Chen Man interview

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Chen Man interview

While she's been pushing the boundaries of fashion photography for nearly a decade, Chen Man's global appeal is only just starting to take flight. On the occasion of Time Out's Photography Issue, the Beijing native talks to Edmund Lee about her digitally enhanced journey to become China's hippest photographer. Photography by Chen Man


Chen Man said she was 'embarrassed to comment' when she was asked, during a Time Out Hong Kong interview back in March 2010, about her formidable status as one of China's leading fashion photographers. Her star has only shone brighter ever since. It is a process that earnestly began when she was brought in by Vision's artistic director to create the covers of the reputable art and design magazine back in 2003 – while still a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The Beijing-based photographer, who's only 32 despite her seemingly eternal presence at the pinnacle of the Chinese fashion industry, now counts ELLE, Vogue and i-D magazine as some of the covers she has graced; Dior, Adidas and Mercedes-Benz among her brand campaigns; as well as Faye Wong and Fan Bingbing as her regular photographic subjects. Time Out catches up with Chen to find out how she finds time for all of this – as well as how timing has been everything for her success.

Hello Chen Man! It's been precisely three years since our interview before your Hong Kong exhibition in 2010. If you had to pick one adjective to describe your career since, what would it be?
It's busy, busy, busy. There's order in the work, and then there's chaos to be found in the order.

You're a popular name in both the art world and the fashion industry. How do you feel about your dual status nowadays?
To be honest, the two are no longer distinguishable from each other: it's reached the stage where fashion and art are in a romantic relationship. Let's not separate them – the distinction can be a form of restriction.

Do you still recall your start as a fashion photographer? What's your earliest memory of that?
It was my shoot for Vision magazine. Even the equipment I used at the time, a film camera, was borrowed. Although I've since worked for the advertising campaigns of every kind of major brands, none of them felt as memorable as that first time.

From the many location shoots you've done over the years, which of them was most impressive?
I was one of the first to do fashion shoots on the Great Wall, in the Forbidden City and in other famous tourist spots in China. I remember doing a cover shoot with [model] Lv Yan on the Great Wall. There were many Chinese tourist groups around us; people were wearing small yellow caps distributed by the tourist agencies, with pumpkin seeds in their mouth and cucumbers in their hands, pointing and commenting at the back, as if they'd formed a sightseeing tour [around our shoot]. They even commented when they watched: "Isn't that the ugly model?" Lv Yan was holding her breath while staying in the uniquely weird outfit that I prepared for the shoot. It was a very memorable experience.

Chen Man Funky Great Wall
Funky Great Wall (2007)

As you mentioned, you're probably one of the first photographers to juxtapose contemporary Chinese culture with fashion. What was the inspiration behind that?
My inspiration comes mainly from life: the impact of living, the era I live in, the place I grew up. We're the first generation after China's economic reform under [the concept of] 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'; I'd call us the generation that witnessed material dreams become reality. Living under this Western civilisation of materialism, it's become a necessity for me to fall back on the ideas of ancient Chinese philosophy.

Can you describe the environment you grew up in?
I am a typical post-80s only child in China. The generation before me was a historically unique one, because of the Cultural Revolution and it had a direct influence on our generation. My work has a very much mixed look: there's the East and the West, there's the future, present and past, and there's the mainstream and the non-mainstream. It is at once popular and refined, at once philosophical and stylish. These are all aspects that didn't come together very often in the past, but they are all there in my work.

That pretty much applies to your entire body of work.
My work is a mix of everything. It makes use of the software of ancient Chinese culture and the hardware of contemporary Western culture. I intend to channel ancient human spirits through modern expression.

As a person, are you influenced by any particular school of thought?
I'm influenced by Taoism and Buddhism; they have a comparatively stronger influence on me. Many of my works are related to this: the Red series, the Five Elements series and the Four Seasons series. Of course, I've also injected the Buddhist and Taoist concept of environmental protection into my work for the commercial brand MAC [Cosmetics].

