Donald Bren Hall rooftop
The rooftop of Donald Bren Hall resembles a chessboard - as seen through the lens of student Hoang Xuan Pham.

What could be dismissed as another cold conference room is transformed into a cool, lithe place of possibility. A sprawling university becomes a dramatically lit stage when seen from the lobby of a science hall. When UC Irvine biological sciences undergraduate Hoang Xuan Pham turns his camera on the campus and elsewhere, he renders the ordinary extraordinary. He asks us to pause, capturing spaces we rush past every day — showing us beauty is everywhere.

Pham’s technique, called high dynamic range, involves merging together multiple exposures of the same shot. But it’s merely a tool. He’s more concerned with evoking emotion. Here, Pham talks about his work:

How did you get started in photography?

About five years ago, my dad bought a digital camera for a trip to Yosemite. The landscape amazed me. I’d never paid attention before, but when you have a camera, you see things differently.

I’ve learned by practicing and analyzing my own work. Finding what inspires me and studying my likes and dislikes helps too. Science is good training for that.

I also belong to the UCI Photography Club. Many people on campus are practicing art but aren’t art majors. Everyone in the club loves photography, and we learn from each other.

What inspires you?

I like Galen Rowell’s color landscapes, but I especially like Ansel Adams’ work. The smoothness and gradients in his black-and-white images are amazing. Sometimes people go to extremes, but he found this middle space. He stops the action but keeps the image smooth, retaining a feeling of power.

Nature and architecture inspire me — in fact, Architectural Digest is my favorite magazine. I don’t just think about the finished building. I think of all the people who designed and constructed it. When we walk to class, we often take the buildings surrounding us for granted. But the time, effort and thought that went into them are impressive.

I admire commercial photographers too. Their attention to detail and striving for perfection are inspiring. If your technique is clear, then your message is clearer. You can’t have creativity without technical proficiency, and vice versa. Ansel Adams said, “There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.”

What is your process like?

When I see a place from a certain angle, I want to capture what it’s like to be in that space. That takes patience. I’m usually drawn to the lighting. When light shines through glass, it can look so clean and clear. Sometimes there’s almost a glow.

My camera is pretty old. In the end, all you need is a camera with manual controls and a tripod. Unfortunately, cameras don’t capture as much detail as the human eye, and I can’t afford to buy lighting gear. High dynamic range helps overcome those limitations. I think of it as capturing what I feel — not what’s actually there.

Where is your favorite place on campus to photograph?

John V. Croul Hall. The whole front is glass, so at sunrise or sundown, there’s always light there. It’s open and airy. Even if you’re inside, you can see the outside world.

What, if anything, are you trying to say with your work?

I’d like people to be inspired by what others have done — all the hard work and commitment that went into creating the things around them. And I want people to feel the way I do in a space — in a word: awe.

Originally published in Vol. 1, Iss. 6 ZotZine