Looking Beyond The Facade with Photographer and Artist Yuki James

person with red hair and tiara smiling

Bodies, much like the people who house them, are vastly different. How we understand them, then, is largely dependent on how they’re shown to us. Photography — or the two-dimensional renderings we encounter upon first blush — introduce us to those bodies, but offer something else, too. They create portals into being, windows into people who are not us. But what does it mean, in a visual epoch of over-saturation and unrealistic, unattainable beauty standards, to offer connection — to unify — through the lens?

For Yuki James, the answer is as simple and as complex as the subjects of his portraits. The Japanese-American photographer, originally from Alabama, knows that the ability to capture people beneath their physical facades is a practice in seeing — through and beyond — who we think we are. From April 4 to May 4, James’ vivid portraits adorn the Gallery walls at Ace Hotel New York, in celebration of the colorful differences that bring us together. Here, he chats with us about what drew him to the medium, the power of gaze and photographing Jesus Christ.

What is your background in terms of your studies and career leading up to becoming a photographer?

I worked as a stylist and fashion editor for a few years before I switched to photography. While in fashion, I realized I was a cog in a big wheel that promoted standards of beauty that didn’t relate to me and most of the people I cared about. So I decided to try something more autonomous in which I could decide what was beautiful on my own and shine a light on that. I wasn’t interested in models; I wanted to shoot real people with character and individuality. And so in the beginning I shot my family and friends and other people I cast from Instagram or the street, all the while taking classes at SVA and ICP to gather the technical skills I needed. And then a Chinese magazine took notice of my work and ran a feature on me. They referred to me as a photographer, and so I decided it was time to begin properly owning that title.

What makes you desire to take portraits instead of other types of photography?

Human connection is my greatest interest. Shooting a portrait is a way to make that connection, in a very personal and intimate way. And then, if I’m lucky, the byproduct of that exchange will be an image that others will have their own reaction to, thus primally linking them to the experience as well. So it’s basically a drug, but one you can’t do alone, and so I push it on others too.

There is a real range of the types of characters you shoot. Who are these people and why do you choose them?

I choose people I find beautiful and interesting. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes a person those things to me. Unconventional or unique physical features attract me externally, but ultimately it is about the story they are telling with their lives and the energy they are emitting. To attempt to capture that in a photo is a grand and daunting challenge that excites me.

What they feel is not important, only that they do.

If you could shoot anyone in the world dead or alive, who would it be?

I think it would be my grandmother. She was my first real muse, and as she aged she became freer and less self-conscious and so we produced some beautiful work together. But not enough before she died. I’d also love to shoot Jesus Christ. I’d like to see if this human, who became possibly the most compelling and provocative person to walk this earth, could woo me too with his presence.

As an artist, what is it that you hope for most when people see your photos? Although your photos are provocative, they still feel warm, so I wonder if there is an underlying message to the viewer.

I really don’t have any preconceived message or political agenda with my work. I just want people to feel something when they look at my photos. That’s the distilled ultimate goal. What they feel is not important, only that they do.

Yuki James currently lives and works in New York City. Before transitioning into photography, he worked as a stylist and fashion editor where he contributed to publications including Dazed and Confused, Harper’s Bazaar, GQ, V and VMAN. He studied photography at The School of Visual Arts and International School of Photography. 

As a photographer his work has been featured in The New York Times, W Magazine, i-D, VICELAND, GQ Style and other prominent online publications. He has had solo shows at the Leslie-Lohman Gallery and the National Arts Club in New York City.

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