Photographer hopes to score with body of works

Norm Yip has made his name with striking images of the male body, writes Kylie Knott

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 3:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 February, 2014, 6:19pm

Artist and photographer Norm Yip doesn't just test barriers - he prefers to kick them over with full force and stomp on them. It's easy to imagine him giggling throughout the entire act, his infectious high-pitched laugh filling a space like light.

"What I'm doing in my latest project, as far as nudity goes, is really pushing the boundaries. I've selected some photos where the guys have erections and I've been asking myself 'Is this going to be accepted in this city?' I thought, who better to find the answer to that question than me!" There's that laugh again.

What I'm doing in my latest project, as far as nudity goes, is really pushing the boundaries
Norm Yip

Yip is best known in Hong Kong for his sophisticated black and white pictures of the male form in his series "The Asian Male 1.AM" and "The Asian Male 2.AM". He's compiling his third instalment, but is having trouble finding a publisher. Male nudity remains a touchy subject globally, and while mainstream pop culture is taking baby steps as far as accepting male genitalia goes - vampire Alexander Skarsgard gets naked in True Blood, while Ewan McGregor has done more than his bit for mainstream cinema, getting naked in Trainspotting, Young Adam and Velvet Goldmine - Yip says there is still a long way to go, his frustrations compounded by the city's conservative attitudes, even from those in the art fraternity.

"This lady from a high-profile gallery here - I don't know her personally but I met her once on ArtWalk. She was like 'Oh, you photograph male nudes - you are very courageous to do that'. I found it quite narrow of her - she was talking as if two men embracing each other was blasphemy or something. I was quite shocked," he says.

"I really want to self publish so I have some quality control. I've also been thinking about crowd funding."

Other barriers are also built by race and region. Images of nude Asian men is an area that's long been neglected, unlike in Europe where attitudes are more relaxed. "There is a market for Caucasian men - publishers will focus on that. I went through some publications by [German publishing house] Bruno Gmunder that's famous for male erotica. If you look through one of their books there might be one Asian man - a token Asian - and sometimes that photo was taken by me.

"I did get some pictures published in Australian magazine Blue - they did a lot of nudes for the Australian Olympics team. When my photos made it to several of their publications I was ecstatic because it sort of validated me - you know, made me think 'I can do this'," he says.

Canadian-born Yip moved to Hong Kong from Toronto in 1994 and landed a job as an architect. "I got a job within two weeks but it was just a formality to get a visa. I worked for two architectural firms - one local and one international - but it just wasn't my thing. In 1998, two friends and I opened a design place called Meli-Melo - you know, a bit of this and a bit of that. We started doing all things creative and I started painting and doing photography. I actually told friends that I was pretty good at photography but didn't have a camera," he says, laughing.

Soon after acquiring one, Yip was commissioned by HK Magazine to photograph bodybuilders, an assignment that might have planted the seed for his fascination with the male form. One of the pictures found its way on to the cover. "I was so happy to get the job. After that I did six or seven other covers for them … It was the beginning."

While his years studying and working as an architect helped train his creative eye, it was his brother who really fed his passion. "My older brother did darkroom photography for his school yearbook. I was fascinated from the start and was always asking him questions. He taught me how to use a camera - the technical side about metering and developing. It was magical and I feel this is missing today - to see an image emerge in the darkroom. There is not much mystery or surprise in today's aim-and-click culture."

Look over his portfolio and it's not just Yip's love for black and white photography that is obvious but also his attention to detail. "Darkness, contrast and tone … they all affect a photograph. Look at the work of [US photographer Ansel] Adams … half of his work was about manipulating the image and this was done in the darkroom," Yip says.

"Today we are moving very fast. There's a part of me that will embrace the technology - but I think it's about the dissemination of information versus the work I do. My work - my paintings and photography - is very basic. I do some traditional fine art: acrylic, spatula, rags. With my photography, the technique has changed but it's still based on form and lighting. It's very traditional. I'm not about trying to be hip or following the latest trends."

In contrast, look at his paintings and it's all about colour. The "Nature of Joy" series features bold abstract pieces, while the geometric-heavy "Lava Basalt" series completed in 2010 was born out of a "need for some structure in my life". Last year African animals - a lion and a hyena - found their way onto the canvas.

Yip says he loves painting, which has more commercial benefits too. Photography as an art is difficult to sell. "If someone buys a painting it's a one-off and they treat it as higher value. With photography, people see it as a copy and not an original."

His commercial work includes weddings, although he doesn't do as many now. "I find weddings quite stressful. I do a prayer before each one - please camera don't mess up." He also dabbles in commercial work for big name fashion brands as well as portraits. "You know, for companies, CEOs and designers looking for something different - a portrait that speaks of the person."

As we wind up the interview, we plan a tour of his Chai Wan studio. "Oh yes, I can do you a tarot reading," he throws into the mix.

"I go by the name Keeto. I'm self taught. I was doing readings a few years ago in my friend's bar just for fun and he asked me to do it as a regular gig on Tuesday nights. People were lining up outside the bar - it was crazy. I don't do it very often now - mainly just for friends."

As Yip has so many creative facets, this news come as no surprise.