Photographer Thomas Chang Makes a Scene

Arts and Entertainment
by Alison Bing 

Don't be fooled by his pensive, mild-mannered demeanor. Photographer Thomas Chang knows how to make a scene. Wherever his photographs appear, youÕll hear the same chorus: "Hey, look at this?", " Is that...?" and the occasional "What the...?!"

So why all the ruckus? At first glance, Chang's large color photographs seem perfectly calm: empty lap dance chairs at sex clubs, unoccupied rooms at fancy hotels and unattended souvenir stalls in China. Without people in them, these places appear to be reserved Ð in both senses of the word.

But then it strikes you: You may have been to places like this, but you'd never really considered them before. Do people actually find beige vinyl chairs sexy? Who in the world decided palm-frond wallpaper looked ritzy? Isn't there a certain irony to cashing in on Mao memorabilia? Hence all the musing aloud at a Thomas Chang show. ItÕs as though there's a question mark embedded in every piece.

"I look for places that are odd, that don't make sense to me," explained Chang. "I hope other people find them funny too." It's impossible to keep my own critique and personal views of these places out of the photographs, but I try very hard not to preach through them. I want to allow the audience to explore these spaces that they might not access for themselves."

Chang accesses his photography locations the same way he accesses his viewers' psyches: by smarts and stealth. This is a man who's snapped forbidden photographs in Las Vegas casinos and convinced real estate agents into letting him enter $3 million condos cloistered behind closed gates. But his greatest challenge to date has been getting past beefy bouncers to take photographs of strip club furniture for this "Striptease" series.

"I had to stop working on that series because I couldn't get into any more clubs," he said. But he did talk his way into several, including the newest and oldest strip clubs in San Francisco.

"When I went into Boys Toys, it was brand-spanking new," Chang said, pun clearly intended. " I went in through the back alley right into the kitchen, and the guy working there sent me upstairs to see the public relations manager, who was very enthusiastic about me taking photos. He even said, I can have some dancers come in a stage everything for you." I told her "Thanks, I just want to come in some afternoon when the club's closed and no one's there" and she graciously obliged."

While Chang's shot of Boys Toys eerily resembles a corporate lobby or dentist's office, his photos of older clubs are considerably seedier. "The inside of the Hungry I looked like how I imagine it looked when it first opened the same décor, the same moldy curtains," Chang recalled. "those green napkins you see on the side table at the Hungry I were actually there though, and it makes you wonder, what exactly are the for?"

All his time lurking around San Francisco strip clubs paid off for Chang, when his "Striptease" series landed him a Fulbright fellowship to China last year. "I was interested in the spectacle of the East that's produced for Western tourists," Chang explained. "I got really into Mao kitsch. I wanted to understand how people in the Chinese tourist industry felt about making money off Mao memorabilia from Western tourists, who have no sense of personal histories with Mao. How is it to sell Mao nail clippers, [especially] when Mao has been such a significant, often painful figure in you lifetime?"

Though he was warned that taking photos in Beijing could get him into trouble, Chang nonchalantly shot rolls of film right under the watchful eye of the People's Liberation Army. "Being Asian American definitely helped, because people didn't necessarily know I was American," he said. "But still, I drew a lot of attention because I work very slowly with a large camera and I take pictures of things Ð which in Chinese culture is just unheard of. There was always the question, Why isn't someone you know posing and smiling in front of the camera?"

Politics proved less of an issue for Chang than economics. "People were very open to my taking photographs," he remarked. "Occasionally they'd want me to buy something, which I didn't want to do for the sake of taking a photograph. That was partly what I was there to critique: Western tourists coming in and giving a dollar to some local to pose for a photograph."

Economics has been a focal concern of Chang's well before he went to China, beginning with his "Decadence" series taken in Las Vegas casinos, swank hotels and high-priced condos. These photos are the antithesis of the average picture-perfect brochure shots. Instead, they deliberately expose what Chang calls "the cracks in the façade of luxury.

In one telling "Decadence" photograph, a lone hothouse plant holds center stage on a tacky end table, back-lit like an aging movie star by a huge bay window. "That was taken at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which to me represents a whole way of life," Chang explained. "My work is a critique of and curiosity about that upper-class lifestyle, and the priorities that go along with it."

Chang sees right through the gaudy artifice and careful stage-dressing of the supposedly classy joints he photographs, having grown up in the land of movie sets and glamorous fakery commonly know as Los Angeles. "A lot of time, money and thought goes into those ornamental details, and often they're overlooked," he observed. "But when you put it all in a frame and up on a wall, you look at it very differently What were they thinking when they wallpapered the ashtray with the same pattern as the walls and the carpet?"

With his provocative, tongue-in-cheek shots of landmark hotels and other roadside attractions, Chang has become a featured attraction in his own right. His "Striptease" photographs recently stole the show at Andrea Schwartz Gallery, and his "Decadence" hotel interiors are the sensational centerpiece of the new S.F. Camerawork show at the Hotel Triton. Come October, Chang's photographs of Mao souvenir stands will be causing the commotion at Bay Area Now, the annual show of rising art stars at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Look out for him there  he'll be the guy surveying the scene from an odd angle, with the astutely appraising eye