She was jolted out of bed by a smoke alarm. Miserable with a cold, she had dozed off and left the tea kettle on the burner. Rebecca Chang‘s first thought when she saw the blazing kettle was “Where’s my camera?”. Thus began her most recent series: “Studies in K”. It is a series that encapsulates many of the elements that Rebecca has touched on throughout her career as a photographer.
Much of Rebecca’s work begins with a journalistic idea. If she is traveling abroad, the photo series begins as a chronicle of that journey. What makes her work more interesting for me, however, is the inevitable departure from that original story. The early photographs are clear photographs of people, places, things. They are easily comprehended as pictorial adjuncts to written journalism. Her photos “In Egypt” could easily accompany a National Geographic story. But then, at a certain point, her focus narrows. She starts to photograph details directly or she crops photographs, excising those details. The images no longer chronicle people, places, and things. They transcend what she is seeing; and become how she is seeing.
Another recent series of photographs illustrates this process wonderfully. Piedmont Stables started as a mini-series about workers on break in various industries. The concept was a photo-essay on who the workers were; as opposed to what the workers do. Rebecca had met a woman who worked at the Piedmont stables. They talked about this concept and it was arranged for Rebecca to start photographing workers in and around the stables. She met and spoke with the owners a number of times; conversations that led to discussions of their relationship with their horses. This led Rebecca down the path of exploring her own emerging relationship with these same horses. She went back time and time again. Sometimes she photographed. Sometimes she did not. Gradually she developed a sense of how the horses wanted to be photographed. This led to images of details of the horses; images that became, in the end, quite abstract. A series that started as a photo essay about workers became instead a series about equine nature.
With the burnt kettle, some of these steps were skipped. Certainly the image of the burnt kettle was photogenic. The early photographs in the series are simple photographs of the actual kettle in its entirety. They are an exploration of an interesting object. However, something about the kettle deeply resonated with Rebecca. She would wrap up the kettle and put it away. Then, later she would pull out the kettle and just sit with it, an object of meditation. As she began to dissect the kettle photographically, it became a conduit of artistic communication bridging a number of worlds. While attending high school on Guam, Rebecca played oboe in the Guam Symphony Orchestra and dreamed of a career as a professional musician. Re-directed by her parents into a more “practical” channel, Rebecca detoured for some years into finance. Eventually, she decided that she needed a more creative job. She studied graphic design, becoming credentialed. Photographic elements of graphic art were particularly appealing to her, with that leading her to seriously study photography. In the images of the kettles, one can clearly see the influences of her graphic arts background. More subtly, when you view the work in a series, you can also see a distinct rhythm in the works. Here is the influence of her musical interests. In fact, this is why she named the series “Studies in K”, after the concept of musical studies: “etudes”.
You can see Rebecca’s work on display with the Nocturnes tonight, Saturday and Sunday at Fort Mason. Have her pull out her “Studies in K” and listen to the visual music. You can also see her work at RayKo Photo Center in San Francisco. And, of course, you can contact Rebecca directly for a studio visit.