Photographer Colette Fu was raised by a mechanical engineer, a man who wanted his daughter to follow the same professional path. She did, but not in the way he expected. “I was making photographic collages on computer and I wanted to do something more hands on,” Fu says. So she went to Barnes & Noble, intending to examine the game books and ended up buying pop-up books instead. She spent hours with the Wizard of Oz and Who Took the Cookie from the Cookie Jar, learning how to take the images apart and put them back together.
She’s now an accomplished and awarded pop-up artist, having worked with a number of brands on commercial projects and created an ongoing series on the people of China.
“I like the challenge of trying to engineer a pop-up,” Fu says. “I like the idea that when you first look at it, there’s nothing there and when you open it, it always surprises people. And they’re very portable. When I had my first exhibit outside of grad school I had to rent a truck. Now I can move a whole exhibit in my messenger bag.”
Fu’s most recent collection, We Are Tiger Dragon People, showcases the people of China’s Yunnan Province. Nearly half of China’s 55 minority tribes live in this region, including the black Yi tribe, into which Fu’s mother was born. Fu lived there for three years, photographing 25 tribes and then returned home to construct the scenes. Each one articulates a story about the local culture, contains photos taken over the course of a single day, and will sometimes include up to 20 separate pictures. The construction process is like assembling a puzzle; limbs must be Photoshopped out and background images added, in order to create the right sense of perspective. In the spread of the woman with the food, Fu realized she needed one more shot. “So I went to the store and bought noodles,” she says.
Professionally, Fu says pop-up books are a difficult medium. “I want to share my work with 5,000 people instead of 100, but publishers say it’s too expensive.” She knows she’d have an easier time with a simple photo book. But that’s not her vision. Soon, she’ll be returning to China to photograph the country’s remaining minority tribes. “I’ll publish it somehow,” she says.