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Life on film

Model and photographer Danny Lim explores the complexity of creativity and the importance of artistic vision

20 Jul 2020 / 09:40 H.

DIGITALISATION might have rendered film photography obsolete, but New York-based model-photographer Danny Lim’s seminal work is largely through the lens of his trusty medium format film camera, the Mamiya 645 Pro, which has produced many spectacular fashion editorials over his prolific career.

His raw and unfiltered images show a soft and candid take on fashion photography.

During our recent conversation, Lim revealed to me a point-and-shoot camera that he carries around to document daily life, and to test his impeccable taste and judgement when he decides to trigger the shutter release button, snagging the perfectly-framed image as a form of photojournalism by way of pedagogy, in a sense, educating the viewers’ eyes and mind.

“I’m easily drawn into by my environment, the people I hang out with, and the things I see every day. I like sitting down and observing people’s actions and behaviour,” he shares on the source of his creative inspirations and influences from different places and faces.

Lim did not start out photographing models and clothes for a living. At the beginning, he held a regular full-time job as a computer-bound graphic designer, a job he dreaded, while at the same time juggling his side gig as a model.

At one point he realised he was in serious need of a significant career change, and began to fantasise of the possibility of a different future. Then, something bigger than his stagnant desk job emerged over the horizon – it was the American Dream calling out his name.

Naomi Watanabe for Vogue Japan. – COURTESY OF DANNY LIM
Naomi Watanabe for Vogue Japan. – COURTESY OF DANNY LIM

“I started modelling just so I could travel and explore the world. One day, I was told that there was a possibility that I could properly pursue a modelling career in New York. I left Malaysia shortly after bidding goodbye to my family and friends, with a big paycheck that I had just received from a previous gig.

“And that was seven years ago ... [I went] from sleeping on a friend’s couch in order to cope with the living expenses, to assisting as an unpaid intern for six months in the equipment department of a photography studio,” Lim said as he recalled his early days in New York.

Despite effectively starting from the ground up, Lim had in fact gotten something of a head start in photography prior to his relocation.

During his travels and modelling gigs across Asia, he would turn his own camera towards the other models he lived with, and eventually began shooting for numerous magazines here in Malaysia.

But back then, the process of image-making was far more different than it is right now.

Lim confides: “I’d follow the lead of fashion stylists, who also played the role of art directors, to set the tone of the images. In hindsight, it would’ve been better to have some creative freedom across the whole collaboration, rather than to just do as you’re told.

“It wasn’t until I started working abroad, that I realised the importance of voicing out and having my very own input inform others of the way I work, and also [to form] my own idea of beauty instead of just wanting to please others. Though I must say, in New York, people do value your artistic work and creative viewpoint.

“Too many cooks can spoil the broth ... At the end of the day, you need to analyse what works and what doesn’t, the image needs to have the distinguishing quality of the photographer in it.”

He added: “Being a photographer is about capturing beauty, not just the good, but also the bad; it’s about presenting the creative vision of translating fashion’s latest clothes into beautiful visuals. When every photographer is shooting the same exact clothes in every season, how does one idea set itself apart from another?

“I like to be straightforward when framing my subject, using direct flash and harsh light as a way of storytelling to get straight to the point; at the same time, incorporating some sense of the surrounding environmental setting, with a reflection of society and culture at large.”

Lim’s work is as cross-disciplinary as it is collaborative. There’s an added mystique to the images he produces, where the viewer gets the impression that Lim the photographer is almost an elusive figure, unlike when he graced the glossy pages of magazines or strutted down the runway during fashion week himself.

At the end of our chat, he pulled out his phone, revealing something in the works, a self-publish photo zine – Sebaneka – possibly the first retrospective of the young photographer’s work, produced with his own archival images and never-before-seen photographs from the beginning of his career.

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