Peter Yang’s Journey From the Daily Texan to Photographic Stardom
Peter Yang got his start at The Daily Texan. He’s now one of the world’s most sought-after photographers.
Peter Yang took his first photograph at age 7. His mother handed him her camera as he entered a cave at the Tulsa Zoo and told him to snap a photo of the bats inside. When they got the roll developed, the photo was com-
pletely dark, with just a touch of glare from the glass enclosure. He didn’t take another photograph for more than a decade.
In 1995, Yang, BJ ’05, arrived on the Forty Acres as a business major. But his focus changed when he saw a flyer announcing tryouts for The Daily Texan inside his dorm hallway at Jester. The newspaper staff gave each hopeful a few rolls of film and told them to shoot for a couple of days.
“I was obsessed with it,” Yang says. “I tried out eight or nine times. I came back every day. It opened up this world of excitement.”
Yang was named an alternate, a position he’s pretty sure was invented for him, simply because he wouldn’t stop trying. Yang says encouragement from his editor, Andy Rodgers, BJ ’96, was the key to his success. He didn’t scoff at Yang’s beginner questions or care that he hadn’t been a staff photographer for his high school yearbook like the other photographers.
“Andy embraced me,” Yang says. “In the beginning, all these little things are so important.”
After graduation, Yang worked for the Austin American-Statesman before moving to New York City, where he gradually built a stunning portfolio of subjects, famous and not. More than 20 years after that Texan tryout, Yang, 41, lives in Los Angeles with his wife and newborn daughter. The neophyte who showed up with a crummy point-and-shoot camera when everyone else had SLRs is now a highly coveted photographer who has shot everything from Levis campaigns to the president of the United States, for publications like GQ, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone. If there is an iconic photograph of your favorite comedian, athlete, or musician, there’s a good chance Yang shot it.
“It is almost like there wasn’t any other option,” he says of abandoning his business degree. “It’s so fortunate to not have the existential question of, is this the thing I really want, but rather, how do I do it?”—Chris O’Connell
“This is Jerry Robinson, the creator of the [comic book character] the Joker,” Yang says. “We’re at his house. People build sets and distress them trying to mimic houses like this.” Yang tried a couple different ideas, like the Joker playing pool, but they were a bit goofy for the photographer’s sensibilities. “I saw the kitchen and I really liked it.” Yang says. “The guy in the Joker mask is one of my assistants and a friend of mine. I had this idea of the Joker palling around, and when I saw this frame I fell in love because there is someone there with his creation, and the Joker is like, ‘Nobody gets me.’ They are just chatting with each other.”
“I have photographed Obama three times over the years. This was when he was running [in 2008], and he was about to receive the nomination. There was so much buzz about him so I was incredibly excited about the shoot,” Yang says. He only had three minutes to capture the iconic shot of the future president, at a campaign stop in North Carolina, “in a really unmemorable room: fluorescent lights and white walls. I set up the shot and had music playing, and we had the lights dimmed.” Yang looked at every photo he could of Obama because he had already been photographed hundreds of times. “I wanted to get a real, natural moment,” Yang says. The instinct is to shoot as much as possible in a small window of time, but Yang had a different idea. “I slowed it down, and we had a conversation. It felt risky at that point in my life; I had never done that before, but that’s the only way anything natural is going to happen. I put the camera down and started joking about stuff. I made a comment and he laughed, and instinctively I had my camera under my chin and I snapped a photo. It ended up being the shot.”
“It’s everyone’s dream to shoot for Texas Monthly when you’re from Texas. I was fortunate to shoot for them early on,” Yang says. “They really encouraged me while I was still finding my voice.” Yang had moved to New York by 2007, when he was assigned to shoot country music singer and actor Lyle Lovett in a hotel room in Manhattan. “He was great. He’s inside his own head, but very polite, and very much a gentleman,” Yang says. “He’s very keyed-in on his own image.”
“A lot of comedians perform and then they don’t perform. Will Ferrell is a good example. He’s a very even person. You might think he’s introverted,” Yang says. “Tiffany is Tiffany all the way through. She is out there, full of energy, making jokes the whole time.” Yang says Haddish was very positive throughout the experience, and ended up loving the photos, which always makes an artist feel good. “It was really fun. You feel like best friends for a second,” Yang says. “Then you’re on your way.”
