As I was waiting in front of the HVW8 Gallery in Berlin to meet Jerry Hsu for the first time in my life, I again went over the notes I had written on a rumpled piece of paper. I knew I had to ask the right questions in order to get a deeper impression of who Jerry is and how his mind functions. It began to rain and I had to take cover inside of the gallery, where some of Jerry’s expressive photos had already been hung up on the white walls, while others still were packed in boxes. While looking around, I felt like the whole room was filled with love, while also charged with related but at the same time totally opposite feelings of sadness, and even hints of quiet pain. On one side of the gallery, an adorable naked girl was portrayed sitting in a tub, while on the other side, a man on a lonely street was captured throwing away a fresh bunch of flowers into a trash can while walking by. Somehow Jerry seems to have an eye for quiet and mundane scenes that, on a closer inspection, depict a much deeper theme than what might appear at first glance.
As it turned out, the photography already told me much about Jerry’s character. He is a friendly and calm type of person who was once described by Marc Johnson as “cool breeze”. What was struck me was the way in which he he answered my questions with focus, self-reflection, and consideration. I had initially planned to do an interview that would focus mostly on Jerry’s photography, but as soon as I touched upon the topic of skateboarding, the conversation was guided by Jerry’s excitement in this direction as well.
When we were done with the interview, Danny shot some portraits of Jerry with what seemed like an ancient Polaroid camera. Both photographers naturally started to do some kind of nerd-talk about all sorts of cameras, after which we embarked on a little walk through Berlin, following Jerry as he tried to shoot something with Danny’s Polaroid that we could use for this article. Unfortunately, the camera died after the first shot, but seeing how carefully Jerry scans his environment and searches for motives in order to capture an image was a one-of-a-kind experience.
Interview by Paul Röhrs
Photos by Danny Sommerfeld
Having seen former exhibitions of yours, like “A Table For One,” in which you depict people eating alone, can you describe what your current exhibition, called “A Love Like Mine Is Hard To Find” is concerned with?
This exhibition is sort of a mixture of both my old and new photography, as it is a mixture of my street photography and the kind of the more intimate, sentimental portraits that I do like of my wife, friends and other people. You know, I tried to give the whole thing a certain mood, which is a more sentimental one. I would say it is kind of like a diary, which depicts just my daily life. But furthermore, I wanted to give it a feeling. So it is kind of somber and also kind of a little bit humorous, too, which both I feel like are themes that are in my photos a lot and I just wanted to do a broad sort of exhibition about those things.
If you don’t mind, I would like to get more into detail with this. Tell me some more about the work process. What I am especially interested in is how you decide the moment when you feel like you are finished? You know, because in my imagination, it is really difficult to find a point at which to end a project like this.
Well, for this kind of project I did not shoot anything new specifically for it. So all the photos already existed and I looked at a large selection and tried to find a story in the photos. I kind of looked at the space and just tried to fill it up with just the right amount, you know, like not too much and not too little. So the process of this show is more like in the theme, finding the photos the work well together to send the message that I want to send. So that is how it works as far as like taking the photos, which of course is a totally different process.
So the message is a really personal one?
Yeah, it is like about my love or my obsession with my environment or all the things around me and I tried to interpret those things in a way that hopefully will make sense.
Would you say photography changed the way you perceive the world around you, or did you always have the same way of looking at things and now you just take photos of it/them?
Yeah, I think the photographs are just a manifestation of how I see the world. But let’s say photography has also made me more aware of my environment and it made me more thoughtful about the potential of small things. You know, I try to photograph this a lot, things that are small or settled but that have a life of their own.
What does a situation need in order for you to hit the shutter release on your camera? What inspires you?
I don’t really know! (Laughs) It is funny because I just really try to work on instinct. So a lot of it is just guesswork. Sometimes from a hundred photos that I take there is probably only one that is something I really like. I would say it is a combination of luck, anticipation and hope. I just sort of look around and I kind of know what I like. But sometimes it ends up shit or stupid. (Laughs) You never know what’s going to work so you just have to try a lot and figure it out later. So editing is very important, too, in all forms of art. Not everything you do is going to be good. So you also have to be able to choose what is good. You know what I mean?
Since we always present a concept within every print issue, this one is going to be concerned with the different techniques of how to portray the character of a person. We thought about the idea that in photography, when someone shoots a picture of a scene or even another person, the photographer his or herself is also transmitting his or her own character across into the photo. Would you say this is right? Do you sometimes see your own character within a picture you have taken?
