Written by JoAnne Tobias
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagrams by Gil Andrei Fontimayor
If today is Tuesday, this must be Bangkok. Not that photographer Jonathan Tay wants to tour the world in 21 days or less, but when the demand for your work is global, borders tend to blur. Based in Singapore, Tay gets pulled in to ad campaigns by art directors throughout Asia’s burgeoning markets, not to mention regularly running with the big dogs in Europe and the United States.
Most recently, Tay’s unique look brought him from the production houses in China and back across the Pacific. San Francisco ad agency DDB needed a clean, surreal vibe for its Clorox campaign. “I think I’m known as a photographer who is able to break an idea into an image,” says Tay, noting that in this global age distance doesn’t present as many barriers. “If the creative team believes in a photographer they try to get him over.”
For Tay, this means contributing to Thailand’s innovative commercial work, or riding the whiplash-fast ad scene that is developing in China. “They used to be a fairly closed market, but now they have opened up a bit and they have almost all of the big brands and big agencies,” says Tay.
A sought-after international photographer, Tay notes that each region has its unique challenges and rewards. “Singapore is a pretty open market, photographers from everywhere come to try it out. It’s a very encouraging market for younger photographers from overseas. I think (globalization) is a good interaction and a good challenge rather than a threat.”
For the Clorox campaign, Tay needed to transform urban grit into a pristine environment.
“When you imagine an inside of a train as all white it can give you an Odyssey 2001 feeling,” says Tay. Still, he needed to keep some of the train’s details in black to keep it believable. The image is a composite of two photos, one of the background and one of the talent. Tay shot both images with a Rollei 6008 using an emotion 75 digital back and an 80mm lens. The exposure was f/11 at 1/125th of a second for the talent shot and f/11 at 1 second for the background; in both cases the camera was set to 50 ISO. Separate lighting setups were used for each shot (see diagrams).
Although Tay was commissioned by a West Coast agency, the shoot take place in Brooklyn, an urban environment he’s more familiar with. “We figured New York would be the easiest place to shoot it,” explains Tay. Not only are East Coast trains aesthetically ideal, but Tay was extremely familiar with New York.
Originally a fashion photographer in Singapore, Tay discovered he was more interested in conceptual photography. In 1999 he moved to New York and began shooting his high end advertising work. Although Tay has since moved back to Singapore, he’s still represented in New York and frequently returns.
Celebrated as a highly conceptual artists, Tay’s work resonates across several time zones. Even though each market has a different need, Tay won’t create separate portfolios for each culture. “I can’t please everyone in every region,” says Tay. “I don’t think it is advisable for any photographer to created a book to suit a certain market.”
Tay fuels his personal work by focusing keenly on whatever corner of the world he happened to have set up his tripod. The gingerbread man series, for example, stemmed from his thoughts on Asia’s caste like system of identification. “I think the ideas came from studying my own environment. It has to be a matter that has been disturbing me or inspiring me for a while.” With this heady stew of imagination, technical savvy and a current passport, Tay has become an emerging portrait of globalization’s potential for success.
Tay was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Who commissioned you to create our featured image?
Tay: The Clorox campaign was commission by DDD in San Francisco for press and posters in the North American region.
F STOP: Where did you find the location and how did you execute the production of the shoot?
Tay: After we were given the visual from the agency we went to the MTA museum in Brooklyn. We figured New York would be the easiest place to shoot it. We wanted to see if we could paint or change the whole train white; we wanted to change the whole environment. When you imagine an inside of a train as all white it can give you an Odyssey 2001 feeling. We were trying to achieve a train that’s totally white and sparkling clean. We did a couple of exposures to work on different tonal values that we had, because every color that’s in the train is going to have a different tonal value when we change it to black and white. We tested the tonal values to make sure that we were able to achieve white without losing the detail and we changed the color in post. We thought it was necessary to leave some of the train details black so the whole thing didn’t look too retouched.
F STOP: How long did the retouching take?
Tay: It took my artist about 10 hours total.
