William Yang’s work is an eloquent portrait of a well-lived life

How can an image become a symbol? How does a photographer also become iconic? A major survey exhibition of the work of Queensland-born and Sydney-based William Yang answers this question.

Yang is an acclaimed photographer, storyteller, and performer. This exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery celebrates Yang’s multifaceted practices that have steadily evolved over the last five decades.

The act of looking can be voyeuristic and predatory. Susan Sontag wrote in her 1973 classic on Photography that the camera of a photographer “may presumptively, invade, trespass upon, distort and exploit.” Cameras can be playful and joyful. Yang’s works fall into this second category. Yang’s ability, when working in an intimate register, to disarm subjects is impressive.

The exhibition is arranged roughly chronologically and moves through Yang’s various phases. He was born in North Queensland, Australia in 1943. Yang is of third-generation Chinese descent. His work is heavily influenced by his experience growing up in Dimbulah.

Yang’s parents disputed the Chinese heritage of their children, preferring that they assimilate. Yang, in his media preview floor talk, described his experience of “coming out” twice. First as a homosexual man and then in his 30s, in search of his Chinese heritage.

In his iconic image, Life Lines #3-Self-Portrait #3, Yang recreates an old photograph of himself aged three and recounts the racist taunts that he received at primary school in a handwritten note.

William Yang. Australia, 1943, Life Lines #3 – Self-portrait #2 (1947) 1947/2008 photographer: Unknown. Image 100.0 x 70 cm. The University of Queensland Collection was bought in 2010. Carl Warner Photo reproduced courtesy of Andrew Baker, Art Dealer in Brisbane and the artist.

The strategy is prominently displayed throughout the entire exhibition. Yang will often rework photographs by handwriting text on the images. Yang’s use of the first person repeatedly creates an intimacy with the viewer, similar to that of sharing a confession or diary.

Benjamin Law, an author and broadcaster, remarked in his essay for the catalog that Yang has a “superpower,” namely his ability to make his subjects feel at ease. Yang’s observations are traced directly onto Law’s image like a Mobius strip. This reinforces the relationship between the photographer and the subject.

William Yang (Australia), b. 1943, Ben Law. Arncliffe 2016, Inkjet print on Ilford Galerie Smooth Cotton Rag. Image provided by the artist. (c) William Yang

Yang, who had moved from Brisbane to Sydney in 1969, found work as a paid social photographer. In a tradition of photojournalism that stretches back to New York photographers like Nan Goldin or Diane Arbus, a duality was at play.

A certain warmth and exuberance mark his social photography.

There is also a strong political undercurrent. The result is a photographic archive that documents the emergence of Australia’s gay and lesbian community in the 1970s and 1980s.

The powerful sequence “Allan,” from the Sadness project of the 1990s, brings visibility as a strategy to the forefront. Yang memorializes Allan’s death by tracing his friend’s and ex-lover’s physical decline due to an HIV-related illness. This poignantly reminds us of the devastation wreaked on Sydney’s homosexual community during that time.

Yang’s tender and dignified portrayal of the last 12 months of Allan’s life allows the viewer to enter the world of death.


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