After transitioning from a path toward Public Health to the life of a fashion photographer, Justin Chung is no stranger to change. Over the course of his almost ten year career in photography, he has helped shape the visual storytelling of brands like J. Crew, Apple, Levi’s, and Glossier, as well as being a continual contributor to Cereal Magazine. Outside of his professional work, Justin released his very own visual journal entitled Faculty Department in which he includes intimate vignettes of “noteworthy individuals,” a cast of characters he likens to the professors of a made to order Masters program about life, craft, and the elegant honesty of a moment captured. We speak with Justin about finding his way, learning to reconcile his then past and present self, and finding the extraordinary in our everyday heroes.
Before I ever picked up a camera I was a pre-med student. I went to University of Massachusetts Amherst to get a Masters in Public Health and then moved back to San Francisco after I graduated to figure out what my next steps were in career and life. But when I was there I thought, this is a rare opportunity for me to really pursue a creative outlet, to see what happens with this before I really dive into the deep end of med school applications and residencies and all of that. I found this one up and coming model and we just did a test shoot together. But it was one of those things that I was asking myself, “What am I doing? I just got a degree in Public Health!” But I really wanted to pursue photography, or whatever I thought that meant at the time.
After the shoot I was really second guessing myself. But the model was so hopeful about those images that he shopped them around in San Francisco. Pretty quickly I started getting contacted by all of these modeling agencies to come shoot for them. I started doing that and building relationships with these companies, not really knowing what I was doing. But one month turned into two and I realized I was more and more putting off these applications, and more and more opportunities started to present themselves. It was also a time when a lot of models from New York were coming to SF for castings and other jobs so I was shooting New York talent and started getting invitations from NY agencies, too. After about a year I had this pretty good resume built up, so I moved to NY to give it a real shot. My girlfriend and I went on a four month sublease with friends who let us stay at their place. It was pretty much make it or break it. That four months turned into eight years.
It sort of started in Japan on this trip I was on for J. Crew. I went to a Japanese bookstore in New York to do some research for the project before I left, and at the checkout I saw this book about Truck Furniture, a furniture company in Osaka. I had no idea who they were at the time but it looked really beautiful and the photographs had this beautiful narrative about their company and their culture, so I thought it would be a great book to get just to learn more about Japan and the work that goes on there. After my shoot was finished in Japan I had some time off and I emailed them and asked if I could meet the owner of the shop just to talk about the book that they made. When I went, it turned into an entire studio visit, a whole day affair. We had lunch together, he showed me the studio, we had coffee, and he showed me more studios, and then we had dinner. I didn’t expect it, but I hung out with him for almost an entire day.
When I got home I had this incredibly intimate set of photos about this guy’s craft and the world that he’s in. It didn’t feel right to just throw it up on the web. I didn’t know what it was yet, but around the same time, one of my college professors had commented on a photo of mine, and said, How amazing it is that you’re a fashion photographer – you were so close to being a doctor. It just kind of came to me. I had these photos of this visit and then being reminded of my previous trajectory that could have been my life, this professional medical path. I thought about it and I wondered if this visit was about me wanting to find that balance of my former life and my photography life.
It felt like I was still in school. I was still learning. Essentially meeting this furniture maker felt like taking Woodshop 101. I had this idea that he’s another faculty member of mine, if I was taking my dream masters program. Fall semester I would want to learn woodshop and illustration and all kinds of things. I had this idea about making research papers like I would do in graduate school, but doing it through photography and profiles of these people. So then one turned into two stories, and I just kept reaching out to my dream faculty members.
It took about four years to make the first book, largely because we had no idea it would be a book. I didn’t have a plan for it or anything, I just had this idea to bring something back from my grad school days. It became this visual journal of people that have moved me over the years. We’re working on the next one now, and it’s so exciting. It’s been a labor of love, but everything is happening so organically.
One of my favorite recent pieces was on Rainer Judd from the Judd Foundation in Marfa, Texas. I did a solo trip from LA to Marfa, shooting along the way. That trip changed my life. Everything about it was so inspiring: the lifestyle there, the people, the approach to Donald Judd’s work, the scale of work that he did, and how he approached it all. He was so dialed in to his own aesthetic. He would frame his own sketches. Similar to Truck Furniture, Judd was in his own world. I was so impressed by that. The Judd Foundation is Judd’s world. I feel like very successful designers do that as well, like Ralph Lauren. You go into a store and you’re in that person’s world. So shooting the Judd Foundation was a great challenge to tell Donald Judd’s story through his work. It was kind of like a portrait, but of a body of work. Because it wasn’t like shooting still lifes; there’s so much personality in it. Even something like his hat laying on the table. It has a life of its own, so how do you approach that?
Well first of all, I’m not a highly technical photographer. I didn’t study photography, so textbook-wise I don’t have that kind of background. I’m completely self-taught. I think part of the intimacy in my work is just how I learned to shoot. There’s a place called Ocean Beach in San Francisco that I would go when I was getting started as a photographer because it was like a giant softbox. There’s always this perfect, soft light there, and those are the conditions I felt most comfortable in. My eye was trained in that soft light. Technically speaking, if you’re shooting in more diffused light, you’re getting a more full rendering of that person. In sunlight you can have harsh shadows where you lose parts of people. Even when I was shooting fashion models, I kept everything soft. That was just my visual vocabulary, and that’s how I’ve kept it. That’s all I know.
But also, I’m genuinely curious about people and what they do. I think in portraiture, in photography in general, you can learn a lot about people through how they behave in front of a camera. I’m always trying to find some common ground with someone and work in such a way that makes everyone as comfortable as possible. When I have photoshoots or sittings with people, sometimes I have the whole day and sometimes I have ten minutes. But despite the amount of time, I think it’s about establishing that trust. That trust is what a good portrait is really about.