Julia Huynh is a Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist with an interest in examining the limitations that occur from working with memory and materiality. Huynh works primarily in photography and her works are often process based through her tactile and repetitive approach incorporating mixed media. She received her BFA in Art and Art History from the University of Toronto and Sheridan College. Huynh recently completed a self-directed residency in the rural south of Viet Nam and her work has been exhibited at Photophobia, Artspace Peterborough, Trinity Square Video, and the Blackwood Gallery.
When and how did you pick up your first camera? Is there a particular photo that made you want to be a photographer?
There’s a home video of me as a baby getting annoyed at my sister pretending to take my photo and I start crying. I grabbed it from her and tried to put the camera in my mouth. I’m beginning to think this symbolizes my alternative approach to photography now… I was always interested in photography but never consider myself a photographer, and I still don’t. I struggle labelling myself and I just know that deep down, I find a great sense of joy of making artwork whether it’s to help figure out a problem or keep me excited about an idea and its process.
I can’t recall if there was a particular photo that interested me, it was really just being able to use my dad’s cameras when he’d let me as I got older. We have boxes of developed film, photo albums and a ridiculous amount of home video cassettes. I remember the car rides after getting our photos printed waiting until we got home to flip through them. I felt that was a test of true patience for being a kid. Honestly, a good weekend at home during high school would be my sister and I trying to organize our home videos watching them and labelling them. I think being able to grow up with film cameras and experiencing that transition to digital photography and how rapid that movement was, definitely had an impact on me and continues to impact me with my current desires to return to analog and explore family photography.
I didn’t take formal courses until university, minus this one digital photography course in high school. It wasn’t until I was in the joint program at University of Toronto and Sheridan College, that I was exposed to historical and contemporary photographers and formal techniques.
Being digital, iphone-nography, using apps to edit and create, film which isn’t limited to just 35mm, and there are so many approaches in the darkroom to develop prints and you can also incorporate mixed media and create collages- it’s all exciting.
With film photography, I have no idea how a photograph will turn out and I really enjoy the tactile process of developing film and just holding the prints and having something physical. I completely agree when people think there’s a need to return back to analog as a result of all these technological advancements in the medium. I think if you use digital or film cameras, your relationship and approach to photography can certainly change
How has your style and subject matter changed since then?
During my undergrad, I approached photography in an alternative matter, whether it was collage or handling and displaying photographs differently so that they can become more than just a flat image. I felt that in the studio I could really allow myself to push the boundaries of what a photograph could be and could mean to me.
For my personal photography, I always took pictures of my friends and I with disposables, and then with digital cameras making silly videos and capturing moments on vacation with family. I feel like that hasn’t changed, but that I’m more comfortable sharing those personal, quieter moments and viewing them as artwork in their own right.
Home in Peterborough on 35mm, 2016.
What is it about Photography as a medium that attracts you?
It’s its ability to help me remember moments as quickly as I forget them and its ability to be an object on its own. I feel there are endless possibilities in its type to reflect that.
Which Photographers, past and present, have had the most impact on you as a Photographer?
Nan Goldin and Vivian Maier, for their portraiture and Letha Wilson whose work really made me think photography can be so much more than a flat, framed, image. Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a reading I highly recommend, as it really helped me approach the medium differently. Also more recently, the accounts I follow on Instagram like @tinycatus @renhangrenhang and curated accounts @thefilmcommunity @35mmmagazine that have inspired me to continue shooting film and share it on social media.
Untitled (fit series), 2015.
Can you tell us about your process? Do you have any rules?
With my process, I’ll start off with an idea, usually it’s a question along the lines of how would making this work make me feel emotionally and how would the process of the work feel physically? Then I’ll give myself a guideline for example in the Untitled (fit series), I choose specific personal family photographs that helped me address my concerns in cultural identity and family photography within the public sphere. I told myself to create frames, and purposely print the images too large in order to force them to fit inside. It was a play on ‘fitting in’. And I think of my works as photo-sculptures as they help me highlight the medium’s own dimensionality and materiality and blur those lines between photography and sculpture. I don’t let myself think about how my work will look like exactly, because then I lose the surprise and fun of it from the process. I make sure to let myself play around.
Apart from being a great photographer, you also run an online graphic design service. How can you match all these works? Are there synergies?
Thank you, I run Filters By Durian which provides custom designed Snap Chat Geofilters. It’s a great outlet to help myself and other artists receive support while we maintain our individual art practices. We get to create a different form of art that anyone with the app where the Geofilter is placed, can use and share. They’re like electronic scrapbook stickers!
I feel that although I may explore different ideas in each medium whether it’s been video, sculpture, painting or photography, it’s my process and approach that matches them.
Do you feel more women are getting noticed in the arts?
I do, I feel that there is more awareness of spaces and platforms online that bring light to female artists that help to create a supportive community. I am very grateful to have access to these communities and be able to participate in events such as Wiki Edit a Thons where the goal is to create pages for female Canadian artists and writers. It’s a start, I believe, creating these Wikipages so that there is more of a presence and an opportunity to claim a space online. It just needs to be continued, and we need to keep talking about women in the arts and really incorporate them in our learning structures of art history and try harder to include more narratives.
In the past 3 years you’ve participated in a number of exhibitions including in Hamilton, Toronto and Peterborough. How important are exhibitions to an artist?
I think they’re important because there is this correlation between how extensive your exhibition history/CV is as to whether or not you’re viewed as an established, or recognized, or even active artist. This doesn’t mean you can’t be successful if you aren’t in many exhibitions. I think that definition of success is up to you. For myself, I know that my goal is to continue showing my work. Whether or not your work is being exhibited, I think exhibitions are a great way to connect with other artists, curators, and writers within your community to show support for your peers and be inspired.
What is your proudest achievement as a professional photographer? And what is your proudest achievement from your personal archive?
Currently, my proudest achievement is that I’m still getting out there and making artwork and feeling more comfortable sharing my personal film photography. I embrace the fact that I enjoy making work in multiple mediums and that I’m not bound to just one. Having these different outlets and openness to other mediums allows me to explore every idea and to explore it more than once to see which medium helps me push it even further.
What projects are you currently working on right now and where can we find your work?
I’m currently working on VGVG which is short for Very Good Vietnamese Girl. I had the opportunity to go back to Vietnam this past February as a self-directed residency and it helped me tackle my own concerns with identity and diaspora and addressing senses of shame and guilt head on. It’s a project where I actively work on trying to achieve my idea of what VGVG means to me, first by learning the language to be able to have a connection and better understanding. I am also still very interested in personal family photography in the public sphere that shows a sense of contrast, such as my continuing series, untitled (fit). I’ve been questioning how we can properly handle family photographs and archive them for future generations and whether or not that’s necessary if the images are barely visible.