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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

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My Family in Front of Our Old Home

1992
William Yang

from the series ‘About My Mother’
gelatin silver photograph, black ink on paper, edition 2/10 (image: 34.0 cm x 42.0 cm, frame: 66.2 cm x 76.5 cm)

William Yang (b. 1943) is a pre-eminent Australian photographer known for an intensely sustained body of work that examines issues of cultural and sexual identity, and which unflinchingly documents the lives of his friends and community and his own lived experience with curiosity, sensitivity and humour. He is known in particular for his documentation of the Sydney LGBTIQ+ community from the 1970s onwards, including the evolution of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, and for photographic series engaging with the impact of HIV/AIDS on his friends and community, his sense of identity as a Chinese-Australian, and his family history and relationships.

Born in Mareeba, near Cairns, Yang grew up in a family who repudiated their Chinese heritage so as to escape the intolerance characteristic of mid-twentieth century Australia. He realised he was Chinese at age six, after being subjected to a bigoted taunt at school. He has recalled becoming aware of what homosexuality meant as a high school student in Cairns, when he came across an article that made him feel as if 'there were only four homosexuals in the world: Oscar Wilde, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo – and me'. He was given his first camera at seventeen, but became more serious about photography as a student at the University of Queensland, where he studied architecture and began writing and directing plays. In the late 1960s, he moved to Sydney. Having decided to make a living as a photographer, he attended numerous parties and events to take images of celebrities for the social pages of magazines, creating at the same time an unmistakeable and candid record of the city's creative cliques and subcultures. 'The arena suited me; it was more theatrical', Yang wrote in his Sydney Diary 1974–1984. 'Even as a playwright I'd always thought that real life set up better situations than you could ever think of yourself.'

By the mid-1970s his connections to the theatre and the creative arts had resulted in portraits of sitters such as artists Martin Sharp and Brett Whiteley; designers Linda Jackson and Jenny Kee; and theatre director Jim Sharman, whose friends and collaborators Yang also photographed. Two of the very first photographs purchased for the National Portrait Gallery's collection, for example, were Yang's portraits of actor Judy Davis (b. 1959), who in 1981 performed the title role in Sharman's production of Lulu for the Sydney Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and writer and Nobel laureate Patrick White (1912–1990), whom Yang first photographed in 1977, backstage after a performance of White's play Big Toys, directed by Sharman. Yang's first exhibition, Sydneyphiles, at the Australian Centre for Photography in 1977, established Yang (then Willy Young) as the preeminent freelance photographer and social documenter of the period. He changed his name from Young to Yang in 1983. He has since exhibited widely in Australia and abroad, also becoming known as a storyteller through his performance works which combine spoken word monologue, memoir and slide projection – such as Friends of Dorothy, Shadows and Blood Links – and series of photographs characterised by the use of text in the form of handwritten inscriptions.

Yang's work has been included in many significant group exhibitions such as World without end (AGNSW, 2000); Don't leave me this way: art in the age of AIDS (NGA, 1994); Life Lines (QAGOMA, 2009); On the edge: Australian photographers of the 1970s (San Diego Museum of Art, 1998); Sydney Photographed (MCA, 1994); and From Bondi to Uluru (Higashikawa Arts Centre, Hokkaido, 1993). A retrospective of his photographs, Diaries, was held at the State Library of New South Wales in 1998. In 2001 the National Portrait Gallery mounted the exhibition William Yang: Australian Chinese which then toured widely in Australia. Yang has produced books including Patrick White: The late years (1995), Sadness (1996), Friends of Dorothy (1997) and China (2008). His works are held in major state galleries, the National Gallery of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery, for which Yang created the commissioned work My Generation in 2008. In 2021 Queensland Art Gallery held the major survey exhibition William Yang: Seeing and Being Seen, and published a book of the same name.

Purchased 2022
© William Yang

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. Works of art from the collection are reproduced as per the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). The use of images of works from the collection may be restricted under the Act. Requests for a reproduction of a work of art can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

Artist and subject

William Yang (age 49 in 1992)

Subject professions

Visual arts and crafts

© National Portrait Gallery 2022
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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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