Tantalum: When sending your work out for the world to see, what do you hope your element of the project says to the viewers?
Calvin Ma: I want it to say what I felt when I came up with the concept. I over-prepare the hell of out my shoots, and while I'm putting together inspirational pieces for my own notes or for my crew, I have this "vibe" of what I want the images to convey. I think artists on all levels do that.
Have you ever seen a piece in a museum and it immediately gave you an indescribable feeling? If I can make one person feel that with my image, then I'm good.
Tantalum: What was the best piece of advice you were given when starting out?
Calvin Ma: It’s a toss up between "Calvin, you need to meet this guy named Howard Cao,” and "Taco truck at Best Buy in downtown San Francisco has the best burritos."
Tantalum: As an editorial artist, what do you feel is one of the biggest mistakes beginners tend to make?
Calvin Ma: When I first started, I thought everything I shot was awesome. It wasn't. In fact, it was the opposite. It was my lack of experience and immature confidence that made me submit everything I shot. That can screw up your reputation pretty fast.
Tantalum: What have you learned from your experiences shooting high fashion spreads?
Calvin Ma: Vintage stuff is the best.
Tantalum: How has the experience of working with a team to complete a project benefited you?
Calvin Ma: Oh man, the networking, hands down. A lot of times, the wrong talent gets hired for a job, and it's because of who they know, not what they know.
Tantalum: How would you describe your artistic style?
Calvin Ma: Wasn't it Picasso that said "Good artists copy, great artists steal"? Being "inspired" by an artist is just the politically correct way of saying the same thing. That being said, I'm very inspired by creepy black and white images. Michael Garlington, Ralph Meatyard, Crazy Diane Arbus, and recently Francesca Woodman. These guys don't make Mario Testino-money, but they should. Super ahead of their times.
Tantalum: How does this collection speak to you? What did you want this to say to your audience? What influences your art the most?
Calvin Ma: I was really into Michael Garlington's work at the time. The contrast and Terry Gilliam-like approach in his images are very... inspiring. And like Garlington, I wanted to creep out the audience, but this time with fashion mixed in. The wardrobe is 100% vintage and was pulled from all sorts of collections from different years. I love how it's slightly androgynous.
Hedi Slimane influences my work a lot. The most important element I draw from his images are how quiet they are. Most of the time, not saying anything says a lot. I keep an image of his in my wallet and on my phone at all times. I check it a few times during all my shoots to remind me to keep it simple.
Tantalum: Where did you get your start in editorial? How hard or easy was it for you to build your career?
Calvin Ma: Building your career is a lot like what you see in video games. You start off with nothing, but as you go, you collect a bunch of tools to help you along your quest.
I started off knowing no one and reaching out to models on Model Mayhem with a Dooney and Burke bag and calling it fashion. After a few shoots, I realized something important: they sucked. I thought long and hard to figure out what it was. Was it the girl? Was it the clothes? Was it me? It was all of the above.
I'm a big fan of doing stuff the right way, so I looked at work that I admired and reached out to those photographers, offering free help on set in exchange for eavesdropping on how real art is done. I met Christopher Kern, and he changed my life. My best friends today are photographers, and Kern introduced me to all of them. I learned how to do things the right way, and how to laugh at those who take shortcuts. My career is still being built, and I'm pretty hopeful that it's heading in the right direction.
Tantalum: What is your next big goal?
Calvin Ma: To have my own gallery showing with a lot in attendance so my mom knows what I do for a living.
Tantalum: What has been the most amazing opportunity you have had in this industry so far?
Calvin Ma: Working for Howard Cao and Jim Hughes. I've learned more about life with those guys than my previous 20-plus years. They're geniuses. Their talent behind the lens is unquestionable, but they balance the business aspect of it so well.
I'm also very grateful for Kristen over at Stars Model Management. You meet a lot of agents in this business, but none of them are like Kristen. She'll email you back at 4AM and she takes care of her own guys and girls as much as the artists. You don't meet a lot of people in this industry like that. She was the one who introduced us to our model, Alwyn. Kristen is one of the stars on E!'s “Scouted,” and she's moving into big things.
Tantalum: Tell us about a location you shot at that blew your mind?
Calvin Ma: This shoot at the Hotel Majestic! Google it—it’s seriously haunted.
We shot from 3PM to 11PM, and near the end of the night when we shot in the lobby all to ourselves, things started getting a little hairy. We took some photos under the portrait of a lady. Later on, we found out it was the daughter of the building's original owner who took her own life in the room next to ours. She's also the building's friendlyD ghost. The staff member that night went on to tell us stories that he's experienced during his time there at the graveyard shift.
I called it a wrap after that.