Of all the Minnesotans chosen as McKnight Distinguished Artists since 1998, when the program began, Wing Young Huie is the first photographer. And he’s not who some people might think of when they consider photographers worthy of the state’s biggest arts prize since the Bush Artist Fellowships ended in 2010.
Huie has a studio called the Third Place Gallery – it’s a storefront on Chicago Avenue in the Central neighborhood – but he’s not known for images of celebrities or the powerful in carefully designed settings with controlled lighting. There are no stylists or props. He doesn’t do landscapes.
Huie photographs strangers, thousands of strangers, often on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, usually on streets people drive down quickly. Hundreds of his images have been shown on the streets, plastered on the sides of buildings, projected onto surfaces and/or displayed in windows of local businesses.
His photographs, mostly black-and-white, are of black people, white people, brown people and yellow people living their lives, going about their days, and sometimes, with the help of a chalkboard, revealing their innermost thoughts. His art is a mirror that reflects Minnesota as it is today, asking us to notice what many of us look at but never see.
In 1995, he turned a vacant lot in Frogtown into an open-air gallery of 173 photographs of neighborhood residents. In 2000, Huie and a corps of volunteers installed 675 of his photographs along a six-mile stretch of Lake Street.
In 2010, the year before construction began on the light rail, 500 of his photographs were displayed along a six-mile stretch of University Avenue, capturing a streetscape that would soon change forever. Slide shows of his images were projected nightly on billboard-sized screens in a former car dealership lot.
For Northern Spark in 2011, Huie paired a retrospective of his photography (1,500 images) with ping-pong. You could look at pictures, then play ping-pong with glow-in-the-dark balls.
Huie was born and raised in Duluth. His parents were first-generation Chinese immigrants who opened a Chinese restaurant in the port city. Huie came to Minneapolis in his 20s to attend the University of Minnesota and stayed.
MinnPost spoke with him at the Third Place on Sunday afternoon. The conversation ranged widely over his life, his projects, how he works and his plans for the McKnight. What follows is an edited selection of his responses and remarks.
On Huie’s circuitous route to becoming an artist
When I went to college [at the University of Minnesota Duluth], I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I majored in business. Then I decided, well, I like reading. So I was an English major for one semester. Then the Watergate movie came out [“All the President’s Men”] and I thought – I’m going to be a journalist. So I entered the pre-journalism program at UMD.
Because they didn’t offer the full major, I transferred [to the University of Minnesota] after my sophomore year. That summer, I took a trip, and I took some very ordinary pictures, and I came back thinking – I want to be a photographer. I built a darkroom in my parents’ house and took a photography class from Sister Noemi [Weygant] at St. Scholastica. That was my only formal training as a photographer.
After college I took a one-week workshop at Film in the Cities from Garry Winogrand, the iconic street photographer. I was 23 years old. I decided I wanted to be a street photographer.
At that time, I didn’t know what being an artist was. I didn’t grow up in an arts culture. My parents never set foot in a museum.
I started freelancing as a photographer. I was a full-time bartender at Saji-Ya by night and freelanced during the day. I was doing weddings, events, bands, everything.
I started working for Corporate Report and then CitiBusiness Weekly. Working for CitiBusiness enabled me to quit Saji-Ya. But I still wanted to be a street photographer like Garry Winogrand. When CitiBusiness fired me, I started working on the Frogtown project.
On when he started calling himself an artist
Even after Frogtown, that took a while. It was a gradual process. It was probably right around Lake Street. When that project was up, I got invited to teach a class at MCAD [Minneapolis College of Art and Design]. I thought – I never went to art school. I won’t know what to say. They know more about artistry than I do! I felt kind of intimidated. But it was somewhere around that point that I started thinking – I’m an artist.
It still feels weird. But I’m an artist, whether I work in schools or Third Place or books or public art. I’ve done a lot of different things, and I think of it all as part of the same thing. It’s all art, and I’m being an artist. That’s the modern definition of an artist, anyhow.
On the Lake Street project
After Frogtown, I decided to do a larger project on Lake Street. It was one thing to take all the photographs. It was another thing to produce the exhibit. I’m door-knocking, fundraising, writing grants. I wrote, like, 20 grants. I got several, and that really helped.
Volunteers went up and down Lake Street, asking businesses if we could put photographs in their windows. Half of them said no. All the Uptown businesses said no. Once we started putting them up, there was so much publicity that Uptown businesses started calling me and saying, “We want photographs in our windows!” I said yes. I wanted to be inclusive.
I had all 675 photographs printed at Photos Inc. They ranged from 8″ x 10″ to 4′ x 6′. The ones that were put on the outside of the Midtown Global Market – back then, it was the largest empty building in Minnesota – were 8′ x 12′, on vinyl. I was their biggest client that year. I was getting all these bills, and I couldn’t pay them.
