was in New York I felt super lost in my work, I couldn’t figure out how to make work that felt like me in a city environment. Of course, now I’m more adjusted, but this series became a way for me to maintain a natural element. These portraits are all shot in bathtubs, confined spaces – kind of how I feel about cities, but I find great comfort in the water, even if only in a tub.
Undine: As you have matured, so have the girls around you. From capturing teenage dreamland to documenting the female form, what do you view as the main cues that inspired you to take your work to the next level?
Natalie: As I mentioned, as I’ve grown up, so has my work. It’s a natural progression that I pay close attention to. I started making work surrounding women because I was trying to grasp what that meant to me personally as I grew into one. I cherish my old work, it is so special to me but it isn’t as relevant in my life now. I’m not eighteen anymore. A lot of maturing and learning is understanding that your world is absolutely not everyone else’s world. I hold a responsibility to make work that is genuine to my own truth as a young woman of colour while also acknowledging that I have an extreme amount of privilege in the visibility I have. I think about how I can exercise my craft to put on for other people of colour, how can I use my own space and platform to create more space for QTPoC [queer trans people of colour] who are afforded little to no space.
Undine: You have recently started to photograph men. How are you balancing the two at the moment?
Natalie: When I first started shooting, I was exclusively photographing women. I was in high school and it just happened that in my own personal experience, most of the people I spent my time with were other teenage girls. My work has changed with me, as I’ve grown up and with my surroundings as they have changed. My work now is less about my personal life than when I was younger. Of course, my work is still extremely personal to me, I’ve just found that as I’ve gotten older, my work is much more intentional.
Undine: You’ve had a few recent exhibitions, how was that transition from digital to physical spaces?
Natalie: I curated my first show last August at Lubov Gallery in TriBeCa. I wrote a short story about a dream I had many years ago and this served as the guideline in regards to the kind of work I was hoping to bring together. It was a beautiful experience and having a physical space to build a show around was so special. I have mixed feelings about the online realm, I think it acts as a great platform for young artists who are trying to get their work into the world. However, this same platform is infinitely over-saturated with recycled ideas. I think showing work in physical spaces is so important.
Follow Natalie’s work here.