Natalie Yang, self-portait, 2016
Preface: I’ve been in awe of the artists in my life for quite a while. Liz suggested I reach out to some of them with a new recurring column I’m calling IDOLS.
I met Natalie Yang at an art show in Los Angeles. She told me she liked my shirt, I told her I liked her outfit too. I think that’s how most female friendships are born. She took my photo and we swapped numbers and made plans to drive around Malibu with the windows down and dewy iced coffees. I think I fell in love. Natalie’s photography is powerful in its vulnerability. She takes photos of her friends, of herself, of the scenery around her home in Santa Cruz. The most understated of her photos are her own self-portraits, diffused with natural light, on soft beds or steamy showers. Each one strong. Each one sensitive. On our drive along the PCH, Natalie told me about some backlash she’s gotten from publicizing her own nudity. From making her body part of her art. She’s been shamed by mothers (not hers), by strange men, by her own female peers. Online and off. By email and instagram comment, public and private. All the while, curating her own collective of artists who don’t give a shit. Natalie let me interview her for my first installment of IDOLS. See more of her work @littlesunday or online at littlesunlady.tumblr.com.
I wanted to interview you primarily because you're an incredible photographer. Secondarily because we've had some really meaningful discussions about photography and posting nude photos online, and I wanted other people to be able to access your insight. Do you remember the first nude you posted online and why you chose to post it?
The first nude self portrait I ever posted was last June. I remember it very clearly - I took it in the bathroom of a house in LA that I was staying at. At the time I was going through a lot of really big changes, I had just moved to LA for the summer, I had just gotten out of a long term relationship and I had never felt so free. I have been shooting nude portraits of my friends for almost three years now, the first series of nude portraits I ever shot was in the Mojave desert. I had never felt comfortable enough in my own skin to shoot self portraits but last June I finally felt ready to be both the artist and the muse. For the most part my friends are my subjects. Spending so much time behind the camera documenting/communicating how incredible they all are helped me learn how to be comfortable in my own body as well. They are my greatest influences and my greatest loves.
Natalie Yang, self-portait, 2016
Do you recall any particular backlash, either internal and external, that you received?
Yes. A day or two after I posted my first nude self portrait, I received an email from a woman I used to know, a woman I used to trust and even look up to. In the email she had attached my photo and written "Yuck" underneath. That's all it said. When I received it my heart sank and I had a panic attack. At first I felt very hurt that someone who had been a present part of my life for a long time could be so judgemental. After processing my feelings, I became very angry and wrote her back. I explained to her that slut shaming is never okay and that her ignorance would not be tolerated. I would not let her bully me and make me feel bad. I felt so strong for standing up for myself.
I definitely know that feeling of being judged and feeling panic set in. I think it's incredibly brave to post nude portraits, and you're one of my favorite artists who continually does so even against the backdrop of shitty public shaming. I'm always shocked to see how many women are still putting other women down in order to build themselves up. Obviously there are a lot of constructs at play in terms of how women treat each other. Do you find most negativity towards your portraits are from other women?
It can be really upsetting, but I am learning how to have thicker skin and to understand that not everyone is going to have the same views as I do. To me, the most negative response to my portraits comes from the voyeuristic aspect. I hate that I can't fully control who sees my work, especially on the internet. I get creepy messages from gross men all the time, but I also get messages almost everyday from people telling me that my work has helped them become more comfortable in their own skin.
That's amazing. I just saw you're calling for submissions for a new zine focusing on self-portraits. Can you tell me about it?
Yes! I just started my winter quarter at school and in one of my classes our final project is to create a publication. So much of my influences come from my friends and my peers so I thought it would be fun to create a collaborative zine. It's called I Can Be My Own Muse Now, I am interested in opening a discussion about feminist culture on the internet. How self portraiture (specifically through photography) in the digital world has created a space for connection, how it has enabled us to support/encourage both ourselves as well as each other through communicating self love/self exploration/growth and how this conversation translates into the physical world. With this project I would like to primarily focus on self portraits in which our physical selves are present in the space of the image.
