Public Transit 1957 ©Lindsay Siu
Interview by Polly Gaillard
Lindsay Siu is a Vancouver-based advertising and editorial photographer specializing in portraiture, entertainment, and conceptual work. In December 2021, Lindsay won APA San Francisco's Best of Show in the annual Something Personal exhibition. Her award-winning photograph is from a larger body of conceptual work that explores comparing transit social norms in 1957 and 2017. Lindsay's ability to successfully maneuver both the fine art and commercial photography worlds is rare. Her artistic vision is informed by influential art photographers like Jeff Wall and celebrity photographers like Art Streiber, an APA Los Angeles member. Whether photographing a campaign for Nickelodeon or one of her many conceptual personal projects, Siu approaches each with the same reverence for narrative elements that culminates in a voice uniquely her own.
In your series Public Transit, you've created photographs juxtaposing public transit systems from 1957 to 2017. Can you explain the genesis of this idea in using public transit to explore social and societal norms?
LS: I've always appreciated work with a conceptual narrative. I was intrigued by exploring the passage of time– how time changes things, or our perceptions of things. And I wanted to explore this in the context of social issues- racism, sexism, segregation, and sexual orientation.
I used public transit as the setting for this exploration because it's one of the only places in our modern world where so many diﬀerent types of people have regularly, and consistently, been brought together into a conﬁned space over the decades. Plus, the idea of a bus in motion– people traveling together– seemed ﬁtting for the overall concept. We shot both buses using the same cast to further explore the idea that our identity may be a reﬂection of the time and place into which we were born.
The series was a collaboration between myself, makeup artist Anya Ellis, and retoucher, Steve Pinter. It was the perfect creative project for us to try to ﬂex our creative and technical muscles.
Public Transit 1957 ©Lindsay Siu
What do you want the viewer to take away from this work? Is the series still in progress?
LS: I think this series can be viewed in a few ways. The number of social issues we face today can feel overwhelming. In response, some people perceive 'the good old days" with nostalgia. But were those days really that good for everyone?
Taken together, these images can be viewed as a celebration of how far we've come as a society. For myself and my children, I am thrilled that so many glass ceilings have been broken since the 1950's, and that there is potential for us all. But thinking about this now, based on the past few year's events, and the increasingly divisive world we live in, I wonder if the change that we've seen so far has been enough? Will this pendulum always continue to swing so wildly?
I believe this series has the potential to be picked up again to address other time periods (I love the hair of the 80's!)- and I think our current pandemic world could be an interesting exploration, as well.
Public Transit 2017 ©Lindsay Siu
Your personal projects like Public Transit and Clue appear to be large-scale productions, including cast and crew, much like a commercial shoot. Can you explain your process in creating these in-depth productions for your ﬁne art projects? Do you fund them personally?
LS: I approach my ﬁne art projects the same way that I approach commercial shoots. I start with the concept and overall treatment ﬁrst, then slowly build out from there. Some projects require more research to help inform the details and build out the narrative. Like any large shoot, we create a pre-production deck outlining all the required elements: locations, casting, wardrobe, hair and makeup, props, lighting reference and my sketches. Then we ﬁgure out how to ﬁt our shot (wish) list into a typically tight shooting schedule.
I absolutely love doing personal work. It's my favourite. I self-fund these projects but with tremendous contributions of time and love from my collaborators.
Clue ©Lindsay Siu
There seems to be as much pre-planning in your ﬁne artwork as in your commercial work. Have you always worked this way? How much of the concept is completely formed before the session begins? Does the ﬁnal product always match your original intention?
LS: There is an incredible amount of planning involved. Because we are working with a limited budget, we really need to maximize our time on set. Everything from lighting to wardrobe to props to the color palette is planned out in advance, leaving our shoot day to be all about executing our vision.
Having said that, I think it is really important to leave room for spontaneity on set! Sometimes the talent or the crew come to set with an idea or an additional narrative detail to add, and I just love that. These productions really are a team eﬀort and I couldn't pull them oﬀ without everyone involved.
Sometimes unprecedented things happen, like global pandemics! Clue was my last production before the pandemic. When we were doing post on these images during lockdown (before vaccines or even testing), we realized that it was going to be a while before we could do a group shot like that again. We joked at the time that the idea of an indoor dinner party felt so taboo!
Clue ©Lindsay Siu
Your commercial and personal work contain narrative elements, sometimes quirky or in a Crewdson-like deadpan fashion. Does your personal work deﬁne your commercial work, or is it the opposite? Do clients hire you speciﬁcally for this narrative aesthetic?
LS: I think my commercial and personal work inform each other. I ﬁnd inspiration from many places, so there are diﬀerent aspects and facets of me that can come out in my imagery. I love awkward, dark and cringey humor, but I also love dramatic, lush and light-hearted content, too.
Typically, I think clients respond to my narrative aesthetic and talent direction, but sometimes I think I might be selected for a diﬀerent aspect of my work, like my colour palettes, lighting styles, or technical problem-solving. Or maybe it's my snacks!
Marley ©Lindsay Siu
How have you created such a unique aesthetic immediately recognizable to the viewer? Who has been the biggest inﬂuences on your style and career?
LS: I admire many diﬀerent photographers for many diﬀerent reasons. When I was in university, I was fascinated by the work of conceptual photographer Jeﬀ Wall. I was studying Art History at the time, and loved how his work nodded to both art history and societal issues. I also love the work of Crewdson, Cindy Sherman, Joel Sternfeld, Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon.
In the early part of my career I was a digital tech for Art Streiber, who has since become a mentor and a big inﬂuence on my career. I've learned a lot from his lighting, problem-solving abilities, and leadership.
James Gunn ©Lindsay Siu
How do you manage a commercial photography business and a ﬁne art career?
LS: I think that the two balance each other out but it is a constant push-pull. My commercial work keeps me current on ideas, trends and pop culture, which has an eﬀect on my personal work and some of the messages and concepts I explore. I always have personal projects on the go, at diﬀerent stages of development so sometimes I sit with those concepts for quite some time before executing.
What is your goal as a ﬁne art photographer?
LS: I want to create work that is meaningful to me. Over the past few years I've been doing a lot more personal reﬂection, exploring my past and history. So my ﬁne art work is an exercise in leaning in to being me and providing me with an outlet to express things I feel and have to say. My hope is that it resonates with others, and I hope that the work feels timeless.
What is your goal as a commercial photographer?
LS: My goal as a commercial photographer has always been to collaborate with good people, do good work, and have fun. I really enjoy meeting new people, learning and having new challenges to problem-solve. It's such an honor to have the opportunity to meet and collaborate with so many talented people and to create something special, and hopefully memorable. I also hope to inspire other female photographers of colour to share their gaze and aesthetic with the commercial world.
What advice would you give to other commercial photographers that also make ﬁne art?
LS: Try lots of diﬀerent things, and don't worry about how long it takes! I think that, in the commercial world, we get so used to how quickly things can come together when we are presented with a fully-formed concept and have a ﬁrm deadline. Sometimes it's just a week from getting a brief into pre-production, shooting, and going through to retouching! Coming up with and developing a concept that is meaningful can take a really, really long time. I think it's so easy to lose momentum and let the idea go, or lose interest because you aren't seeing progress or results quickly enough. Don't give up!
Or, if you are like me, you start spending money buying the wardrobe so there's no turning back!