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Getting Dense with Nelson Chan

If there’s anyone you should explore the randomness of New Jersey with, make it photographer, publisher and punk aficionado Nelson Chan.

Image courtesy of Nelson Chan.

Photographer Nelson Chan is of many worlds. Born in New Jersey to immigrant parents from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and having grown up on two continents, Chan’s multicultural experience is the force that runs through the majority of his photographic work. Whether he’s tracing the meanderings of immigrants along highways or capturing utopia’s overgrowth in plain sight, Chan’s search for personal and cultural identity leaves few clues about how things got this way, and that’s very much the point. When he’s not behind the camera, he runs the much beloved TIS Books as the primary focus of his studio practice, and probably punking out on his own playlist.

In our second edition of “Getting Dense,” our new video spotlight series, Dense asks Chan a series of rapid-fire questions to help you get to know him a little better. Come along as Chan offers his tips on how to survive New Jersey, his most excellent reading list for any photography history buff, and what every diner should have waiting for you the moment you arrive.

The video highlights just a few of our questions, but you can read the full interview below.


DENSE: Please introduce yourself!

NELSON CHAN: Hey, I'm Nelson Chan. I was born in Englewood, New Jersey, and grew up between Rockaway, Montville and Hong Kong. I'm an artist, a bookmaker, a publisher, and an Assistant Professor of Photography at the California College of The Arts in San Francisco. Let's get Dense. <laughs>

DENSE: Where are you right now?

NC: I am currently back on the east coast visiting family. I'm staying primarily in New Jersey while I bounce around different parts of the east coast.

DENSE: Which issue of Dense are you featured in? And what's the title of a piece you contributed?

NC: I was featured in the inaugural issue, and my photography was a part of a story called “Rules and Regulations.”

DENSE: What are you reading right now?

NC: I just finished reading Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, and I'm currently reading Image Matters by Tina M. Campt, selected essays by Nathan Lyons, and I'm just sort of trying to emotionally prepare myself to read Hanya Yanagihara’s latest novel [To Paradise].

DENSE: The most underappreciated part of New Jersey?

NC: The “Garden” in Garden State. I think that New Jersey gets a bad rap for its industrial armpit and probably its proximity to New York City, but the produce is amazing.

DENSE: Songs that are stuck in your head?

NC: “Brave Faces Everyone” by Spanish Love Songs, “New Girl” by Fresh, “Definition” by Black Star, and “After The Party” by the Menzingers.

DENSE: Any best-kept secrets about New Jersey?

NC: I don't know if this is the best-kept secret anymore, but I would say the Pasta Shop in Denville.

DENSE: What's your favorite pastime?

NC: Cooking. It's the only thing that helps me get out of my own head and live in the moment because if I'm not careful, I'm gonna fuck something up in the kitchen.

DENSE: Any tips you can offer out-of-towners ways to survive New Jersey?

NC: I would say that aggressive driving is safe driving. And I would also say don't hydrate before you drive into the [New York] city, unless you plan on contributing to the ever growing collection of pee bottles that lines the Lincoln Tunnel helix. Be a Yankee fan, and this is probably just advice for life in general, but get a dog.

DENSE: Do you have any Jersey vices?

NC: It’s a Taylor ham, double egg and cheese sandwich. And I don't know if this is the best diner, but I grew up going to the Hibernia Diner in Rockaway. My parents smoked, so we always sat in the smoking section and there was always a bowl of pickles on every single table for public consumption.

DENSE: Your greatest inspiration?

NC: It will forever and always be Robert Frank.

Images by Robert Frank; via Pace/MacGill and the National Gallery of Art

DENSE: Any songs we should we listening to on the Jersey Turnpike?

NC: As I visit friends in south Jersey, the songs that I plan on listening to will be “Sunshine” by Atmosphere, “Sunshine” by Samiam, and “Sunshine” by Mos Def.

DENSE: Last but never least: how do you use New Jersey as a lens to see the world?

NC: This may sound a bit dramatic, but I think that New Jersey can take as much as it can give. It's a place where a hopeful beginning has just as much equal footing as a tragic demise, and that is such good fodder for strong storytelling.


Booth, Please is our weekly newsletter that explores the dreams, discoveries, confrontations, and epiphanies that emerge when design meets New Jersey all set within the comforts of the world's diner capital. Subscribe below and cozy up every Sunday.


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