Interview | Bobby Cheung

Aug 10, 2023
by Yannie Gu & Amber He

Bobby Cheung, image courtesy of the artist.

Bobby Cheung (he/him) is a Shanghai-born, New York-based multidisciplinary artist who engages with both visual and sound mediums of art. Bobby has received his creative training at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. With color vision deficiency, he enjoys his creative process by going with the flow and exploring ideas beyond traditional practices. His contemporary works play with the concept of integrating portraiture with new media techniques to convey stories of the current times. Bobby's friends said that he has the attribute of Alice - fun, curious, and silly enough to drop into a rabbit hole.

Bobby Cheung’s work has been published in international magazines such as Vogue, NYLON, Marie Claire Italy. As a photography artist, he has also worked with 88 Rising, Bottega Veneta, NIKE, EVISU and so on. Bobby was the recipient of the Sony World Photography Awards in 2023.

Bobby Cheung, Encyclopedia of Technology. Images courtesy to the artist.

Encyclopedia of Technology is a series of CGI-integrated digital photographs that present my definition of the technological growth I’ve observed in the past few years as a Gen Z visual artist.

Technological change and innovation has already improved our living standards, and will continue to do so. Whether it is pharmaceutics, information technology, logistics or some other aspect of our lives, these advancements transform the world around us, improving productivity, inclusivity and our overall well-being. Through my image-making process I want to encourage the viewer to discover and appreciate these astonishing breakthroughs in humanity.

Some of these technological innovations have impacted traditional image-making techniques, which is reflected in my work through the use of mixed-media techniques; the images are captured in reality and then rendered and composited digitally using CGI techniques. ”

Bobby Cheung, Encyclopedia of Technology. Images courtesy to the artist.

Q: By capturing the images with digital photography and then rendering them with CGI technologies, in what ways does conducting the creative process in the digital space give you a larger potential in exploring the theme of human-technology intervention? Or have you noticed certain limitations at the same time?

A: For the photo series Encyclopedia of Technology, I can pratically create any imagined object or scene that comes to mind with CGI. This is quite different from photography or other mediums, as many mediums require artists to possess certain skills. However, CGI is a highly controllable medium, and the learning curve is not high. The software I use, Blender, is widely used in the industry and is completely free and open-source, providing opportunities for artists of all generations to create. This trend is also evident in videos, such as the popular platforms like TikTok or AI-powered editing software, which have lowered the skill barrier even more.

Whether in photography or music creation, the artist's familiarity with the medium directly influences the degree of creative freedom. CGI allows me to take my artwork a step further. Of course, at the same time, I lose some unexpected elements in the creative process. When shooting concerts or portraits, there are always unpredictable things happening, so I always end up capturing some unexpected photos, regardless of their quality. This is also part of the creative experience. However, in CGI creation, the element of surprise is lost because everything is perfect. In the CGI world, if you create a piece of metal, its surface is flawless, and its reflections are calculated. However, in reality, reflections are not uniform and there may be imperfections, bumps, and dust. Although CGI loses this unpredictability, I don't see it as a negative aspect because I can create scenes in CGI that would cost millions in the real world. Additionally, some scenes themselves defy the laws of physics, but CGI can break through those limitations.

Artistic creation is not like commercial photography, which can be dictated by clients' standards. Therefore, it's easy to get caught up in a state of indecision. Just like painting, the relationship between each stroke is different from the previous one, and there is a great deal of uncertainty. Sometimes, this can cause the creative process to stagnate. That's why I find mediums like CGI, which allow for preconceived ideas, to be very satisfying. The world of CGI is boundless, and I can combine ideas from painting or sculpture. When you first open the CGI interface, it is literally a blank space separated from the real world, so it has no scale or time, unlike the real world with its daily cycles. When you create a cube, even if the cube and the people around it may have a certain proportion, there is no interaction between it and the real world. You can perceive it as a miniature world or as a highly developed world. Everything is ambiguous and there is no constant reference.

