Lillian Liu is known for her masterful photographic works featuring femme fatales, goddesses, empresses and all varieties of mythical and fairytale-inspired women.
They convey ranges of emotions and are beautifully presented in artfully created narratives; Liu rejects the need to “prettify” her models, instead, she brings them to life by telling stories of their whims, suffering, vulnerabilities and strengths. An accomplished model, she has posed for incredibly talented photographers and built an impressive portfolio of published works showcasing her versatility. A modern renaissance woman, Liu’s talents do not stop there. A pianist and violinist, Liu is able to communicate her art not only through imagery but also music.
Nee Hao Magazine’s Yinsey Wang interviews Liu on her journey to becoming a recognisable name in the photographic community and the influences on her work and methodologies.
What is your first creative memory?
Drawing! I would draw absolutely everywhere and on everything that was mine (that I was allowed to draw on, as I got in very big trouble once for drawing a kite on the wall whilst pretending to be a teacher for my stuffed animals. Learned my lesson then!). Common themes were unicorns (with bows on their tails, and little curls on their manes), little cats, and Halloween themes, but my first vivid creative memory was drawing a birthday card for my mother… but somehow, my little brain thought that her April birthdate meant that it would be extremely appropriate for me to draw her a Halloween themed card. I was so proud of it. There were little ghosts, tombstones, mummies, bats, black cats, and pumpkins everywhere. I think this says a lot about who I am today!
I think this love for drawing and painting has shaped my photography style, which inches extremely close to a digital hybrid format at many times. I also took lessons on traditional sketching and shading for a while, using models and still life setups, and as regards many of the skills I learned there, I am now utilising in my post-processing.
How did you get into photography and modelling?
I started photography after an enthusiastic high school teacher encouraged me to try it out, while offering me free tools of the trade to work with. It was instantly a hit, because I found that the process of capturing the way that I saw the world was strangely eye-opening and very revealing to both myself and others. I mostly engaged with macro photography, prominently working with nature subjects or extremely urban designs. I did not take my first portraits until about a year afterwards. I found that it was also a very relevant and relatable subject, as it remains a popular art form with most people, and is well-appreciated overall. However, while many are familiar with photography as a whole to a certain extent in this day and age (almost everyone has a phone camera or has operated a point-and-shoot)… there is still a steep learning curve involved. Therefore, it is both extremely accessible, and yet hard to master in its own way. It is also ever evolving, in both purist and non-traditional ways, which keeps the medium fresh and compelling. I am forever challenged and pushed to new heights by seeing the ever-improving work of others in this same field, and it is so exhilarating and inspiring to witness. I still have miles to go!
As for modelling, I started in 2014 and it was not a particularly serious pursuit. I was keen on starting, because I thought it would help me become a better photographer – and it did! I got to feel what it was like in front of the lens, and began to realise even more what was comfortable, what was not comfortable, what sort of instructions I needed and what photographers wanted from a model. This collective knowledge has made me even more aware of what I expected of my own models, in terms of how to guide them and make them feel at ease, so they could respond and cooperate accordingly.
It has been my absolutely pleasure to have modelled for some photographers that I look up to the most in the world… and I am both humbled and also thankful to have witnessed their artistry at work. I also love it, because it allows me to live and become a fantasy or a character that I otherwise cannot be, in ordinary waking life.
Tell us about your most memorable shoot. Why did it have such a strong impact on you?
My most memorable shoot was one that was not necessarily the most enjoyable or smoothest to conduct, but it was the biggest learning experience overall. I loved the model and the outfit but the location was a constant uphill battle. It was in a tropical greenhouse and the temperature indoors was a huge contrast to the icy climate of Denmark in the deep of winter. My lens kept on fogging up, and I was beginning to realise that the condensation was not good for my equipment… and this was happening while we were trying to avoid people coming into the shot while also on a tight time constraint.
Nevertheless, we were adamant on getting results due to everything being ready to go forward, and it was so hit-and-miss with each click of the shutter. One moment, the camera would be cleaned and ready to go again, when somebody would then decide to walk into the shot. At other times, the background would have been relatively clear, but then the camera would fog up so much that the shot was null and void anyway. After each shot, everything had to be reset, and the entire camera body had to be cleared of condensation, so the process was slow and arduous. Nevertheless, we did get a few good, usable shots out from the effort, so it ended up being worthwhile! I would say, never again – but at least I have battled and (barely) won with very disagreeable shooting conditions. It was however a valuable learning experience.
You are an advocate of beauty in all shapes of sizes and you regularly use models from less traditional agency backgrounds. What do they add to your portfolio and creative process?