We had an auction at Intermedia Arts in the fall, after the photos had been up for six months. I thought – I’ll make all this money, I can start a nonprofit, I can do this, I can do that. The auction made enough for me to pay the printing bills. The following year, I filed personal bankruptcy. I went into debt. I paid it off. It was an investment in my career.
On asking to photograph strangers
A lot of people say no. I say, “Thank you. No problem,” and move on.
When you approach people, they have already made a decision about you based on what you’re wearing, your attitude, your race, your ethnicity. But once you open your mouth, you can change all that. So anything is possible. Anybody can do this. If you ask enough people, somebody is going to say yes.
[For Lake Street], I was very casual. First, I wouldn’t say, “I’m an artist.” I would say, “I’m a professional photographer. I’m doing a community photography project. I’m photographing everyday life. It’s going to be an exhibit. It’s going to be public. Can I take your picture?” If they said, “Why me?” I would say, “You look interesting.”
You make it up as you go. I’ll photograph anybody, really.
On the need to redefine ‘stranger’
I was working at a school and I asked the students, “How many people like to photograph nature? Raise your hand.” Most did. “How many like to photograph people? Other people – not selfies.” Some raised their hands. “How many people like to photograph strangers?” Very few. They all thought that was creepy. I asked, “Why do you think it’s creepy?” The answer: “Stranger danger.”
Then I asked, “How many of you think the world is more dangerous?” Everyone raised their hand. So I asked, “Is the world really more dangerous, or do you just think it’s more dangerous?” They were uncertain about that. Then I asked, “How many of you feel that you’re a stranger to most of the other students in the school?” Hands went up.
The idea of stranger danger is embedded in our culture right now. Do not talk to strangers! I’ve photographed thousands of strangers, which is just another way of saying people. “Stranger” is such a loaded word. How do we define “other”? How did “other” become a synonym for “stranger”?
On the use of chalkboards
For Frogtown and Lake Street, I thought a lot about getting good photographs. For Garry Winogrand, a photograph was an aesthetic object. [During the University Avenue project] I started thinking – maybe the process of what I do is as important as the actual photograph, if not more important. By process, I mean the conversation, the interaction and what I learn about life and my own assumptions. That’s when I came up with the idea of having people write on chalkboards.
The questions I asked were, “What are you?” “How do you think other people see you?” “What don’t they see?” “Describe a defining moment.” “What advice would you give to a stranger?” “How do you think about race?” They could choose whatever questions they want to answer. So you don’t know what questions they’re really answering.
All of those interactions have become part of my experience. I’m not a sociologist, but from what I’ve read, what I understand, a lot of our biases are formed at an early age. You can’t truly eliminate your biases, especially your subconscious biases. What you can hope to do is recognize them.
I have biases, just like anyone else. But when I get out of my personal, cultural and technological bubble and enter someone else’s bubble … wow.
I thought the chalkboard idea worked. It was interesting. Then I thought – it’s kind of gimmicky. I’m not going to do it anymore, just once in a while. But then I’d have an event and people would go right to the chalkboard photographs. So I decided to keep doing it. And I made it into a curriculum. You never know, right?
On what the McKnight (and its $50,000 cash award) means to him
I’ve got a long list of projects I want to do. Generally, for projects, you apply for funding, you apply for grants, you try to get funding in some way, and if not, just do it. Or at least start it and see where it goes. I’m a self-employed artist. I’ve never had a real job, and I mostly make a living talking about what I do, not doing it. I give a lot of presentations to different age groups, schools, nonprofits, corporations and so on. That’s 95 percent of how I make a living.
My goals have been, number 1, to continue making work I think is interesting. And number 2, be relevant. And number 3, make a living. The McKnight makes number 3 a lot easier, and it affects numbers 1 and 2.
I’m already doing what I want to do. I have a bigger cushion now, and maybe a little more freedom. And a little less anxiety.
One of Wing Young Huie’s new projects is “Chinese-ness,” a work part memoir, part what-if. What if he had been born in China? What if he hadn’t gone to college? What if he owned a Chinese restaurant? The exhibition “Chinese-ness: Photographs by Wing Young Huie” will open at the Minnesota History Center on Tuesday, Sept. 11. A community panel discussion, “Examining American-ness,” will take place the following Tuesday, Sept. 18. On Tuesday, Oct. 30, the History Center will host the launch of Huie’s seventh book, “Chinese-ness: The Meanings of Identity and the Nature of Belonging.”
Another new project, “What Do You See?” is an educational resource that uses Huie’s photographs to spark discussion, explore points of view and challenge assumptions.