I have been thinking a lot about women and space lately, my three friends and I have this group text because we're trying to have an art show together and the four of us have been talking about the idea of women taking up space. That sounds vague but I started thinking about how the internet has allowed us to create this sort of female dominated environment where we can share ideas, thoughts, feelings about the experiences of being a woman. Once we step outside our personal spaces (some of us don’t even have that) we enter a male dominated world, a space that historically was not created for us or really by us. I am hoping that this zine can become a physical embodiment of women taking up space, even though it will just be a little book I think it will still be powerful.
Natalie Yang, 2015
That's so beautiful. The internet has allowed so many people to connect but it has also become a vessel for (often anonymous) hate. It's an interesting dichotomy. Where do you see yourself and the art world in a few years from now? Still male dominated?
I have no idea where I'll be! hopefully happy and making a lot of art. I feel like big things are happening in the art world, I am so grateful that I get to be a young female artist right now. I have connected with so many other young women doing badass things and making incredible art (including you) and it makes my heart feel so full.
Aww I feel the same way! Most of my favorite artists right now are also Asian-American. I know as I get older I see my own work reflecting my Jewish heritage more and more and I'm wondering if your many cultural identities play a role in your photography or how you see yourself as your own muse?
They are beginning to more and more with each day. I grew up in a predominantly white community and I have always been one of at most two or three non-white friends in all of my friend groups since I can remember. It's strange for me because I don’t feel super connected to my Chinese heritage but at the same time my non-whiteness has definitely affected my life and as I'm getting older I’m coming to more and more realizations about what that means and how exactly it has affected me. I am learning how to love where I came from, how to love my thick dark hair that I used to hate, how to reject and call people out when they make passive comments at me that are low key racist/sexist/prejudice.
I was watching a Miley Cyrus interview recently where the talk show host asked how her dad felt about her being naked all the time. And Miley said he didn't mind, that he would rather her be naked and a good person than not naked and a shitty person. I really liked that because people are always assuming that if you're a woman and you're naked that you have "daddy issues" or a bad upbringing. I don't agree with that narrative at all. Does your family know about the nude elements of your photography? Do they support you?
Yes they do, my mama follows me on Instagram and my dad looks at it from his computer everyday, haha. They support me so much more than I ever thought they would. When I first starting shooting nude portraits of myself they weren’t thrilled about it but once I explained my perspective and my reasoning to them they told me they understood. I think they can see that I really care about my art and I am committed to my craft, and they see that it makes me happy.
Natalie Yang, self-portait, 2016
Do you recall what you said when you “explained your perspective?"
We talk about it all the time, which is something I really value and love. I don’t really remember what I said to them initially but it was something along the lines of I don't care if this "compromises" future job opportunities and I don’t care what other people think about this because if someone were to see my nude portraits and not hire me, or if someone were to see my nude portraits and call me a slut or whatever...those aren't the type of people I want to be working for or be friends with. My parents understand where I'm coming from, the biggest concern they have is that I have a lot of creeps contacting me and cyber stalking me.
Where you think that hate comes from? Why do you think so many people feel the need to contact you about your portraits?
I think it comes from ignorance and fear. Sometimes I read the comments on my self portraits on Instagram and it’s just crazy to see how freaked out and mean people get about a photo of period blood or a photo of me crying. People act like these two things are just so unacceptable to be putting online or to be making art out of and it’s honestly just frustrating and sad. I get these little boys and sometimes even other girls saying I’m gross for taking photos of myself with bloody panties but it’s sad because they only think this because they've been conditioned to. Every single day I'm unlearning just as much as I'm learning. Trying to teach myself to undo all these bullshit ideas that have been slammed into my face since forever. I'm not being very articulate right now but I hope that makes sense.
It makes perfect sense! Who are some of your favorite artists right now?
Right now I am finding myself the most inspired by my friends! Lula Hyers, Genevieve Gnollinger and Alix Vernet are the three artists I was talking about earlier - the ones I've been talking to about women taking up space. Each of them has been inspiring and influencing me a lot. I have also been incredibly inspired by the Art Hoe Collective which is a platform for art created by and for QPOC. I have learned so much from the work that this collective publishes.
Awesome! I'll make sure to link to that stuff. Ok final question, what would current Natalie tell teen girl Natalie if she could go back in time?
I would tell her to accept the lows, to tough it out because without the lows there are no highs. I would tell her when she's going through a low to not be impulsive, recklessness is fun in theory but hardly ever ends well.