Interview: Step Into Bao Ngo’s Shimmering World
New York photographer-turned-music video director Bao Ngo is a master at her craft. In the age of the #influencer and banal Instagram photographs, Ngo’s artwork stands out as a bastion of photography as an artform–capturing portraits that are simultaneously challenging and gorgeous. Take a quick scroll down the artist’s Instagram page (@baohngo) and see for yourself. Ngo proves that there’s beauty yet left in the world–the photos that she captures encapsulate raw, visceral emotion while telling their own distinct stories. Her female portraits (and for the most part they’re usually female), exhibit a sense of beauty, confidence, and power which celebrate each subject. Ngo’s soft gaze allows her to frame each photo in unexpected ways, creating dynamic, breathing moments that are oftentimes provoking. It’s no wonder that her striking sense of style has created a small fanbase for her both on Twitter and understandably on Instagram.
But perhaps one of Ngo’s most high profile collaborators (and fans) is none other than New York-based singer Mitski. For Mitski’s seminal 2018 album Be the Cowboy, the musician recruited Ngo as a part of her team–together creating the now infamous swim-cap laden cover photo for the album as well as all of the promotional photography for the album. For Ngo, who makes her living as a full-time photographer, her work on Be the Cowboy was a huge milestone in her career and threw her into the public spotlight.
However, recently the artist has continued to push the limits of her art further, venturing into music video directing for artists like 88Rising musician/creative director TIN and New York-based singer-songwriter Nate Qi. But the change in artistic mediums hasn’t stopped her from returning to that sense of intrigue that permeates throughout each of her photographs. In TIN’s stylish video for “Tender”, Ngo adds splashes of vibrant red to each frame, treating each moment as a moving canvas. Hooded red figures, a colorful assortment of semis, and exquisite models form an unforgettable, eye catching spectacle. Any still from that video could easily double as another addition to Ngo’s portfolio–now brought to life by the magic of 60 FPS video. Ngo, whose work is often influenced by music, successfully manages to match the exciting, shoulder-popping vision of TIN’s song with her haunting visuals. No matter the format, Ngo can’t escape her shimmering, mysterious world.
We talked to Bao Ngo about the New York art scene, her experience working with musicians, and her thoughts on the photography industry as a Vietnamese American.
What has your experience been like working as a Vietnamese American photographer? Did you have any pushback from relatives/peers?
I can’t compare my experiences to other people’s, as mine is the only one I’ve ever known. However, I can safely say that my experience has been difficult in a lot of ways. My family is working class, and that was a huge barrier for me. Anything my middle class peers did, I had to do twenty times better in order to get only a fraction of the recognition or credit that they got. I’m proud to be Vietnamese and wouldn’t change who I am, but I also recognize that in America, industry professionals take me less seriously for being a young Asian woman. I’ve conditioned myself to worry less about what industry professionals think of me, though. My relatives and peers are generally supportive.
As a photographer, you’ve had to work with a lot of collaborators within your community. What do you look for when you are choosing who to work with? Can anybody be a subject of a Bao Ngo photograph?
I think anybody can be the subject of one of my photographs. My work really focuses on universal emotions. I want to connect with other people, even strangers, through the feelings that emerge from my photographs, so I’d like to think that I can connect with every person to some extent. My most frequent collaborators are my friends who care as much about making emotional connections through art as I do.
In the past, you’ve worked with musicians like Emilie Kahn, Emily King, Adult Mom, LYYN, and Mitski. How does music and art influence and dictate your photographic style?
Music is a major influence on my work. The photos that I take for musicians are completely inspired by the music that they make. I love to listen to an artist’s songs and/or albums and gauge what kinds of colors, lighting, and compositional forms the sounds remind me of.
What is it like working with musicians as a photographer? How much of what we see is the musician’s vision and how much of what we see is your vision?
I love working with musicians, mostly because they’re also artists, and my favorite kinds of people to work with are other artists. Generally, the process is quite collaborative, but how much of it is me and how much of it is the musician depends on the specific project. In general, I like to start by asking the musician what kind of visuals or art they are inspired by, and build on that with what I know about the song/album’s concepts and themes.
What was it like working with Mitski for the packaging artwork for Be the Cowboy? What was the story/idea behind the album cover?
Working on Be The Cowboy was such a great experience. The themes we centered the shoot around were fun to explore, but also thought provoking. Mitski is also really organized and knows what she wants, but still gave me plenty of creative freedom, and being able to work with someone who gives me that sort of balance is such a treat.
When we did the shoot, I didn’t know which one would be selected for the cover, but I took the photo thinking that it encapsulated the concept of the album quite well. It’s a little glamorous, a little strange, and hints at the idea that not everything is as it appears to be on the surface. Her direct gaze also really indicates intention, and BTC is a very intentionally crafted album.
Recently you’ve directed music videos for TIN and Nate Qi, two Asian American musicians. What has the transition into directing music videos been like? Is it different working as a photographer vs. working as a music video director?
Working as a director is definitely much different from working as a photographer, in so many ways. I feel like filmmaking requires much more time, labor, and collaboration. However, for me the transition felt natural. My photographs are very inspired by cinema. They each have a story behind them already, so I see directing as a logical path for the evolution of my career.
In this UPROXX article, you mentioned that you’d “like to see more Asian-Americans creating art that ‘just exists,’ that isn’t bogged down by a need to attract ‘white audiences.'” Could you elaborate on these statements?
For sure! I think a lot of Asian art/media in America is centered around us trying to prove that we can be like white people. We sometimes aim for our art to serve as proof that we can or have assimilated, when we shouldn’t actually have to assimilate at all. On the other hand, there’s Asian American art which is made about our identity, but the audience is primarily white, therefore we “other” ourselves for the white gaze. It’s quite voyeuristic. The situation is complicated and I have a lot of feelings regarding this. It’s hard to sum up, but I think we make our best work when we aren’t trying hard to fit ourselves inside or outside a box. We should be allowed to create with our instincts, no outside pressure.
What is the Asian American arts/music scene like in New York? Does it exist?
It does exist! It definitely exists. This is where most of my friend group comes from. Everyone is really kind and supportive, but it isn’t perfect. There is tons of underrated talent that I wish got more recognition outside of the community. There are also a lot of things that Asian American creatives, and Asian American communities in general could improve on for sure. I’d love to hear us tackle imperialism, class inequality, climate change, and antiblackness— all issues that plague our people. Making art is important, but I think communities can be made stronger by opening up discussions about the roots of our struggles, rather than just saying “oh, we are all Asian!” and ending it there.
What do you think makes a good picture?
Lighting!! Lighting is the most important thing to me for sure. And emotion.
Now that you’ve made it as a successful photographer and have directed your first few music videos, what’s next for you?
I’m honestly just trying to take it easy for now! I have a few more video projects coming up this year. I need to finish editing the video I shot for Nate Qi… I am looking so forward to that one. But for the most part, I’m just trying to focus on day to day tasks and less on a big picture.
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu via email in June 2019.
Header photo by Carianne Older.