On Trying Less and Working Hard – an Interview with Johnny Liu


A lot can happen in a span of three years. Imagine – more than 1000 days! And in that period, you can do anything that you wish. For Johnny Liu, that's how long he's been working hard to get where he is now in his film photography work. It's a short time if you ask us, especially when we take into consideration the quality of work he puts out. Johnny believes in the value of hard work and it shows. You have to put in thousands of hours of work to make a simply beautiful photograph look effortless. We all could learn a thing or two from Johnny.

© Johnny Liu, All rights reserved.

Hi, Johnny and welcome to the Magazine! How did your photographic journey start?

It was the summer of 2017, I was running my dad's restaurant and also running a recording studio. Taylor and I just started dating. It seemed like I had tons of material and subject matter around me. Honestly, I should have had a camera years ago with all the touring I did with my band. But I allowed all my friends around me to be visual leaders while I focused more on music.

Do you remember your first camera? What made you want to try film photography?

A Sony a6000 and soon after a Sony a7rii. I still use that camera for paid gigs.

Film photography happened by accident. I didn’t really have any interest in it. All of my favorite photographers shot digitally and I labored obsessively to learn what they do in Lightroom. You could say I built my chops up first digitally.

© Johnny Liu, All rights reserved.

It wasn’t until I stumbled across a Mamiya m645 at my local thrift store did I realize that I had a passion for film. I bought the camera for a steal at $150. It was in such good shape! I remember my first month shooting with that camera that I still brought my digital with me. I couldn't let go of my Sony just yet and was quite attached to it.

We just love the way your photos look. You inject mood and atmosphere in your shots effortlessly. Was this a particular style that you were going for?

Style can be difficult to explain. I try my best not to think about my style honestly. Sometimes I scroll through my feed and am amused at how quickly I’ve switched up feelings and colors. What’s fun about Instagram, which is all I’ve known since I started, is that you’re locked into a timeline. Meaning your work or portfolio is presented in a gradient of sorts to the audience. That gradient showcases your growth but it also showcases how fickle a photographer like me can be. I’m never satisfied and always looking for another angle or approach. The changes happen gradually and that’s what’s beautiful. Seeing some of my favorite photographers work morph over time like seasons is special and crazy inspiring.

© Johnny Liu, All rights reserved.

To answer your question, I don’t see style when I look at mine or someone else’s work. I just see a failure of plagiarism. I’ve always felt this way about music too or other mediums of art. I absorb so many experiences and other people’s work that I hope it pours out of me with little effort. Once you’re applying too much effort then you gotta be careful. That’s when people’s work starts resembling others TOO closely.

How would you describe your style? What inspires you to take photographs?

Style is a made-up idea that you will spend your whole life obsessing over if you let it. Don’t be concerned with style. Instead, train your eyes to be more sensitive. Watch endless cinema. Good cinema. Begin the process of defining what beauty is to you. Even if you think you already know, then refine it. I’d much rather obsess over that idea for the rest of my life.

© Johnny Liu, All rights reserved.

Other than good cinema, I’m inspired constantly by the smallest interactions throughout my day. When I’m driving, my eyes are constantly darting around at the scenery. I’ve always done this. Well before I had a camera.

The life I choose to live outside of my photography, I’ve realized, is much more important than the hobby itself and it’s entirely what influences my work and keeps me inspired to create.

We learned that you develop and scan all of your work since you started taking photos. How has the experience been?

I love scanning my own film. I’ve only ever scanned my own film. Recently in Hawaii, I had a lab scan three rolls and the results were meh. I’m gonna stick with scanning my own simply because of this – are you willing to let some stranger have a hand in one of the most critical steps of your art? And does he or she even see it that way? Probably not.

Scanning is so important to call your work entirely your own.

I develop my own film to see it faster. But I prefer the lab if it’s too much for me to handle. Lately, I’ve been lazy and just send it all off to the lab. The novelty of developing myself wore off pretty quickly.

© Johnny Liu, All rights reserved.

What would you say was the biggest challenge in your photographic career? How did you get over it?

Not much of a career, more of a hobby. But in many ways it being a hobby lends to its feeling of honesty. My work I mean.

The biggest challenge by far is staying motivated to shoot. I see everyone struggle with this. And it’s hard when something that brings you so much happiness and keeps you busy, just stops. Things literally come to an abrupt halt and you feel as if maybe your time is up. You try to buy new cameras, new lenses, new films. Switch up your subjects. Find new inspiration. But that loss of motivation always comes creeping back without fail.

I’ve found it helpful to just let it. Meaning: don’t fight it. If you did most likely the photos you create will look forced anyways. Just take the time off and put your passion elsewhere. If it was meant to be it’ll make its way back naturally.

Do you have a dream collaboration with any photographer or artist? What kind of project would you like to pursue if given the chance?

Funny you ask! I’d love to create my own film. A dream collaboration would be with Lomography. Maybe an artist line for a film or a camera accessory.

How do you see your work changing in the next few years? Any new plans for a project?

My work will evolve on its own and become what it is however which way it happens and I can’t fucking wait. I never think further than the next day ahead of me.

Sure. Lomography/johnnyhomemovies 35 mm film.

© Johnny Liu, All rights reserved.

What do you think matters more – talent or skill?

I’m not sure if I know the difference between the two? I’ve realized that most talent really comes from a solid foundation of discipline and patience. Those are the building blocks to beating mediocrity and standing out amongst the crowd.

Most skill comes from putting in the hours. Painful repetition. Becoming a slave to the trade and giving up something good in exchange. And in most cases, many many good things. It’s always some sort of trade right?

What does a perfect day look like for Johnny Liu?

I teach drums to children 5-10 and have fallen in love with giving back to the youth. A good day consists of the smiles and laughs I share with these kids and watching them grow into some mean little musicians. I enjoy eating alone with my AirPods watching boxing and MMA fights on YouTube. Eventually, I’ll make my way to the gym where I’ve found my second family, a boxing community that could care less about my photography. I come home to my dogs and my GF and will usually stay up late scanning into the night with a glass of scotch. Recently I came back from Hawaii with a ukulele and have been teaching myself to play. It reminds me of the island and brings me so much joy.

© Johnny Liu, All rights reserved.

Any last words for our readers?

If y’all thought this was wordy but you stuck around for it and maybe found some value in what I have to say then stay tuned cuz I’m planning on putting out a podcast very soon – made up of the same ideas and thoughts I have on photography, art, life, and our experiences together as we try to figure out what the hell is really going on here.

We would like to thank Johnny for letting us feature his images in the Magazine. If you're interested in his work, give him a follow on Instagram to see more.

written by cheeo on 2020-03-11 #culture #people #film #interview #analogue #artist #johnny-liu


  1. sinkinanchorssince1984
    sinkinanchorssince1984 ·

    great read. so much of this rings true to me. I develop and scan my own stuff to have total control of the outcome. i have been teaching myself everything from visualization, composure, development, and scanning. I have recently been teaching myself large format photography as i feel It brings out the true vision of my inner eye. Thank you @Johnnylui for sharing your art and your vision as well as your words! #makingartnotcrystalmeth

  2. gororivera
    gororivera ·

    This guy @johnnylui is very inspiring. Down to earth....not full of himself and it shows in his work. The work speaks for itself. Looking forward to the podcast.

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