F STOP: Why do you think the client picked you for this job?
Tay: I think I’m known as a conceptual photographer, a photographer who is able to break an idea into an image.
F STOP: Where are you from originally?
F STOP: How long have you been shooting?
Tay: I started at 18, so about 14 years. I started as a fashion photographer in Singapore, shooting mainly fashion editorial. I later switched over to advertising photography because I became more interested in conceptual work. In 1999 I switched to advertising and moved to New York. I stayed there for three years. At the moment I’m staying a lot in Asia where my production house is, but, I’m still represented in New York and do come back quite frequently.
F STOP: Are you happy that you made the switch to advertising from fashion?
Tay: Definitely. It was a good break for me when I changed to advertising. Advertising was a totally different dimension and I started doing a lot of conceptual work on a personal basis around the same time.
F STOP: So you started out in Singapore, lived in New York for three years, and now you’re back in Singapore. The world economy and advertising as a whole has changed quite a bit since then, tell me a little bit about what it’s been like to see that change from your personal perspective.
Tay: I haven’t lived in New York enough to know how big a change there was in the international scene. Asia-wise, it definitely evolved technically. I spent more than half of my career shooting on film. So I when I changed to digital it was a little bit a battle and try to figure it out. Trying to feel secure with my tool and continuing to create and benefit from the evolution of the technology was kind of a battle. At the same tine, the technological scope has expanded. Eight years ago I would not imagine that we would be able to email something over to the agency and get a response so quickly. It makes the world a lot smaller and makes us able to work in numerous countries and cultures quickly. It’s definitely been a good thing.
F STOP: Do you think ad agencies in the United States and Europe are going towards Asia more now than they have in the past?
Tay: I can’t deny that the jobs in Asia have not compared to what I’ve seen or experienced in Europe and U.S. For them to be able to use any of the agencies, I reckon they have a strong sensibility that they couldn’t find in that region. It’s about the photographer, rather than the region where the photographer is from.
F STOP: Do you think the location of a photographer matters less to ad agencies than it did before?
Tay: Well, at the moment I find that almost every agency in the world seems to have really tight deadlines. So I think that would definitely affect their decision if they are trying to use a photographer too far away, but it depends on the job. If the creative team believes in a photographer they try to get him over.
F STOP: Does most of your work come out of the Singapore market or out of other international markets?
Tay: I work a lot in my region, so Singapore work is a small percentage of what I work on. Most of my work comes from the Asian region and some of it comes from Europe and U.S. It’s evenly spread out in different countries around the world. Asia accounts for about 70% of my work.
F STOP: There has been a lot of really impressive work coming from Thai agencies, tell me what you think about that market.
Tay: I think the good thing about their ads is that they have stayed true to their own culture and are able to translate that quite clearly without trying to be pretentious, doing work that is not them or trying to be international. In Asia agencies have a tendency to stifle any creative trying to do advertisements that are local looking. In Thailand they have they their own sensibility and culturally they are extremely strong, especially with TV commercials. The TV commercial is part of their entertainment in their daily life.
F STOP: What about China? China’s obviously changed a lot over the last few years. How have you seen your work for the Chinese market change?
Tay: I have a production house in China also, so I’ve been working quite heavily in China for about three or four years, since I’ve been back in Asia. It’s my first time in the Chinese market, because they used to be a fairly closed market, but now they have opened up a bit and they have almost all of the big brands and big agencies. There is a struggle there but over the three years things have been progressing really fast. A lot of good works is coming from there and it should be an exciting market in the future.
F STOP: Is there a lot of creative work coming out of China? It’s not the same creative that’s coming out of Thailand, right?
Tay: The Thai market has been progressive in both print and TV advertisements. In Thailand all of the top creatives are actually Thai. Unlike Thailand, China is still looking for its identity because the creative over there comes from everywhere in the world. A huge percentage of them are coming from Singapore, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and Australia. There is a lot of foreign creative that is spilling its own sensibility into another culture.
