Vivian Fu is a photographer living in San Francisco whose work reflects her seemingly contradictory interests and everyday life. Over the course of a month, we emailed back and forth about her work, starting with how she began using the handle @VivianIsVulgar.
How do you think your work has changed over time? I’m interested how you started using the word vulgar and how it has impacted your work?
If I had to define my photographs, I would say that they’re a personal long-form narrative and my interest in working this way is ultimately a desire to examine how I relate to things. How do I relate to these people, this space, this time in my life?
To put it simply, I am documenting my life. Over time I’m experiencing new things, and how I see and relate to things shifts, reflecting in my work. It’s difficult to pinpoint how exactly my work has changed over time, because I’m interested in seemingly opposite things, which sometimes I mistakenly read as a “change.”
In the past year, I’ve learned that some of my work embodies these dichotomies—quick snapshots vs. slowly composed, amateur vs. fine art, earnest and heartfelt vs. silly and vulgar. This brings me to the second part of your question about the word “vulgar.”
I like a dirty joke, which has been the case since I was a teen. I began using the handle “@VivianIsVulgar” because I liked both the alliteration and it’s an accurate descriptor. Vulgarity is peppered throughout my work, in both glaringly obvious and subtle ways; a photo of cum on my stomach, a photo of wilted flowers reminiscent of a flaccid penis.
Many things are like a game of word association through the eyes of a second generation Taiwanese-American girl. Vulgarity translates into naughtiness and crassness which translates into American-ness. This idea then cycles back into what I was talking about earlier. About photography as a means of how things relate to me, and in this incidence, how does vulgar and crass American-ness fit on me?
You mentioned amateur vs. fine art. Where do you draw that line, and why do you choose to participate in both?
What was originally amateur has been placed in fine art contexts, influencing what is culturally accepted as art. For me the line is blurry, especially given my interest in everyday images and its acceptance within art. At what point is a photograph of a lover elevated from sentimental memorabilia to something else, something “more” or “better?” How do we even define that? Although it may sound contradictory, participation in both is at most a way of denying that binary and at least a way to be defined by both; ultimately not being forced to be strictly either/or.
Do you think exploring this has helped you understand your dual cultural identity better as well?
My dual work modes (and ways of thinking) and aversion to focusing on one is perhaps related to my dual cultural identity, something else that I dislike being either/or. Photography doesn’t explicitly help me understand my dual culture better, but my dual culture certainly influences the way I read and understand photography.
Has it been hard to share sentimental memorabilia? What does the ability to show the intimate moments of your life online mean to you?
We collectively think of sharing “personal” images as opening ourselves up to vulnerability and something that would be difficult to share.
My photography might relate to my life, but at the end of the day it’s my artwork. By creating a separation between “the intimate moments of [my] life” and my art practice makes it less difficult to share my photos with other people.
I’m specifically very interested in photographs of the everyday, which includes moments that are personal.
Like many other artists, particularly younger artists, I post my work online because it’s an effective way of sharing what you’re making with others.
Do you think these ideas have always been true to who you are or did you grow into it?
There isn’t a cool origin story for where my outlook on these things comes from. I don’t have a story about unlearning shame regarding bodies or feelings.
How many of your own photos do you share? Is there a thought process you go through when you decide what to hold back?
It just goes back to objectively viewing the photos as work and maybe a bit of openness about what’s worthy of a photograph thrown in there.
I make a lot of photos and post very few. I am increasingly more protective of my photos, even though I also really love sharing with people. Posting online has been replaced with e-mailing photos to my friends; I get to share but in a more controlled way. Deciding to not immediately post everything has been good for me. An image that excites me on a roll of freshly developed film might not hold up as well in a few weeks, and something that I hated a year ago suddenly becomes more interesting. It’s a hard balance to strike between holding too tight and sharing too much.
In terms of what gets posted online and what doesn’t, it comes down to if I think it’s a good enough picture to share but not so good that I want to save it for something special like a book or a show. I also take into consideration how it flows and relates either visually or conceptually to the images that were posted before.