I first met Albert Cheung many many years ago when we both attended architecture school. He was always kind and well dressed. He fit into the image of the "New York City" student that populated the architecture school in that he not only exuded confidence, but he looked great doing it. Albert also was a very kind person. Never once did I hear him be insulting or condescending. I wish I could say the same about myself, but I suppose there is a reason I'm writing this blog of self improvement and he is not.
In short, Albert is a gentleman.
And it is with this in mind that I am proud to present him as the first interview on The Gentle Life
are the owner of Albert Cheung Photography as well as a Partner in FRAME Studios, two successful studios in New York City. Was this what you set out to do when you began your career?
I always loved photography growing up with my father's film camera, but never thought I would heading up my own studio, let alone doing this full-time to support my family. Photography was always a process to an end goal - visualizing an idea - and it was also the simplest, most democratic way to do so, aside from more complex mediums such as television and film, building physical models, etc. Prior to photography, I studied and practiced as an architect, and it will always be my favorite way to experience my love for the visual. However, photography came much easier for me.
How difficult has it been to make a name for yourself in the world of photography?
Standing out as an artist/professional in NYC is incredibly difficult and distracting. I initially chose an area of specialty with the lowest barrier of entry - weddings - because most folks need a wedding photographer once in their lives, and the industry is fairly recession-proof. From weddings, I developed a certain style that carried easy into the other commercial and editorial work I do.
Building a strong client and referral base also helped me the first few years in the business. More than ever, good reviews take you farther down the path of success, thanks to the internet.
What was your favorite wedding shoot?
I don't have one particular favorite, but in Turks & Caicos, we commandeered an abandoned rusty ship off the coastline with the wedding party. That, and a friend's wedding in Wales, where the backdrop of the mystique of castles and folklore made it quite the adventure.
I've heard that when it comes to selecting jobs, there are only three reasons to take on a project: great money, great contacts, or great art. What has been the worst project you've ever had to do in order to promote your career?
Early on, I took on some regrettable projects because they provided no money, no contacts, and no artistic sense. One of these was a startup kitchenware company, and the client wanted me to do a complete product shoot before they could decide to pay me. However, I did learn two things coming out of that - 1. How to shoot shiny objects, and 2. Contracts matter. So everything is a learning experience, post-rationally speaking.
You shoot weddings, architecture, fashion, etc. Is there anything you have not yet had the opportunity to shoot that you would want to more than anything?
Every man wants to shoot beautiful women, but that would not be "The Gentle Life" answer. I'd love the opportunity to work on more photo-documentary projects, particularly covering stories in areas with little access to the outside world.
Your educational background, and in fact the beginning of your career, was in architecture. Obviously, studying and practicing design is closely related to photography, but was it a difficult transition?
Working in architecture helps develop a strong sense of client values and presentation skills that carry on very well into any creative field. Photography was no different. I came in knowing Photoshop and Indesign, and the understanding of the nuances between lighting, materiality, and perspective carried over nicely into the sensibility of being a good photography. It was an easier transition.
I believe it is a safe bet that the gross majority of us have never been on a professional photo shoot. Much less a fashion shoot. What is the general atmosphere of a fashion shoot? Is it more professional, more party? Is this the choice of the photographer?
People tend to believe that fashion shoots are all party, but they are usually pretty intense. We're usually tied to a tight schedule with a very concise shot list, and there are many moving `pieces involved in getting the photography done well. A photographer has to distill all the factors (hair, makeup, art direction, styling, set design, lighting, schedule) into a set of solid images. We'll party afterwards, though. And they are pretty fun.
I imagine on these shoots, you are the man in charge, telling everyone what to do and where to go. Is it difficult to do this?
It took getting used to, but after doing a few shoots, you feel more confident about asserting yourself. Sometimes I see it as a sport. You're the one calling the shots and making the plays, and your team tries their best to make it happen. It fits my personality well.
How difficult is it to work with so many egos at once? Do they listen to you or do you find yourself having to coax people into things?
There are times where you have to assert yourself to get the ball rolling, and there are moments where stepping back and giving up control to others is better/easier. If it is a personal project, I will find myself micromanaging all parts of a shoot (my architect side). However, if a project is for a client's upscale apartment interior, I'll often find that I don't have to be the one in control, or else I'd be on the other side of the door.
What was your most challenging shoot?
One of my first photography assignments was capturing Cooper Union's new Academic Building in New York for the cover of a construction publication. I had to shoot, edit, and deliver in 2 hours. In addition, the sky was about to pour, the little sun I had was backlighting the building at the worst angle, and I was hanging one leg off a rooftop with no harness. I got it done though, and it is still one of my favorite architectural shots, more so because of the story behind it. It is actually a terrible photograph.
We have seen photography change a great deal in the last ten years. With the advent of the digital age, one no longer has to buy or process film, and with the number of programs available, post processing is just becoming easier. Does it bother you that so many "weekend warrior" photographers are out there trying to make themselves professional?
I actually love the fact that professional photography has gotten so accessible to the regular public with the advent of better technology. It makes competing in the space more difficult, but I find that good photography is better appreciated by the masses because of the proliferation. Because so many folks are trying to do well in it, the fact that I've done fairly well for myself lends confidence to my everyday routine. I also find it extremely humbling that there are so many better photographers than myself, and it keeps me excited to try new challenges to push myself.
Where do you see photography going in the next ten years, stylistically?
Unfortunately, I don't have a good public sense of photography for the future. It is going in two different directions. In one direction, photography from the consumer is moving towards an extremely self-driven (or #selfie driven) attitude, while the fine art community will probably push back and assert itself in a different fashion. I don't think we have an answer for this.
What has the influx of instagram and other filter based programs done to photography?
Instagram and other similar programs have democratized photography into conversations, and we have a revolution on our hands. Instagram has even upended Twitter in its power to communicate. I use Instagram daily. I don't see it damaging to the world of photography because I believe it's doing its own thing. (Albert on instagram)
What are the three most important things for a photographer to remember?
Take the time to make really good photos. Share them with the world. And be a gentleman about the process.
Thank you for allowing me to interview you. I do have one last question to ask you:
What, in your personal and professional experience, makes a gentleman?
Respect the competition. Don't take shortcuts. And value face-to-face conversations.