Interview: Justin Chung

May 25 2014

NYC-based photographer Justin Chung is a master of natural light. It’s by far his favorite to use in photos, whether he’s shooting in natural settings or mimicking it in the studio. Originally from San Francisco, Chung believes it’s his upbringing there in the City by the Bay that taught him to love the soft, overcast glow.

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Whether he’s shooting one of his many portraits around the city or relaxing in Brooklyn with his three dogs, Chung has gained legions of fans on Instagram and elsewhere through his relatable style. Aside from his fans, he’s proven his worth further by working for the likes of Mark McNairy, GQ, VSCO, and Ovadia & Sons. It’s astonishing to think that his graduate studies were at one point taking him in a completely different direction.

Tell us a little about how you got started as a photographer, because I’ve heard that’s an interesting story.

I always had a passion in photography early on in my life. I remember collecting magazines or tear sheets and making collages on my walls. It wasn’t until my college years, which was when I got my first camera…I was immediately hooked.

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I got my first camera at a point in my life when I was about to enter a career path toward the health sciences; I was about to start a master’s program in public health. Photography, however, continued to play a vital role in my life that I ended up focusing my graduate thesis on photography and how arts-based initiatives can be helpful in the field of public health.

My graduate school experience helped me realize what I really wanted to do in life. After I graduated, I made the move back home to San Francisco to start a career in photography and made the move to New York in 2011.

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Was there a specific moment where you thought, “you know what, this can be my career, not just a hobby.”

I don’t think that there was an exact moment when I realized photography as a “career.” I actually still don’t think of it as a career. I just like taking photographs and knew that this was something that was fulfilling, something that I wanted to do and pursue in my life. I am a self-taught photographer, but I knew that if I just kept taking photographs, and kept true to myself, then work would come.

You’re originally from the West Coast. Do you think that influences your style at all, even with you now being based in New York?

I think that my San Francisco upbringing has shaped how I see the world. I tend to favor overcast, foggy light, a lighting condition that many locals can relate with.

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Speaking of being based in New York, how did your Studio Visit project with artists local to the city get started?

My studio visits happened quite organically. After working on commercial and advertising assignments over the years, I became very moved and inspired by the people I’ve met and their passion behind their craft. I thought that their story needed to be told, and started carrying out these personal shoots on the side.

The studio visits also helped me keep my work fresh and I found it to be very nourishing and fulfilling. I became fascinated in getting to know the background and process of their craft, and it has now been a personal project of mine that I will be putting together in a book, Faculty Department.

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So you have a publication in the works—Faculty Department. Do you have a certain inclination towards print? Are there any standout differences when working with that medium?

One of the main sources of inspiration that have helped shape Faculty Department comes from my graduate school years. We would have to write these 20-30 page research papers on certain subjects or aspects in the field, and these essays were always printed in paper. There is something to be said about the printed, physical form, and for Faculty Department, I think that the stories that I am trying to tell will be best conveyed in a publication.

Say you have a weekend day off in your neighborhood. Is there a spot that you love to visit/hang out at more than most?

I live in Brooklyn and have found it to be a nice balance for me, as I keep most of my work in the city. To be honest, I am a homebody, and a morning person. I have three dogs so I spend most of my weekends with them.

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Any particular projects coming up that you’re excited about?

I think the biggest project for me is Faculty Department. This has been my passion project for quite some time, and I have been working on or overseeing all aspects of its development; not only from the photography, but to the printer, layout, and graphic design. I am very excited for this book to be released, and aim for a launch toward the end of the year.