While creating this series, I did not intentionally add imperfections that occur in the real world to achieve a highly realistic effect because I personally enjoy the clean visual aesthetic. For me, the realism in CGI is reflected through the characters. The materials, and even the lighting in CGI images can be fake, but the characters are the only part that needs to be real. Therefore, the characters in this series are extracted from real images, while everything else is fake. Although CGI can simulate the effect of dust, it is fundamentally a computer-generated particle effect, so I feel that these effects are still very artificial in some ways. Even when you try to create a realistic visual effect, it can make them appear more fake. However, the most direct aspect of my work is that the characters are always real. Many artists are skilled at using CGI to create surrealistic images that appear sci-fi, but I prefer to find a balance between the surreal and the real. The images I create can be understood and imagined as science fiction, but they may not necessarily depict scenes that could happen in the real world.


Bobby Cheung, Encyclopedia of Technology. Images courtesy to the artist.

“One day, AI-generated images may reach the same or even better quality as those created by humans, but the one thing that can never be replaced is the artist's traumatized childhood.”

Q: As a young artist, what is your perspective on computer-generated images under AI prompts? How do you perceive the relationship between the artists and the increasingly prevalent AI-generated images in the creative industry?

A: Technological advancement is inevitable, whether it's in painting or photography. Even in earlier times without the so-called "high-tech", technology continued to progress. It may not have been chip or artificial intelligence-related technology, but the development extended from cave paintings to drawings on paper. Technological progress always aligns with art. Nowadays, people shooting with film cameras is different from doing so a decade ago because previously, film photography was considered the most advanced imaging technology. But now, film photography is seen as a nostalgic act. This is one of the impacts of technological progress on creativity.

Overall, I believe technological progress has aided my creative process, especially when I want to bring the images in my mind to life. I can simply refer to AI tutorials to learn how to interact with AI, which words produce which effects, and it helps me quickly visualize the imagined scenes. For example, I needed an explosion image for an album cover design set in New York, so I typed the corresponding text into AI to see the effects and get a sense of the possible scale of the explosion. Many times, AI-generated images simulate the visual aesthetic of modeling or what is called a cinematic look, which can be achieved through modeling. Since I already know how to use modeling softwares, I would not rely too much on AI during creative process. Although my process may sound like an assembly-line approach — conceptualizing an image and then executing it with modeling software— it is still filled with my passion and inspiration. I came across an interesting quote before: "One day, AI-generated images may reach the same or even better quality as those created by humans, but the one thing that can never be replaced is the artist's traumatized childhood." AI lacks profound human emotional experiences. Apart from emotions, the creative techniques between humans and machines are similar, and machines are even faster. Even in photography, where the artist frames the shot, the resulting image captured by the camera is still a machine's computation, essentially no different from AI's computation. Moreover, artists have control over the AI medium through the input of text into the model, and even each time the computer generates a different result, which introduces the element of surprise in art. I think that AI and photography have many similarities.

A: One of the downsides of AI, in my opinion, is its convenience, which lowers the technical bar for people but can also lead to abuse at the same time. For example, in the past, a client would spend thousands of dollars for a design, but now, they can subscribe to a $10 Midjourney subscription and produce an unlimited number of combinations. However, this creative process is unhealthy. AI-driven creation lacks purity - You input a command, and it automatically produces a beautiful image. The process becomes a consumptive behavior, similar to purchasing goods, where the artist doesn't have much mental and intellectual engagement. 

Additionally, the same words can yield identical outcome from a 5-year-old child and a 50-year-old adult as two different users, the similar results lacks personality and characteristic differences. AI-generated images detach artists from the thought process because artists don't know how the image was generated and thus do not have to experience the thought process. Unlike traditional painting, where artists deliberate over where to place a brushstroke, even when drawing a stick figure, there is the sound of friction from the pencil. This is the real experience of artistic creation, but in AI, the experience is reduced to typing a few words. I don't think AI technology is entirely negative, but at times, this quick generation process is unfair.

