• Photo Diary: Clean Monochromes with Jessica Wen-Di Tan


    Get inspired by saying more with less in this original photo story by designer and photographer Jessica Wen-Di Tan.


    Can you share more about yourself + your work?
    I was born in Oakland, raised for the first part of my childhood in Kuala Lumpur (where my dad is from) and then in Berkeley (where my mom is from). I’ve been surrounded by creatives my whole life, both my maternal grandparents are painters and my dad was an ad man, so I spent a lot of time in my grandparents' studios as well as on commercial sets with my dad. I ended up somewhere in between these two worlds. 

    I did quite a bit of print making when I was in high school but ultimately fell in love with graphic design. I studied print design with a particular focus on book design while at UCLA and that’s evolved into the work I do now. Now, I work with brands to build lifestyle and product campaigns from concept to implementation. I particularly love collaborating with teams of photographers and influencers to develop editorial storytelling for brands. Photography first came into my practice as a tool, a way to prep for shoots, to understand what I wanted from the photographers I was working with and how to ask for it. It’s become much more of a personal endeavor now. Being a designer first definitely has influenced the way I take photos and what I take photos of. I like composition and I like details, cleanliness, shape, and line. I feel very much at the beginning of my photography experience, which is exciting. I try to shoot everyday and am learning a lot as I go. 


    Can you tell us more about where you shot the images for this series? 
    There’s a bit of the classic LA, “I spend a lot of time in my car” story here. I tend to drive the same routes over and over again, regardless of traffic, and it’s partly because I like seeing the same folks at bus stops and the same kids on their way to school. But it also gives me the time to observe the ordinary details in buildings, street corners, take note of when and where light hits. I suppose this also makes for distracted driving, but so be it. 

    I take a very democratic approach to environment. I see beauty in both geologically impressive landscapes as well as in the average city block. I have a particular fascination with suburban landscapes: Greater Los Angeles and the Inland Empire have great sprawls that turn from freeway, to industrial park, to cul-de-sac’d and topiary embellished streets. Most of these shots are from mid-city Los Angeles, the San Bernadino suburbs with a couple textural shots from some time spent in Tulum and Death Valley. 


    What is a dream photography project for you?
    I’d love to document a single street, a long one no doubt (something like Pico or Olympic in LA that changes dramatically) from one side of town to the other. It would be kind of like a walking tour, but the subject matter more abstracted. I’m not interested in the “landmarks” so to speak, but more the vernacular of architecture, signage, and the intricacies of the city's planning. When I lived in KL, my mom took my brother and I around the city on little trips before or after school all the time, to see a particular temple, eat a certain dish, or buy a particular fruit from a particular market. Sometimes we traveled by car, but also often by bus and on foot. She is a great explorer, spontaneous and endlessly curious about people and place. The way I travel through and observe spaces, especially big cities, has a lot to do with these adventures. 

    Also! If I'm dreaming here, I would love to have a cherry picker drive me around all day. It’s a constant frustration to me that I can’t get high enough to shoot eye level with certain buildings and trees…you know the ones 1-3 story up. 

    Do you regard the work you shoot on your iPhone/for Instagram differently than work you shoot professionally?
    Yes, and no. I feel like I’ve never shot particularly “Instagram-y” subject matter, so I’ve been able to keep my aesthetic when sharing pretty consistent. I carry a camera with me almost all the time nowadays, so my posts on Instagram aren’t really so instant. However, the ease of pulling out a phone is so great for scouting and testing composition.


    What other artists, creatives, musicians, writers, or ideas inspire your work?
    I love Rachel Whiteread for her stunning and poetic approach to structure and sketches. I am also deeply inspired by artists who are data driven, like Dutch book designer Irma Boom and French artist Sophie Calle. Both are women whose work is focused on parsing through information, both quantitative and emotional, to find meaning and organization in the patterns and discord. 

    I also love the work of LA painter and sculptor Tofer Chin. I had been following his work online for years but recently had the pleasure of spending some time looking at his work up close in his studio. He’s known for distilling urban landscapes down to geometric, architectural, and perspective-testing compositions. If you ever have the opportunity to see his work in person, it’s a must! Incredible line work, brush stroke, and use of color. Most of his pieces are on the medium-to-large size, and it almost feels like you fall into them. 


    Can you share some recent themes or concepts that have been intriguing to you?
    Sunrise in the desert
    Waterways, exposed piping, and reservoirs
    Jewel tones

    What’s next for you?
    I have a project that I’ve been working on for awhile now called Remember This About Me. I’ve been collecting found photos from flea markets, antique stores and recycling centers for the past 5 years. RTAM is a digital archive of my collection, and was a project sparked out of nostalgia and a deep desire to document lost memories. 

    I mostly collect photos of 1950s-80s Americana: road trips, family portraits, summertime swimming, class photos. Photos are scanned and then sorted and tagged with dates, themes, location found, and any notations that might be on the photograph itself. Of course, the dreamy thought is that maybe someone will run across a photo of themselves or someone they know and the lost photo can be returned. 

    Follow Jessica's work on her website and on Instagram
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