F STOP:: Do you think the Chinese market is going to continue on this track and try to find it’s identity for many years? Do you think the agencies are getting closer to creating ads that are within a specific Chinese identity mindset?
Tay: I think it will still take a few more years for them to move on. That’s also due to their large market. It’s difficult for them to pin down their target audience or what kind of ads they want to do. Sometimes I think it will take a few years, but the speed that the people are learning is surprising. It’s really hard to gauge.
F STOP: Globalization has been good for photographers like you who are very talented and who are now able to work not just regionally, but internationally for European and American agencies. Are there any disadvantages?
Tay: I can’t see any disadvantages. Singapore is a pretty open market, photographers from everywhere come to try it out. It’s a very encouraging market for younger photographers from overseas. I think (globalization) is a good challenge rather than a threat.
F STOP: Are you sometimes torn between different directions crafting a portfolio for an international market?
Tay: Sometimes. For example, in Asia many clients consider me a lifestyle photographer. But in other continents they think I am a conceptual photographer. In Asia the word ‘conceptual’ doesn’t exist for a photographer. I reckon the best thing for me to do is be true to who I am. I can’t please everyone in every region. It’s important to be chosen for your niche when working internationally. There’s no way you can do something just to please a certain market or try to change your portfolio to try to suit a certain market. I don’t think it is advisable for any photographer to create a book to suite a certain market.
F STOP: Let’s talk about your personal work. You have a lot of personal work and it’s very different. There’s a lot of different subject matter and stylistic approaches. Tell me about these bodies of work.
Tay: Let’s talk about my earlier work for Gingerbread Man. I feel that there’s a lot of caste systems here in Asia, people being defined as a certain role the day they are born. I used the Gingerbread Man as a symbol. It’s a story I keep reading to my son. It’s a simple story, from a children’s book. It almost defines the kind of situation that is around the world in certain way. In my recent work, I’m interested in urban situations. I did a shoot in Shanghai where there was a silhouette of people and the background was over exposed. This kind of character is common in Asia; you can have all these people walking around. It’s about connecting the reality of the people with the environment in China. It’s about defining a kind of distance the people have with their fast evolving environment. Another recent project was to depict a rundown church as a Sistine Chapel. I called it like the church of man. It depicts the aftermath of man trying to be God. I feel like a lot of men try to control things that are out of their own power.
F STOP: Were the quotes on the wall done in post?
Tay: They were on the church walls, but I took out words like god. I took out any words that defined god because my subject matter is men. I used cranes to symbolize men, like men use a big machine and almost think they are God with big hands. Reconstructing, creating, feeling a part of power, of whatever they can do with the machinery that they make. It’s almost like the painting of the Sistine Chapel with the hands reaching out to each other.
F STOP: How did you come up with these ideas?
Tay: I think the ideas came from studying my own environment. The place where I live and the things that I see. It has to be a matter that has been disturbing me or inspiring me for a while.
F STOP: Is there an overarching theme to your personal work? Or is there a different message or goal with each body of work?
Tay: It’s pretty much specific to each project. But whenever I want to describe my work there’s only one point that I want to talk about. It stays simple when I describe my work, so usually if I’m thinking of a big picture of a situation I reduce it to a single subject that I want to talk about. Or even a single phrase. Let’s say I want to talk about inflation in my work, or even friends that are dying, I kind of filter out almost everything and try to insert the core matter inspired the part that I have and then create work from there.
F STOP: Are you working on any personal projects now?
Tay: I have a personal project that I’m working on now. I feel Asians have our own way of doing things that other people are not accustomed to. It’s kind of influenced by the contemporary artists that have been making paintings in China. Contemporary artists had the kind of work they could create dictated to them, so a lot of the work that they were doing then had to be pro-government and happy faces, always positive face. So this kind of contemporary artist started painting smiling faces. All these smiling faces were becoming famous internationally, but they were actually defining the darkness in their inner heart. The over-exaggerated smile was actually too defiant, it had the reverse effect. Now I am working on a series of Asians in cowboy suits with huge smiling faces.
2 thoughts on “Jonathan Tay”