Yes! I am a fan of using both agency models, and normal individuals as well. Both give a different vibe to my photos, and I generally decide on who to use depending on the context of my shoot. From runway model, to plus size, to absolute newbie: I love shooting them all, if the shoot calls for it. For instance, if I wanted to shoot a fashion editorial, I would then generally go for an agency model, as it is the smoothest decision due to what genres they’re used to working for, and the sizing limitations of some couture one-of-a-kind pieces.
For creative work, I end up looking for the vibe and overall feel of a person, as opposed to their agency credentials or even modelling experience. I usually have a specific character or persona that I am trying to bring to life in my work – and sometimes, if a person has “the right look in their eye,” or has a certain posture to their stance, or even just owns a certain, unique aura, they could end up being more realistic and genuine subjects for me… which in turn, adds greater depth to a shoot (as opposed to someone who is an experienced chameleon and has some aspects of their movement and behaviour pre-learned). For example, a nervous, candid, and naturally shy girl has the potential to play the vulnerable part more expressively and naturally than a confident, experienced model. Some of the models I’ve used have never modelled before, and are just friends!
Overall, I am a firm believer that patience, good cooperation, and good listening skills can make anyone a good model in front of my lens – and I am happy and grateful to say that many of my friends have been beautiful subjects who have given me stellar photographs to work with… while others have gone on to start their own modelling careers afterwards!
In the future, I hope to photograph more minority models, as I find that they are lacking in my portfolio.
I also have a soft spot for alternative models, due to me essentially starting off my career shooting with a lot of these wonderful girls. I still work with some of them today as well, due to their versatility in unconventional themes. While my work has ventured away from pure, alternative material now, I still commend the creativity and professionalism of these girls, and love their raw, unhinged approach to being in front of any lens.
You are an accomplished pianist with an incredible talent for music. Tell us about your journey so far.
Thank you so much! I started learning how to read music when I was three, found that I really enjoyed it overall, and thus continued! It was a tough ride overall… my childhood consisted of practicing for multiple hours on end – and this doubled when I added the violin into the mix. Crossroads happened when I decided to pursue classical music in university, which forced me to decide which instrument I was to specialise in. I auditioned for both instruments, and was accepted as both a violinist and pianist at various institutions… which made the decision harder overall. In the end, I went with which instructor resonated with me the best, and that’s when violin went off to the side lines despite the potential for a scholarship, and piano became my main instrument of trade. I still played the violin in orchestras and ensembles, but I no longer took lessons for it from then on out. It was not an easy transition, from simply practicing for conservatory exams, to playing piano in university – and I will admit that I struggled a lot to stay on schedule and to practice even more than I did before… especially with new distractions, extracurricular courses, friends, and energy levels.
After that four year battle, I went on immediately to audition for schools that would take me as a Masters student. After flying around and taking weeks off my university program to audition in-person at multiple institutions, my final personal choices ended up being either in New York City, or London. I chose London, due to its close proximity to other wonderful European cities… and I never looked back since. It ended up being an amazing choice both for my musical education and photography career – and so, I started my postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Music deep in the heart of Albertopolis as a wide-eyed 22 year old off on the first major solo adventure of my life. It was here that I learned how to finally balance my time, practice furiously without burning out, and become a responsible, self-motivated musician. I have met wonderful, awe-inspiring musicians in this institution, and am ever grateful to have seen them grow and shine. I finally finished my program in September this year after two years of study, and am currently on faculty at a few music schools back home. I hope to do my own creative work one day, and to ultimately divide up my time between Canada and Europe! Musical inspiration also leaks into my photography quite a bit, so this is something that is also present in my work.
Tell us a piece of music you can’t live without. Why?
Oh, this is the hardest question! I am a lover of many genres of music – most notably classical music, early music, soundtrack, and metal… but I would say that Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum is unforgettable and a modern masterpiece which encompasses overall as a plea from the collective heart of humanity. It is hard to imagine, just what would inspire a man to write such a work and leave such a legacy… filled with a miasma of emotions including regret, resignation, and weight… and yet also solidarity, warmth, and triumph. In is, from start to finish, a marriage of archaic sounds in a clean and modern context. Although I live a secular lifestyle, there is something about sacred music that brings me to a greater understanding of the universe, as it is humanity’s way of encompassing something far greater and ancient than themselves, far beyond our mortal reach.
If you could give your younger teenage advice, what would you say?
Do not care or place energy on the opinions of those who do not choose to know you personally, and embrace those who have taken the time to know and accept you as you are. As you grow older, you come to realise better who your friends are, and that is a beautiful thing in itself.
