William Yang has been documenting Australian culture through the eye of his camera lens for over 50 years. When we spoke, he was in Brisbane for the opening of his exhibition, William Yang: Seeing And Being Seen at QAGOMA. William is exhibiting over 250 of his works, spanning everything from his gift for portraiture to the celebration of his Chinese-Australian heritage to his upbringing in a small town in Far North Queensland.
During my research for the interview I discovered that it turns out that Mr. Yang and I went to the same high school in Far North Queensland. So, knowing how difficult it was to be gay in a small town in the 80s and 90s and I asked what his experience was like when he was growing up there in the 50s and 60s, imagining it to be a rather more challenging experience.
“I knew I was attracted to men but I hadn’t quite formulated in my mind. I just didn’t quite know what that meant, but I was about 16 and I was reading one of the afternoon newspapers in Cairns and I came across an article about homosexuality.
“The article described what the condition was and it named three famous gay men from history and when I read that, I thought, ‘oh my god there’s a name for it!’ The shock of recognition rather hit me like a thunderbolt but it didn’t do me any good because I still didn’t know any gay people and there was still no one I could talk to it about it!
“I thought there were four homosexuals in the world, Oscar Wilde, Michelangelo, Leonardo Di Vinci and ME.”
Yang has made an impact on so many people with his photographs over the decades and I was curious to know about his first experience with the art form that would become the focus of his eventual career.
“The first photographs I took were with, I don’t know if you know what a Box Brownie is, they were the camera of the day but it was the model after that and it was more like an Instamatic. I took a photograph of turtles in Lake Eacham and I had imagined when I took them that they’d be close ups of the turtles but when I got the image back, the turtles were nothing but a little speck in the frame and I was so disappointed because I’d imaged it all much closer!”
I asked if that was enough to dampen the spark of photography for a while.
“No, I felt I still wanted to take photos but the next camera I got, which was many years later was a Pentax camera with a telephoto lens and I can remember LOVING the telephoto lens and so then I started to take photographs that I liked.”
Yang left for Brisbane in the mid 60s to study architecture at University of Queensland but soon after completing his study, moved to Sydney. After a brief shot as a playwright, he picked up the camera, initially because he could make a living taking photos of the steady stream of actors coming through Sydney at the time but I was curious about what his parents thought of his pivot in career trajectory.
“They were bitterly disappointed that I gave up my career as an architect and we had many tense discussions about it but I kind of bent my own way and really, it’s taken me many many years to actually make a success of being a photographer. Even now, I’m not rich or anything but I‘m kind of fulfilled as an artist.“
I ask if the folks were still alive to see him become a successful photographer.
“No, they weren’t. I did get an honorary doctorate from Queensland University and my relatives would say to me ‘If your mother knew what you were saying about her in your slide shows, she’d turn in her grave’ and then they changed their tune after I got the honorary doctorate and they said ‘oh, what a pity your mother didn’t survive to see you now!’”
I ask what that moment was for him, when he felt like he was on his way to becoming a successful artist.
“In 1977, I had an exhibition called Sydneyphiles and that launched me really. It had a lot of gay content and it was considered controversial because of it but people flocked to it. So it was really a very successful exhibition.
“It also had people in it, not just gay people but people who were alive, my contemporaries, and I realised then that people really like seeing themselves in photographic exhibitions because it does have the subtext of, I’m validating people lives. And especially if you’re marginalised, it’s a bigger deal, being validated”
William Yang: Seeing And Being Seen is in Gallery 4, Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), from Mar 27- Aug 22.