Jerry Hsu sees things other people overlook: a plastic-covered gas station cheeseburger so unappetizing it looks almost fake; a bucket of meat complete with the judgmental eye of the butchered animal; a T-shirt with badly translated text that defies sense. These are the kinds of images you’ll find in the skateboarder-turned-photographer’s latest book The Beautiful Flower Is the World.
Spanning more than 700 pages, the book is a selection of cellphone photos from Hsu’s cult Nazi Gold Tumblr. The Tumblr ran from 2009 until 2017, serving as a photo diary that captured life’s unintentional absurdities.
For many, Hsu is best known for his skateboarding and as the man behind skate brand Sci-Fi Fantasy, and his primary career has influenced his photographic work. “There’s a huge parallel," he says. "There’s this thing we call skate vision, where if we're driving down the street, we're always looking for stuff to skate. So we're constantly scanning our environment to see if we can use it or not, which is a skill I use for photography. Skating has definitely helped me fine-tune that weird curiosity.”
Weird curiosity is the thing that comes through when looking at Hsu’s images. He captures the overlooked and banal parts of life, transforming them into meaningful moments, more often than not tinged with poignancy.
“The work isn’t cynical, though it can be viewed that way sometimes,” he explains. “A lot of the photos are ambiguous. The things I notice in everyday life that are worth capturing have that quality, like, ‘Look at this thing. It's kind of sad, but it's also really funny and it's also kind of pretty.’”
That tragicomic element can be seen in the daily wanderings of The Beautiful Flower Is the World and Nazi Gold, but it's also present in his other publications. Table for One, another Tumblr that was later turned into a zine, documented lonely-seeming solo diners, most often in cheap-looking takeout spots, while zine Our Moment Together turned the lens on fans asking Hsu for a picture. Published in 2013, Our Moment Together pinpoints a moment in time and, as the photographer told Ignant, “encapsulates what skate kids look like right now.”
The Beautiful Flower Is the World is a time capsule from the earlier days of cellphone photography. It's strange to think from today's perspective, but back when Hsu started Nazi Gold, sharing images from phones was only starting to become the standard thing to do. Now, what Hsu calls “the shorthand language of photos” is everywhere. “Younger people, they don't even understand a world where you can't do that," he says. "I just remember discovering that technology and being so excited about it.”
As he describes it, Hsu and his friends, most of whom also happened to be photographers, were constantly sending photos to each other. So he started Nazi Gold as a place to archive some of the images.
“A lot of these photos are personal messages for people. Like, if you see something and you think of someone and you send them the photo,” he explains. But as Nazi Gold grew, Hsu found that the images, with their "weird appeal for a lot of people," had unexpectedly expanded far beyond his group of friends.
Moving something from online to print is always a strange transition, but for Nazi Gold that change was amplified because the images had never existed physically. “Because they’re phone pictures, they weren't ever really meant to be in physical form,” he says. But that's exactly what attracted Hsu to the project. “The series is questioning what photography can be. Because you're using a phone, it's weird. You have such a different attitude towards what you're capturing. I take much less care in my composing and lighting — it all rests on what it is, not how you capture it.”
Hsu usually shoots on film, creating more intimate work that he says “explores my emotional state.” He's no photography purist, explaining that different formats work for different projects. “Your tools say something about the work that you're doing, so it should be deliberate what you use,” he says. However, he concedes that for a lot of people, the images in The Beautiful Flower Is the World don't align with traditional views of what art is.
"Within the hierarchy of photographers and artists, there will always be a wall between what they consider to be high art and high resolution versus low art and low resolution,” he says. However, Hsu is unfazed. “It doesn't matter because it's all photography — it's what you want it to be.”
The Beautiful Flower Is the World is published by Anthology Editions and is on presale now. For the first edition, a random selection of books will come with prints signed by Hsu.