When we last spoke with Brian Vu, he was living in Brooklyn and making bold, beautiful, badass images. None of that’s changed. He still makes beautifully badass images that challenge our notions of beauty and our ability to idly scroll past without pausing to admire them for at least a moment. Today, Vu joins us again to talk about his vast experience making photographs, doing makeup, and starting his own brand – Brian Beauty.
Most people – including our readers – know you as a photographer. You’re also a full qualified graphic designer. How has studying graphic design affected your creative muscles?
Studying design taught me how to approach photography in an untraditional way. I learned the commercial side of art while in college. This includes working with clients and creating a unified brand. It made me focus on function and aesthetics very early on. Creatively, it helped me focus on composition, colour theory and sketching out my ideas from start to finish.
Apparently, you got into photography after borrowing your dad’s camera. Was he your family’s ‘designated photographer?’ Did he ever give you any expert advice?
He used photography more for family and special occasions. With taking photos, I learned as I practised more and more. He did teach me how to be good at the business side of things. He is a very hard working person and has owned his own business for over 20 years.
In your experience, what are the biggest challenges and rewards of being self-taught? Is there anything about art that they just don’t teach in class?
The biggest reward is that I don’t have to answer to anyone or follow any rules of the medium. I knew early on that because I was self-taught that I could use that to my advantage. However, I didn’t know a lot about the technicalities of lighting and the camera itself. I had to experiment with a lot of cameras and setups to fully produce the images I envisioned in my head.
How much of a photograph is made on location, and how much in the editing room? Are there many last minute, in-the-moment changes?
A half and half ratio of the two. With my recent work, I try and find the balance between reality and fantasy. There are always changes that happen. I try to be quick about them though because I choose to work really fast.
They say watercolour painting forgives no mistakes. Would you say photography is more or less forgiving than other mediums? Overall, how important is ingenuity for an artist?
Yes, photography is so much more forgiving. It’s so malleable, especially today with all of the technology and new apps appearing. Ingenuity is extremely important. I think every artist wants to work towards creating innovative work in whatever way feels right to them. I get really inspired by those works that I’ve never seen done before.
You’ve created some beautiful portraits. Would you say it’s easier or more difficult to improvise and experiment with images when other people are involved?
I’d say it’s more difficult to experiment when more people are involved. That’s not to say that there aren’t times where input drives the project forward. It depends on the shoot and who I’m working with because everyone works so differently. Some are more hands-on than others. As long as I’m happy with the finished project, then it’s worth any struggle.
I thrive off of working with artists who have their own sense of selves and their unique identities. It makes the process a whole lot easier. The challenge is to see how they can fit into my photographic world. Every shoot ends up being different from the last. I always leave room for the unpredictable. I don’t like to overly plan the outcome.
You’ve studied some visual art. Then, you’ve taught yourself some more. How has all of this previous experience affected the process of mastering makeup? Was it difficult to unlearn old habits?
I find the process of doing makeup and making photographs as separate challenges. Of course, they come together in the end when you photograph the look, but they don’t share the same steps.
When we last spoke to you back in 2014, you said you knew ‘next to nothing’ about lighting, but that you’d learn someday. We’re now in 2021. How’s the learning going?
I was really young and naive back then. Today, I'm much more involved in the technical aspects of photography. I’m learning about history and its importance. I also study other artists in hopes of picking up new methods and making my own conclusions.
What inspired you to launch your own line, Brian Beauty? How did your initial idea evolve into the final products? And although it matches your style perfectly, was there any apprehension about choosing such bold, juicy colours – the usual recommendation is to start with a nice, safe nude.
I started it with my manager Nyle Fisher a couple of years ago. We launched lip products, then our Taboo Liner with Sandy Taboo. The liner is really what helped us stand out. We wanted to make an inclusive brand that provided people with tools to create artistic makeup. Along with that are an array of colour options that were exciting to us. There's so much more to come.
Makeup artists often talk about all sorts of ‘taboos,’ like overdone brows or bright blue eyeshadow. Do you agree that certain things just suit certain faces better? In general, how has your experience with makeup affected the way you see faces – both online and in real life?
The more challenging the makeup the better. With all of the makeup brands and their products today, we can do anything we choose. I appreciate it when I see people doing wild looks and taking their expression to the next level. Who am I to say what looks good on a person and what doesn’t? It’s all subjective at the end of the day.
From an artistic standpoint, is a face a good canvas? How does photographing one differ from painting it with makeup?
Yes, it’s a great canvas. There’s just so much you can do. Not everything has been done yet. It differs because, on the photography end, I am composing the image and the scene. I am directing the model. With makeup, I am applying it hands-on. It’s more similar to painting than photography.
Once in a blue moon, you’ll hear some very opinionated people argue that makeup is a form of deception, a mask of sorts. In your experience, can anything that people put on – including makeup – hide who they really are? Or is this just a conspiracy meant to slander drag artists?
A conspiracy. I can’t stand when people try to hinder a person’s self-expression or art. It’s some petty behaviour that I will call out. In a very competitive place like New York City, people will try it. I don’t surround myself with people like that anymore.
Conversely, can adding some colour to your face lift your spirits? What’s your go-to colour, texture, or product for when you’re feeling a bit ‘blah?
I love highlighter! It’s so easy to apply and it always makes me feel cute and shiny.