“Actresses are more comfortable getting naked in front of me,” quips Chen Man, nonchalantly. “It’s probably the biggest perk of being a female photographer.”
As China’s most respected fashion photographer, Chen has photographed many A-listers, from Gong Li to Fan Bingbing and Zhou Xun. Some have been more than willing to strip for the camera simply because they trust the person who is behind it.
In a traditionally male-dominated industry, Chen has made her name not just as a photographer but also as an artist with her own interpretation of new Oriental looks and avant-garde approach towards portrait-making.
“Observing people through my viewfinder is what I do every day,” she says. “What interests me the most is that my subjects are constantly evolving with their new life experiences.”
Chen has become a celebrity herself. The multitalented and creative Chen has collaborated with many luxury brands – the latest being Kering-backed jewellery house Qeelin.
Working in conjunction with Qeelin’s creative director Dennis Chan, Chen designed a limited-edition pendant called the Monkey King Bo Bo which puts a creative spin on Qeelin’s iconic Bobo motif and its take on cute pandas. The coloured diamond-encrusted panda motif is fitted with interchangeable face masks and adorned with the Monkey King crown.
“I love the Monkey King because it’s such a classic Chinese motif and it’s also a rebel – so much fun and invincible,” says Chen, who is dressed in a floor-grazing, body-hugging black robe for our interview in Beijing’s Aman at Summer Palace.Chen is well versed in the social world yet keeps her distance.
Working with Qeelin has revived an interest from Chen’s youth. “I learnt traditional Chinese painting growing up and this passion for Chinese elements has always been dear to my heart,” Chen says. “I got to create sketches and it’s very satisfying, especially working with Qeelin’s artisans who have been very accommodating with my creative ideas.”
Like the genesis of Qeelin which combines Western aesthetics with Eastern motifs, the fusion of different cultures is also the core of Chen’s artistic philosophy.
“I have always wanted to give a new definition of contemporary beauty from the East,” Chen says. “I really see the Chinese fashion industry growing more and more confident. Before, we were still at a stage of imitating the Western style or looks from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“Now, we are taking the initiative in styling, embracing the Oriental elements and celebrating the contemporary chinoiserie. The beauty and the images perceived in Eastern and Asian contexts are better received today.”
Chen’s works have gone beyond the commercial realm. Her works have been exhibited at global art institutions such as the Asian Arts Museum in San Francisco, Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai and London’s Victoria & Albert.
Growing up in a family of artists – her father hand-painted commercial posters in the 1980s – Chen has been immersed in art since an early age. Graduating from high school in 2001, Chen studied photography at China Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.
Chen’s talent shone through when she was in college. Working with Vision magazine’s art director Zhang Dan, Chen shot a series of covers for the magazine in 2003 and 2004. Specialising in postproduction of the images, Chen transformed models into fantasy and surrealistic figures, blurring the borders between photography and graphic design.
“What we can contribute to the great nature is visuals,” she says. “That’s why I’m so drawn to using the skills and technology that we are equipped with to enhance the beauty of nature.”
Chen’s unconventional approach to photography landed her numerous jobs shooting for leading editorial titles and luxury campaigns. Her celebrity subjects include Rihanna, David and Victoria Beckham, and Nicole Kidman.
“I have a lot of respect for actors. They are fascinating because they are always channelling somebody else’s life by portraying different characters,” she says. “But I also love taking pictures of ordinary people. My focus is built upon the subject matter [which is] all about people, regardless of what they do.”
The past decade has been exciting for Chen and for the fashion industry in China in general. “A lot of international attention is focused on China because of our growing market,” Chen says. “The connection between China and the world has grown much closer so the urgency for the world to communicate with and understand the Chinese context has become stronger and stronger.”
The definition of Chinese aesthetics, therefore, is not stagnant, Chen adds. “Obviously there are many ways to interpret new Oriental beauty and it varies according to the type of medium [in which] it’s being communicated as well as the audience. But for us who have rich Chinese heritage, it’s easier to find our own definition of it.”
Chen will continue to explore the subject through photography as well as motion pictures. She recently signed a deal with CAA (Creative Artists Agency) to work as a director in fashion films in the future.
“I see a lot of potential in motion pictures,” Chen says.
“It will be a lot more about teamwork compared to photography. I’m also excited about more collaborations with international creative units.”
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