By Marianna Cerini and Tongfei Zhang
Name-drop Chen Man at any fashion-related event in China, and odds are that industry insiders will give you an excited, approving look. The Beijing-born, internationally famed visionary is the star of the country’s rising photo world, a darling among luxury brands, top fashion magazines and many domestic and international celebrities. We caught up with her to talk art, fashion and the balance in between.
For someone who’s been hailed as one of the country’s leading fashion photographers, Chen Man doesn’t seem too interested in categorizing her status. “Growing up I never thought of becoming a photographer,” she says. “Painting was my main interest – I started learning to paint when I was two years old and won lots of awards when I was still a child. That’s why I went to study art at the Central Academy of Drama and then, to make a living, graphic design at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. I wanted to be an artist, but it wasn’t a financially sustainable career at the time. Today’s artists can sell for millions, but this was unthinkable then. It was only after doing graphic design that I decided to turn to photography.”
In 2003, while still a student at CAFA, she was brought in by Vision’s artistic director to design the reputable design magazine’s cover art. At the time, she didn’t even own a camera. “I was drawn to photography mostly because, to me, it offered a direct connection between people,” she says of her first job. “Capturing an image is not just recording real life, but creating a surrealist expression of art.”
Chen is often credited with being the first photographer to juxtapose contemporary Chinese culture with fashion, and her high-impact, avant-garde aesthetic has met both praise and awe, but also hostility. “After working for Vision and entering the fashion circle, I developed a kind of elusive identity,” Chen recalls. “Other photographers didn’t see me as their peer as my shots resembled paintings; artists didn’t think I belonged to their world either because I worked for fashion magazines. Recognition as a commercial photographer came soon, but it wasn’t until I was invited to hold solo exhibitions in both Beijing and Shanghai that people began to use the word ‘artist’ to describe me.”
The 33-year-old has made a career out of making images that are shrouded in surrealism and exoticism by way of digital experimentation. Artsy, manipulated, fantastical, almost over the top, her photography is by turns beautiful and unsettling, a mix of futuristic aesthetics and Chinese settings and references – those acquainted with it need only a glimpse to recognize it as unmistakably hers.
Her inspiration comes from a varied spectrum of subjects and objects, “from life and the surrounding I grew up in – the old alleys of Beijing – but also, and mostly, from traditional Chinese culture and philosophy.”
“I am particularly fascinated by the influence Western materialism has had on our lives, mine to start with,” she continues. “The way people’s vision has been spoiled by materialistic needs is a driving force to my own work.” The iconic photo of model Lu Yan and her boombox on the Great Wall shot in 2007 – the first ever fashion photo shoot to take place on the world wonder – is a seamless expression of such force. The image is stylized to the point of looking almost unreal, tinted over, yet it manages to capture the socio-cultural status of China’s post-90s generation in a both beautiful and oddly compelling way.
Not that it was to everyone’s tastes. Chen’s ‘painting photography’ style, as it is often labeled, has its fair share of detractors too. Photography purists often dislike her work for the heavy editing and ultra-pop character it displays – during her formative years in particular, her vision relied heavily on Photoshop retouching and 3-D rendering-techniques, that conversely, are the very reason her work stands out.
Perhaps in response to the criticisms, over the years Chen has toned down the computerized post-production process – all of which she painstakingly does herself – and has turned her focus instead to more naturalized portraits. Yet, without a doubt, it’s when she pushes the boundaries between artificial and natural that her photos are most striking. “There are two kinds of beauty,” she explains. “One is natural, the other is man-made – artworks, digital products, furniture. Within my artistic direction, I try to combine the two.”
Critics notwithstanding, her upbeat, color-saturated images and niche style have clearly proved popular among fashion’s tastemakers and art professionals. Her work has turned up on the covers of publications like ELLE, Vogue and i-D magazine, but also graced internationally renowned art institutions, from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum for the 2008 group exhibition China Design Now to the Today Art Museum in Beijing and the Shanghai’ Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA), which held two major retrospectives on the creative in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
At the same time, brands such as Dior, Adidas, M.A.C, Mercedes-Benz and Coach have hired her for their advertising campaigns – she was recently in Shanghai to showcase her collaboration with the latter for its fall/winter 2013 footwear collection with a show at the Grand Gateway Plaza. And then, of course, there’s the slew of celebrities she’s been shooting – Victoria Beckham, Faye Wong, Fan Bingbing, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana among them, “though the star I’ve liked working with the most is Tony Leung,” she says. “Extremely humble and down-to-earth, a truly admirable guy.”
Does this constant crossing between personal and commercial projects ever get confusing? “Commercial is commercial, art is art,” she is keen to point out. “They’re two different things. I don’t consider myself a ‘full’ artist when I am doing commercial projects, and, similarly, I am wary of going too mainstream when I am working on my own concepts. It’s a matter of balance, really,” she adds. “Through experimenting with my images I want to show people what real beauty is in today’s China.