“This was after his latest album [2017’s DAMN.], before he won the Pulitzer,” Yang says. “I was a big fan and wanted to photograph him in a really cool warehouse space that had different textures.” But best laid plans, et cetera. “We ended up in a photo studio, which is always really eh.” So Yang had to create some textures on his own. He had once used a lighting trick to shoot a perfumier to convey the sense of smell, and he wanted to try something similar with Lamar. “We had lights, backlights, and two people with water bottles spraying like crazy. When it hits the light right, it looks like space dust. It’s like a little Milky Way back there.”
“I had shot key art for [Peele’s Comedy Central sketch comedy series] Key and Peele, so I knew the show really well. They have so many sketches that are really dark,” Yang says. He is also a huge horror fan, so shooting Peele as he was doing press for his horror/comedy feature directorial debut, 2017’s Get Out, was a natural fit. “God bless the props,” Yang says, of the seemingly endless cache of horror movie weapons they found: Freddy Krueger gloves, hooks, and sickles. “We grabbed one murder instrument after another to make interesting shapes. At one point he was picking his nose with a sickle, but it wasn’t working. Then we went with the old axe in the head. It was a bit more on the nose. I mean on the head.”
“The shot looks so cool in-camera; there’s no Photoshop here,” Yang says. “We had a backup plan to Photoshop him, and it would have looked the same, but you want to do it for real.” Yang pitched the idea to Boyle, and was sure he’d say no, but the Trainspotting director was game. “That’s real. He’s standing on the ledge,” Yang says. “What you don’t see is right under the bricks under his feet, it’s rooftop.” A gust of wind blew Boyle’s jacket as Yang got the shot, which gave the illusion of more danger. Yang says after the shoot his assistants told the photographer that he almost fell off the roof a couple times. “Everything I do now is a little more dialed in,” Yang says. “The more I do this, the safer everything is — rigged by union folks and people with certificates. It takes a bit of the fun out of it but it’s probably better this way.”
“It was one of these Rolling Stone shoots that had no production at all,” Yang says. So he went to the well. “I had my little phase, since O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where I was obsessed with anything that had fields of amber grass. I was obsessed with backlighting in big fields.” Thankfully, RuPaul dressed the part. “He showed up in boots and a hat. I was like, ‘It’s over, this is gonna be good,’” Yang says. “The biggest challenge was the sun was super bright, and not in a good way. I was trying to keep lighting as natural as possible.” Yang also got to work with his subject unfiltered. “It was me and a couple assistants and Ru and some hiker, just rolling around on the grass, chilling out, talking about stuff,” Yang says. “He didn’t come with anyone, which is pretty rare. It was awesome.”
“This guy who dresses up, he fancies himself a superhero — he arrests people, fights crime. He’s this big muscular dude,” Yang says. “I shot a whole group of people, and most of them had the worst costumes. Imagine people who are not in shape. Nerds doing Halloween. He looks super rad in his outfit.” Yang wasn’t getting the desired weather effect he was looking for, and when he saw the bright Seattle sun, he thought, This is not working for me, waited for the sun to set, and created the rain. He also had an issue with his little old lady. “She was 70 but looked about 38. She was the healthiest looking old lady I had seen in my life,” Yang says. So he put a wig on her to try to make her as old as possible. “She looks pretty vibrant,” Yang says. “I had to old her up in post.”
“I had photographed her during her first year on SNL,” Yang says. “It was the day after my wedding. I was tired, I was hungover. I saw her and the way she was and was like, ‘This person is going to be a star. She’s beautiful but freaking weird.’” A few years later, Yang had another chance to photograph the now-star of the late-night cast. “We had all these weird ideas for her. I really like doing ridiculous stuff for comedy,” Yang says. “But I want them to look great.” Yang shot McKinnon at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, which has real-life trains from every era of the MTA. This particular shot is from a prop train that he loaded up with extras. “It’s fun when you can explore a space,” Yang says. “[We had shots that were] way more crazy and outrageous but this ended up being my favorite shot, her dozing off.”