Digital degeneration

LA photographer and pro-skater Jerry Hsu captures everyday absurdities on his phone camera
By Stevie Cannell | 9 May 2019

LA photographer and pro-skateboarder Jerry Hsu began his blog, NAZI GOLD, in 2009. A curated feed of cell phone photos combine with classic photography and film to spotlight Hsu’s sharp-wit and flair for capturing life’s ironies and absurdities: from polemic religious slogans to fish guts and dogs hanging out of cars. Now, these images have been collated into a new book by Hsu titled, The Beautiful Flower Is the World – taken from a mistranslated tee he spotted in China.

For Hsu, this shift from digital to the physical represents an opposition to degradation. “Every time you take something off the internet and send it to someone and they send to someone else, there’s a degradation that happens over time,” he tells us below. “I just wanted to experiment with that by making it a book, that way I would stop that degradation.”

Revelling in the coincidental and instances of human silliness, Hsu holds a hand-held lens up to society and translates the amusing banality that accompanies the sublime of the everyday.  


Stevie Cannell: You mention a desire to “transcend the limitations of a terrible phone camera,” what made you want to publish these images in a physical book format?
Jerry Hsu: The theme of these photographs is their purpose is to be sent digitally, and when you do that they degrade. Every time you take something off the internet and send it to someone, there’s a degradation that happens over time. I just wanted to experiment with that by making it a book, that way I would stop that degradation. These images had such a frenetic life being shared over and over again, so I just wanted to stop it and immortalise them. It also has something to do with the title, which comes from a t-shirt made in China. It’s a mistranslation of an American saying and that linguistic degradation kind of mirrors that of the photos.

SC: Do you think taking them out of that cyber format alters them at all – does it elevate them?
JH: I think there is a resolution hierarchy in photography where, supposedly, the higher the resolution is, the more importance it has. I believe that to an extent, but I also believe that there’s an importance in a ‘poor image’ too. You don’t really have to abide by that ideal, but as an artist, putting something in a book just seemed like the highest honour I could grant the work. I also just wanted to see what it would feel like on the page. [Because] digitally they have this look by which you can tell they are poor images, but they don’t pass the threshold of difficult to look at. They have a really low-quality but do not pass the horizon of bad – they are on the cusp of it and I really enjoy that.

“A lot of it has to do with timing and being at the right place. And luck basically, dumb luck.”

SC: How did you curate the images in the book?
JH: It’s interesting because the first time the photos were ever shown was in a chronological blog. I never really looked at this body of work as a whole until this book project presented itself. To edit the book, I printed out thousands of four by six images and we just went through them on the floor and started to notice themes. For example, there are two chapters in the book where it’s all word humour or word absurdities. So like, a sign that someone is quickly making that doesn’t make sense or something religious; a sign that says something like ‘fast divorce’ or something like that. I always document those types of things and always enjoy getting stuff like that from my friends.

SC: Do you think the ubiquity of camera phones have impacted photographic styles at all?
JH: Definitely. I think it’s really affected patience, and with artwork and photography patience is very important. I feel a lot of things take time for you to understand whether it’s good or not, whether it should be shown or not. You need to mature at the same time, and so the platform of you being able to share images (and the pressure to do it all the time) really affects what you do with imagery and what you shoot. I am guilty of it too. I am traditionally a 35mm film photographer, but sometimes I find myself shooting with my phone just to share it – that’s a very weird feeling. 

SC: Many of the scenes featured seem to capitalise on coincidence.
JH: That’s something I want to focus on in all my photography. A lot of it has to do with timing, being in the right place and luck, basically, dumb luck. So it’s not something I wanted to focus on its just an extension of what I do already.

SC: Have you started to notice these absurdities more and more as you continue to capture them?
JH: I think so, yes. People often ask me ‘how do you see this stuff?’ and the answer is because it’s everywhere. The more I think about these types of things, the more I see them in life. It’s like when you see a car you want to buy, then all of a sudden you see it everywhere.

SC: How often do you tend to use your camera phone?
JH: All day long, from taking notes to photos of my cat, my wife, everything that’s around me. I use it a lot, too much probably.

The Beautiful Flower is the World by Jerry Hsu is published by Anthology Editions and available for purchase here on 21st May and for pre-order from 12th April. 

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