I hope so! (Laughs) Well, I think that that is sort of objective. You know, you always want to create a story or a feeling when you make work like this and usually as a photographer that’s you because it is about you and what you are putting into all this stuff. So one of the most important parts of making art is being able to, well, not inject but sprinkle yourself in. But be settled because you don’t want to be too heavy handed. You know, just sort of gently put yourself into the work. Yeah, that is definitely important to me. So, I have to really stare at stuff and really think about whether it might work for me or not.
Do you think someone has to be born with certain innate talents or character traits in order to be a good photographer, or is it something that can be achieved through practice?
I think a little bit has to do with what you are born with but most of it is just decisions you make in your life. You know, because for me I was more interested in art and stuff when I was very young, probably when I was in grade school. And then becoming a skateboarder you are exposed to so many different types of people, artists, photographers and, you know, just this whole world every skateboarder understands. I think it is mostly about the path you go on in life. I think everyone has a lot of potential but it just depends on their choices in life and in what direction they want to go. I mean for me I just really went for it, you know. I just really experimented and found out that this is something I really enjoyed. So it is less about genetics but more about temperament and personality. I know a lot of people that are great, have great eyes but they don’t want to put themselves out there like that, which is fine, too.
So you mean that the circumstances formed your profession as well as the people you met along the way?
Yeah, I mean you can meet one person in your life and that totally can change your whole perspective about anything, art or work or like whatever, you know.
So you met the right guys and made the right decisions in life?
Yeah, I think so! (Laughs)
Could you name some people that have influenced you in doing what you do today?
Yeah, just from being a skateboarder you naturally meet a lot of photographers and they taught me how to use cameras and they showed me other photographers and so on. I would say, for example, that people like Ed Tempelton were very influential just because he was a skater who also was very interested in and also made a lot of art and photography that then again was interesting to me. So he really inspired me to keep going and moreover to explore that part of my life. He also taught me that my life does not have to be just skateboarding and that I can do so much more with it.
With exhibitions like this one, you kind of changed your status from being a professional skateboarder to being known as a photographer. How did this change of profession come about, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of being a photographer over being a skateboarder?
Well, I would actually say that I still see myself as a professional skateboarder more than a photographer actually. There definitely were times in my life where skateboarding has been less important, but as this particular time it is very important to me. I am filming for a new video and so I am very focused on it. Although, being a photographer is very important to me, too, skateboarding is definitely right now taking a priority. But I don’t really know how much longer that will last because, you know, I am just getting tired. I just can’t really skate on that level that much longer I think, although it would be nice. Becoming a photographer was also a dream of mine, and I am very lucky and fortunate today to even get the opportunity to dip my toes into the water. You know what I mean? I would not have considered myself to be a professional photographer, but rather say that I am just a guy who takes photos and is lucky enough to do stuff like this.
What are you currently filming for?
Oh, I am filming for a new Emerica video. It is kind of a smaller one and it will be done this fall. It’s me, Spanky, Andrew Reynolds, Brian Herman and Figgy. So that’s what I’ve been working on for a couple of years. It has been really awesome but at the same time really hard. It is funny, because for a long time I kind of wasn’t really interested in skateboarding anymore. I just kind of fell off and I think I needed to do that. You know? And when they asked me like if I want to be in this video I was like “yeah, let’s try it!” That actually kind of reinvigorated me. You know, it was so cool because I just felt like a kid again watching skate videos, trying to find spots and making lists of tricks. It was great, you know, like skating was new to me again. It was my rebirth! So I am really happy about this project because it gave me back something I had lost for a while.
Is it also motivating for you that it might be one of, or probably even the last, part?
That is hard to say, but this part has been really hard to do because I want to skate on a certain level but my body just can’t do what it used to do. So I would say that this might be kind of the last part that is on a certain level of skating. You know, I might film for more parts but I am not sure if I could do this again because this one has been pretty tough and I am still working pretty hard for it. But at the same time, I don’t know, let’s assume next year someone were to be like “Oh, we want you to film another video part.” I don’t know if I want to just be like “Sorry, I can’t do this no more because I can’t do what I did before.” However, I guess it would be kind of nice in any profession to stop when you are at your best. But at the same time it is hard to notice when you once you have reached this point.