When you look at Bao Ngo’s photographs, you feel like you've been transported into a fairy tale. Her images are otherworldly, as if taken from an alternate universe; there is a sense of magic and mysteriousness, of softness and vivid colours. For Bao, photography is all about performance and with such a gorgeous display of lighting and contrast it’s clear her images have a strong cinematic influence.
Bao’s photographs move across a range of colour palettes, from intimate pastels to courageous blues. She tell us, “If you want to be a good artist, you let your work change and if it doesn’t, you push yourself to make it happen.” With a new interest in cinematography, Bao has established herself as a versatile and adventurous artist. Make sure to keep your eyes open for her work in the future.
Firstly, can you please introduce yourself in a few words?
I’m Bao, I’m from Texas but am currently staying in New York; I love my cat Fred, and I take pictures.
Recently, there has been a change in mood to your colour tones. You’ve moved from lighter pastel colours to more blues and purples. Is there a reason for this change?
I had this professor when I was in art school, who said before I dropped out, “You’re too young for a style.” So whenever I feel like I’m getting too boxed into one style or one colour palette, I change that. Different colours convey different emotions and moods, and I don’t want to be an artist that only knows how to use one palette or convey one emotion. I got too comfortable, so now I’m moving on.
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Your images look magical. If you could put yourself inside a fairy tale, which one would it be and why?
Sleeping Beauty, but probably only Disney’s animated version of it. I think it’s my favourite animated movie regarding style. I love medieval art, and I studied graphic design in school – Sleeping Beauty is medieval and gothic art blended with a bold, 1950s graphic style. I would love to live in that kind of world forever.
The subjects in your photographs seem ethereal as if they have just floated down from heaven. Do you wish to present your subjects in a certain way within your photographs, for example, as otherworldly rather than a simple, realistic portrait?
It depends on the mood of the shoot, but I think I do present a lot of my subjects as otherworldly. This is the first time I've really thought about it; I think most of the time it's unintentional. The part of me that sees photography as performative carves out these largely fictional parallel universes in which I place my subjects and triggers my presenting them as otherworldly, although in a (mostly) unintentional matter. Photography for me is more fantasy and less documentary.
Is the idea of body positivity important to your work? Do you feel like certain companies are finally moving in the right direction with more body positive advert campaigns and products?
Body positivity is important to my work. I’m very open to shooting anyone of any body type/race/gender. I feel like I don’t have much of a say in body positivity though because I’m thin and that movement isn’t for me. What I see now is a plethora of conventionally attractive cis/white/thin photographers hijacking the body-positive movement, which they’ve now become the faces of – I think this is odd. I think photographers with a larger body size should be the ones who are praised for shooting larger or curvy subjects. As for companies moving in the right direction, I think they are starting to, but they still have a long way to go. ‘Curvy’ models, sizes 8-10’s are generally desired and can get work, but what about models who are much bigger? I don’t see that happening…
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Tavi Gevinson comments, “Why does everything have to be viewed through a lens of feminist or not… Can I ever do anything just as a person?” Is this something you also find frustrating as a female artist?
As someone who uses both she/they pronouns I don’t fully identify as female actually, but as someone who other people assume to be female and as someone who talks about feminist issues a lot, I do think it’s unfair that everything has to be viewed through the lens of a feminist or not. Things can’t just be enjoyed or taken for what they are without expectations if they’re created by a female artist – also similarly when created by a person who is a part of any other marginalised community. 
How important is the idea of the direct gaze to your work (the subject looking directly into the camera)?
The direct gaze is somewhat important depending on the project or shoots I’m doing, but other times it’s not important at all. Sometimes, I like to feel like I’m a part of the story I’m telling, like I have a relationship with the subject within the context of the photo. The easiest way for me to do that is to establish a direct gaze. And other times I like to think that I’m just a viewer, and in those cases, a direct gaze isn't as important to me.
How do you achieve your gorgeous trademark haze? Do you use a particular lens or smearing technique? Or does it come from postproduction?
I don’t use a particular lens, but I think having a low f-stop lens helps. My lens is really dirty. There’s glitter and dirt, and nose grease stuck in between my multiple filters – I stack a lot of filters on my lenses!
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Your images are full of innocence. Do you feel nostalgic for your adolescence?
I don’t think I feel particularly nostalgic for my adolescence. I think part of it is that I feel like I never grew up, at least emotionally. Some people look back on their adolescence as a different stage of their life, but to me, it’s all the same. I’m definitely still naive in a lot of ways, and I think it shows in my work a little.
Your work often uses spotlights, glitz and glamour; it looks cinematic. Are you inspired by the idea of performance and theatrics?
I am super inspired by the idea of performance and theatrics, actually. I believe that photography is a type of performance in itself. Models are basically actors doing a different type of acting for a still camera. Once I started seeing it like that, it changed the entire way I view my process. I refuse to believe that my models, most of whom are my friends, are simply standing in front of a camera to look pretty. I think it’s a performance and it requires skill on both ends.
Finally, you've commented that you want to move more towards cinematography. Can you tell us why you’ve made this change? Where do you see it going in the future?
I don’t know if I see it going anywhere in the future; it’s a slow process because I’m teaching myself from used textbooks. But I’m not doing it with the intention of getting anywhere. I just want to learn. I can’t let my work stay static. If I feel like it isn’t progressing or at the very least changing in some way, I have to take action. I believe that if you want to be a good artist, you let your work change and if it doesn’t, you push yourself to make it happen. So for me, I felt like I’ve been taking still images for nine years now and I’m twenty-two, and I have the rest of my life ahead of me, so I might as well attempt moving image, right?
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