Who were you in your past life, if you were simply a reincarnation?
Mostly likely someone burned at the stake, for not following the rules to a “T”. A depressing, but honest observation! Or, a troubled academic dedicated to unravelling and proving a lifelong equation or hypothesis, and becoming completely enamoured with the concept until the end of my days, if it took that long. Either of those things – or an explorer who would volunteer for large expeditions into far-off lands. I lived a very nomadic lifestyle for a while between countries, and it truly felt “right.”
What is your greatest aspiration?
My greatest aspiration is to be able to feed myself doing what I love, and purely what I love – while not having to rely on taking certain jobs or commissions on the side that don’t resonate or speak to me. Hence, true artistic freedom, while still being able to make a sustainable living. Ideally, I also hope to be able to travel more freely without financial loss while on the job as well.
Most difficult thing about photography?
Money. It’s always money. Costs come with sourcing props, looks, sets, and materials. Gear costs money, locations can potentially cost money, and outfits definitely cost money if pulled from abroad. While I have been lucky enough to do a lot of collaborative trade work, I do hope that I can one day afford to make my shoots much more lavish and larger-scale, as trade can only get you so far. However, Adobe Photoshop and making composites certainly do help in moving within a tight budget. Nevertheless, having the real thing on set is always preferred.
I also need to upgrade my gear. I have worked with the same lens and camera since I was 16 years old. I just don’t have the funds to do so yet! In due course, I tell myself.
When you model, you transform into such a wide range of characters and manage to master so many looks. What’s the secret to your versatility?
To me, in making a convincing character, you have to understand the character. Therefore, I almost always approach modelling as if I were trying to analyse a storybook character, or as an actress/writer. Who is this character beyond the way they look? What context can they be found in? What is the situation here? How would they react to these surroundings? The danger with modelling, I find, is falling into the trap of “simply looking good” without anything to supplement it. This is why I always guide my models through stories, feelings, or relative experiences – simply because having them imagine themselves living through something, or acting a scene out, subsequently makes the image come to life.
Generally, I am not satisfied as a photographer with someone who simply goes through the motions and only tries to look good – so therefore, I do my best to avoid only doing that when in a photoshoot. I have been asked by others before while on set as to whether I was an actress or not, and I think this is because my modelling is more emotionally charged in context as opposed to being aesthetically inspired. Very minute details matter a lot to me –such as how gentle/hard and open the eyes are, the tenseness of the mouth, and the sense of motion and life that a photograph should capture, among many other things.
Another thing that I try to guide my models on, and try to do myself, is body awareness and the isolation of certain muscles and movement. Certain poses and movements, as unnatural as they feel, make a difference – such as telling my models to imagine their heads being attached to a string on the ceiling and locked in one place, while simultaneously shifting their shoulders forward and downwards without moving the torso… thus creating a more exaggerated collarbone while avoiding a slouch. However, I still have much to learn as a model!
Top hair care tip?
Surprisingly, it is to not do anything to it! Long hair has been the lowest maintenance hairstyle I have personally ever known. Do not heat style, brush vigorously, blowdry, use harsh chemical products, colour or bleach, or over-wash. Being gentle with your hair in all of these ways, makes for a healthy head full of hair with few split ends that only form over time due to natural rubbing and the elements.
Also, I highly recommend the Tangle Teezer, which is the only brush I use. This is as it is the only brush capable of making its way through my long hair! I almost never put product in my hair as well – but when I do (usually after a modelling gig if there’ s a ton of stuff done to my hair), it’s jojoba oil, agave healing oil, or L’Occitane’s repairing oil. I actually avoid coconut oil in my hair, as although popular, it takes a lot of effort to wash out!
Best advice someone has given you?
This too, shall pass.
You may be considering workshops in future. Pitch it to us and how would you bring something unique to your students?
Oh, I hope to do so one day! Even as a collaborative effort with another artist who does similar work to me. Ideally, I hope to show them how to shoot a fantasy image as opposed to spending time solely on technicalities and gear-oriented discussions (as the only gear I own and use for photography is a camera. I just bought my first reflector recently). I would focus on topics such as how to guide the model, curate a fantasy scene without falling into common modelling traps, utilize natural light to the fullest capability and think cinematically. I would then also include a retouching session, sharing information about how to process images in a fantasy style and how to create composites. Most importantly, I would cover how to utilize knowledge of light versus shadow from a traditional artist’s perspective as regards the digital art realm… in which artists tend to create their own light and shadows beyond what the camera is able to capture. It is a large endeavour, but I hope to have it happen!