Inspo with Jerry Hsu

Anthony Acosta

Not the law-school type, but his photos make a strong case on their own.

Mr. and Mrs. Hsu did not always know what to make of their son Jerry.

Computer engineers who emigrated from Taiwan to suburban San Jose, Calif., they would have been perfectly content to see him embark on a conventional career path: college, then law school, or maybe medicine?

But from an early age, Jerry, art-addled and skateboarding-obsessed, had other ideas.

Inspired by the coffee-table books on proto-Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg he'd perused at Barnes & Noble, Jerry, age 12, would bring home secondhand furniture found on the streets of San Jose. Turning the garage into a makeshift studio, he would chaotically coat desk drawers with paint and newspaper clippings, turning them into expressionistic "combines" of the kind for which Rauschenberg himself became famous.

"I really sympathize with them," Hsu says of his parents in a telephone interview. "Because my choices in life would be so confusing, if I were them ... They are very Americanized now, but growing up they were still very [acclimated to a different culture] and raising, like, this crazy American kid who doesn't want to do anything they want to do."

Eventually painting gave way to photography and -- when Hsu was not busy becoming one of the most well-regarded pros of his generation -- he found time to take a class or two at a community college to learn the rudiments of darkroom technique, listlessly watch videos on stalwarts like Ansel Adams.

Courtesy Jerry Hsu

The sweet moment that started it all: O'Dell's photo in "Skateboard Showcase."

Yet it wasn't until he happened upon "Skateboard Showcase," a 'zine by a young, relatively obscure photographer named Patrick O'Dell -- future host of the canonical online television show "Epicly Later'd" and's 40th most influential action-sports figure -- that Hsu truly saw how one could marry lifelong passions for skateboarding and art, function as both active participant and sensitive observer in a rough-and-tumble subcultural scene.

"I was actually in San Francisco and [skate photographer] Gabe Morford was showing me around and shooting pictures of me and he had a copy [of the 'zine] in his car," Hsu says. "The photos were really cool because they were all basically just like a diary. I didn't even know him yet, but just looking at the photos you can tell what Patrick's like. Just very observant.

"I was learning about really standard photography. They would teach you about, like, Diane Arbus. Who is really rad. But when I saw his photos, I was like, 'Oh, this is what I want to do.'"

A particular picture drew Hsu in.

"There's one photo where he is shooting a photo and the window is like a mirror," said Hsu. "And he is holding his girlfriend's hand. And they're dressed very cute. And they're very young. There, he's probably 20. It's like a very sweet photo and I always liked it.

"That 'zine is filled with gritty stuff. But for some reason, when I think about it, I think about that photo. How sweet it was. He's really good at mixing stuff. There's gritty and then sweet."

Since that "ah-ha" moment, Hsu's own photographs have been regularly featured in that terminally hip hotbed of bohemianism, Vice magazine, and that somewhat more staid publication, The New York Times Magazine, which, in 2011, ran a photo Hsu snapped of friend Kevin "Spanky" Long recovering from severe burns after another friend, the artist known as Neckface, accidentally lit him on fire. (Hey, we've all been there.)

Oh, and lest we typecast Mr. and Mrs. Hsu as those typical parents determined to stifle their children's creativity in the name of bourgeois respectability, let it be known that Jerry is not the only member of the family with an artistic streak.

"My mom has some artistic flair that has definitely blossomed now that she's in her 50s," Hsu says. "And she's shown me, like, paintings she's made. I never thought she would have any kind of artistic ambition. They're just very simple landscapes, the kinds of things you do when you first start painting: flowers, cats. Really, really simple things. But they're very adorable. It's really funny to me, like, 'Wow you make paintings? That's awesome.'"

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