Bobby Cheung, Encyclopedia of Technology. Images courtesy to the artist.

Q: Your diverse practice in photography includes portrait, still life, fashion editorial and music. Could you please describe a little bit about how these different practices impact one another when you are making work?

When I struggle in finding inspiration for music, I would turn to visual art to search ideas, and vice versa. Because I initially studied music and have been creating music ever since, so I feel a closer connection to it. However, I haven't found the same level of excitement for music in the visual realm because the experiences are different. When I engage in photography, I use the camera as a tool, whereas in music creation, I don't rely on electronic elements as much. When I play an instrument, pressing the keys produces a real sound feedback, which is different from the photographs generated by digital imaging systems in digital photography. Even in film photography, where the camera still serves as a medium, the process of playing an instrument is more immediate, allowing me to establish a stronger connection with the art.

I also work on film scoring, which is closely related to visual arts as well. The reason I pursued this field was that I believed music was more direct and didn't require many technical skills to appreciate. I wanted to create through a more direct artistic medium, and film scoring allowed me to explore many impressive visual works. In music, I allow myself to play and experience, forming emotional connections with the music. Perhaps I can come up with a melody while washing dishes, tapping out a rhythm, and then singing along, resulting in a rough sketch of a composition. However, creating visual art is a more formal and educational process for me. If I were to capture a still life, I would have to think carefully and even sit down to sketch out the composition.

In the past conversations with people around me, I could sense that photography is more commonly seen as a medium with an endpoint comparing to music. Photography is transforming what we can see visually into a tangible art form, but if I were to take a photo of a table right now, and if I captured a good rhythm in it, it essentially becomes music. The reason I decided to do film scoring is that I believe music comes before anything else. Whether it's the cries of newborns in a hospital, the whispers at an airport, or the cheers at a graduation ceremony, everything is related to sound. Even when you close your eyes and can't see visuals, sound still exists. It's just that they are so common that we may not notice them. 

Bobby Cheung, Encyclopedia of Technology. Images courtesy to the artist.

Q: In Encyclopedia of Technology, there is always an element of gaze - whether it be the models looking directly into the eyes of the viewers, the character and the digital screens exchanging gaze, or the gaze from the photographer behind the camera, what do you think about gazing as an charged act, in relation to the power dynamics in your work?

I think if art is a tool, then when models look into the camera, it's like they are looking at the audience— the language is very straightforward. Looking straight into the camera is the most direct interaction, although I didn't deliberately arrange it that way. In fact, for the models, this gaze becomes more interesting because I photograph them in a completely blank scene, allowing them to imagine a scene they've never seen before. They don't know if this scene can be realized in reality, so this process of imagination for them feels more real than shooting in ordinary settings. After the shoot, I then model based on their state, so many of the images are adjusted based on my initial expectations. When I show the final images to the models, there is often a stark contrast between what they initially imagined and what the photos turn out to be like, which is quite intriguing.

Q: What is the best art-related experience you had this year so far?

A: I feel that my artistic experience may not be as exciting as many other fellow artists, because I approach it in a very methodological way. This includes what I mentioned earlier about how music should be learned. Unlike some artists who might unexpectedly have inspirations to write a song while walking down the street, I approach my creative practice in a logical manner. I somehow missed that phase of being very spontaneous in generating ideas.

One major realization I've had this year is that many people, whether they are my classmates or my followers on social media, always ask me what music video I am currently shooting whenever they see me. It is the first time for me to wear this label of “music video creator”. Many people may consider a label to be not so good, but I don't see anything wrong with it. In fact, I have always wanted to create a medium that combines music and photography, so it's only natural that music videos have become the most reasonable path. In the past, when people told me I was talented, I would feel that this compliment was half-hearted because I didn't know how seriously they meant it. I want to create music videos, and others always ask me if I'm shooting another new music video, to me, it is a very direct recognition, giving me a great sense of accomplishment.