Why I Make the Art I Do, and the Origins of the W.O.1

An Asian man in a dark suit looking back into the camera while walking down a street. A group of the Asian man in white, walking the other way in the reflection.


I’m part of a trend of young photographers such as: Brook Shaden, Erik Johansson and Casane, using photoshop to create surreal images. If I had to give myself a label, I’d call myself a “Neo-Photo Surrealist.” Because while I’m creating images in the tradition of the Surrealists photographers such as: Man Ray, Salvador Dali, Lee Miller and more recently Sandy Skoglund. I differ in my choice of tools, namely in my use of Photoshop.

I strive to make work that strikes a delicate balance between beauty and heady. But I wasn’t always this way. To explain why, let me tell you the story of how I got started making this kind of work in the first place…


Johnny Tang, lying inside a camera obscura with a sweeped white background.
Lying inside a camera obscura.

Sleeping on a Cloud

In the beginning

When I was in Art School, I was hell bent on becoming a documentary photographer. I only wanted to shoot straight photography (i.e. no lights, no posing subjects etc.), because that’s what other people told me real photography was.

I spent the first year out from Art School working a long list of part time jobs, and photographing in streets as much as I could. I was trying to find my voice by taking lots of pictures. But I was trying to take the kinds of pictures that I knew newspapers and magazines liked. Then one day in the summer of 2009, one of my closest friends, Chloe, suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. My whole value system came crashing down.


Chicago, 2006 – Chloe and I, in happier times.

Making work for myself

When I returned from her wake, I felt the need to take a picture that I would love, and would be willing to hang on my wall. I wanted to create something that reminded me of the work of Phunk Studios whose work I had just discovered at the time. I wanted it to look cool, to have an obvious level of craft, and to incorporate a black and white theme used to tell a story. I went out that day and shot Dichotomy, the first entry in what has now become my flagship series – World of One.


Group of Asian men in dark and light suits crossing the street in Boston.
Dichotomy – the first entry in the World of One series.

Satisfied with my first attempt at Dichotomy, I didn’t touch that style of work for a whole ‘nother year. I was afraid I’d never be able to make another piece to match it in quality. But encouraged by a new motivation to only create the kinds of images that I love, I kept experimenting with different themes and styles.


Two mattresses leaning against a wall. Multiple hands reaching out from the shadows between the mattresses and the wall.
2011 – Early multiplicity experimentation.


Wondering through life

I made pictures with lots of arms protruding from nowhere, I burned 1000 paper cranes, and sometimes I made more surreal self-portraits. But nothing was happening. My audience wasn’t growing, and I wasn’t making any more money. I was making work that I like, but doing little to find people that could appreciate it. I started to look for other ways to make a living. Even going as far as becoming certified as an ESL instructor.


Johnny Tang, standing in front of his piece "Dichotomy" at his first MassArt Auction in 2011.


Finally over the winter of 2010-2011, as I was still in Boston looking for a english teaching jobs in South Korea. A collector of mine encouraged me to submit work to the MassArt Auction. I had been rejected from the auction the year before (and the graduate school), and was still a bit sore about it. So after much arm twisting and encouragement, I submitted just one piece. That piece was Dichotomy, and it was accepted! Not only was my piece accepted, the auction would also go on to sell three copies!! This was the first time I had ever made any real money from my artwork (or made a living wage for that matter). It was the moment I felt like a real artist for the very first time, and it is the moment I decided that this is what I wanted to do with my life for the rest of it.



While I’m still struggling to fulfill that grand ambition of making art my primary source of living, this experience changed all the work that I would make thereafter. I realized that if I don’t like it, there’s no point in making it. Because if I didn’t like it, I won’t care who does, or how good of an investment it might be because I would still be able to sell it later.

At the same time, I am also much more aware that my work is not for everyone, and to be mindful of my audience. To align the values I present in my work with the values of my viewers. This is why I always try to embed things like: beauty, craft and most importantly a compelling story, into my works. Because those are the qualities of the kind of art I value, and are the qualities I believe make up great art.

Please let me know if reading this story has resonated with you. Or if you’d like to read more stories like this! Or if you don’t. Especially if you don’t!

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