Now entering my sixth year at Hofstra, I often convince myself that there is nothing left on this campus that will surprise me. But each time I fall into routine, I stumble upon a hidden Hofstra treasure that I didn’t know existed. This fall has been no exception. When I stepped into Rosenberg Gallery, a tiny room tucked away in Calkins Hall, I was met by a breathtaking array of black and white photographs hung with precision on each of the four white walls. The photographer, Stan Wan, was a professional photographer for more than thirty years in New York City, Paris, and Milan with work appearing in French Vogue, Elle, Glamour, and the likes with a clientele list including Sephora, L’Oreal, and Avon. Mr. Wan, a lifelong fashion and product photographer that traveled the world, worked hand-in-hand with A-list celebrities, and found great success in a field that many get swallowed up by, is now Hofstra’s very own lab supervisor for the Department of Fine Arts, Design and Art History and a Continuing Education instructor.
A Miles Davis cassette hummed life into the air around the pictures while Mr. Wan grabbed us a couple chairs and sat down to give me insight into a world I knew very little about. The exhibition represents the feelings of the period between the 80’s and 90’s. “Every photo has meaning. Because you were emotionally there when you’re shooting. I remember every moment. Every picture has a story,” said Mr. Wan. But before Europe and even before New York City, Stan Wan, born and raised in California, was at the University of California, Berkeley on the med school track. But during a time of Vietnam protests, he found himself in the middle of campus riots while working as a photographer for the Daily Californian, the student newspaper. For an elective during his junior year, he took photography with William Garnett whose work is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and the Museum of Modern Art. William Garnett encouraged Mr. Wan, finding him an internship and ultimately led him to discover his love for fashion photography.
After graduation as a pre-med student from Berkley, Mr. Wan purchased a one-way ticket to New York City to start his photography career. “There was a whole world out there, and I wanted to go see it,” said Mr. Wan. He continued to explain the details of leaving the only world he ever knew to go to New York, and “this was the 70’s.” I was intrigued by his poised and deliberate retelling of a decision that was so utterly bold and eventual success that was created against all odds. When I asked him how his parents reacted to his decision, he replied with sincere honesty, “I’m pretty stubborn […] my parents were resigned to the fact that I was going to go no matter what. I think they thought I was going to come back after a one year hiatus and apply to med school. But it all went so fast and went so well.”
He recalls his arrival to the Big Apple to be scary, but within the first few weeks of being in the city, he got his first few breaks. The longer we talked, the love he had for his work became all that more clear. Smiling he said, “Either I’m the luckiest person or this place is good for me. And I’ve been traveling ever since.” Both of his parents are from Hong Kong, and he never had a Vogue magazine in his house. His parents visited him in New York, and his father, understated and very traditional, said “he was proud of me for what I’d done, and he would have never been able to do what I did. That was a great moment.” It was the 80’s and Europeans were coming to America for work. Stan Wan did the opposite.
Mr. Wan became part of the fashion world in Milan and Paris. He recalls constantly being tested. “There’s nothing guaranteed. You have to eat, sleep that world.” Mr. Wan and Anna Wintour, now editor-in-chief of American Vogue, were assistants at the same time. “No one ever guessed what she would be. She was ironing clothes!” Mr. Wan then asked me if I had ever read National Geographic. Confused, I replied that I had. He then explained that wanting to be a photographer, like many other things, is like watching the salmon rush upstream to spawn. There are millions of salmon. They go through harsh rapids; bears eat them and very few get to the spawning ground. “How can a species survive all these odds? But they do. If it’s meant to happen, it will happen[…] It’s fate. That’s what I would tell parents. You have just got to trust [your student].”
Needing another period of reinvention, he came to Hofstra after thirty-five years of working experience all over the world. He has always wanted to teach photography and thought it to be time for the shoe to be on the other foot. After our planned ten-minute interview turned into an hour and change, I asked Stan Wan for one last piece of advice. We sat for a moment in our folding chairs, smooth jazz still playing in the background, surrounded by a beautiful array of black and white photographs from around the world placed just so on the humble walls of Calkins Hall. Stan Wan gave me his final piece of advice. He told me, “The main thing I’ve learned over the years, whatever you love to do, don’t be afraid to make it your profession. There’s going to be ups and downs… but you’re going to get through the downs a lot better if you love what you’re doing… It’s been a real fun ride.”
Stan Wan’s collection (Fashion & Portraits- Europe 1980-1990) is open to the public until October 6th, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. in Rosenburg Gallery, Calkins Hall, South Campus.