Chen Man Funky Great Wall
Love and Water (2012) - MAC Cosmetics

How about fashion designers? What kind of fashion style do you like best?
I feel that I like every fashion designer. I don't have any special taste. I'm one of those people who loves to eat everything.

What about cameras? Do you have any favourites?
The camera is just a tool. I don't know what paintbrush Picasso used but I believe he could paint well no matter what paintbrush he was using.

So when did you become interested in photography?
Photography offers a direct connection between people. I like the lively interaction with beauty. Photography can be a documentation of reality and it can also be a surrealist expression. I started learning to paint when I was two years old. I didn't dream of becoming a photographer when I was young. In order to make a living, I had spent a long time doing graphic design… At the time, art was not the best profession to make a living from. Artists then were just not the same as they are now, where their auction prices can be in the tens of thousands – this was unimaginable then. The reason I started studying art was because I'm good at it; so I just kept on learning. I won a lot of awards when I was still a child. That's why my family was so happy to nurture my talent in this direction.

Did you always see yourself as an artist?
While I did see myself as an 'artist', there was a long period of time that I was quite repelled by the term. It was a time when performance art started appearing [in China]. A lot of passionate teenagers participated in performance art [projects] that appeared to ordinary people as ridiculous, shocking and weird; [I] lost the respect that I used to have for artists. That's why I thought I couldn't be an artist. When I shot for Vision at the beginning, I had a very confused identity: photographers didn't see me as their peers because my work looked too much like painting, while artists also didn't see me as an artist because my work was in fashion magazines. These days, I'm regarded as one of the more successful commercial fashion photographers in China. It's only recently, when I was invited to exhibit at Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai and Beijing's Today Art Museum, that people recognised there's also part of me which may be regarded as an 'artist'.

What's your philosophy as an artist?
My artistic philosophy is to capture both the form and the essence, and then take Chinese culture as its body and Western culture as its method.

Can you describe your state of mind when you are photographing your subjects?
Every time I take a photo, I would prepare a complete image in my mind in advance. I have a very good idea what the final image will be like. So there's actually a finalised draft [from the start]. It's like this for almost all of my work.

Having photographed some of the most beautiful people in the Chinese entertainment business, how do you feel about your relationship with your subjects?
I can imagine how my life would be different if I were a man – but I'm not. My relationship with my subjects is mostly about work, although when we meet again we'll often feel like old friends.

Chen Man - Faye Wong (2011)
Faye Wong (2011) - Harper's Bazaar cover shoot

Apart from photo shoot requests from celebrities, what has been the most special offer you've come across?
Apart from celebrities, who are always special in their own ways, the most special invitation I've received is from an American couple who adopted a Chinese orphan. The child changed their lives. The orphan they adopted two decades ago is now a 20-year-old woman. I think the photographic subject of this shoot was very unique.

I notice that you've done quite a few collaborations with Hong Kong-based artists and designers in recent years. From your observation, what's the main difference between Hong Kong and Beijing people's attitude to photography?
I think Hong Kong has been in touch and more integrated with Western culture before us. Hong Kong is also a very successful place in terms of commerce. Beijing, in this regard, is still in its teens, a newcomer, that is at times lacking in experience although is full of energy. I think by connecting the two, we have an opportunity to learn, to integrate and to complement each other.

It's fair to say that you belong to the first generation of Chinese fashion photographers who are internationally recognised. What do you think are the factors which have really set you apart from the past generations?
We are in the right place at the right time. I feel that it's good fortune that allows this country to have its own market for fashion photography. There are many, many first-class fashion magazines in China, and thus, there is very big demand for locally produced photographic works. It's because of that that I have these many jobs today.

I've also noticed that 'Man' has almost always been mistaken as your surname in the Western press. Do you feel like clarifying on that point?
I'm not going to clarify or change the order of my name 'Chen Man'. To me, both my first and last names are a code for me; [the media] can freely choose between either. Then again, the word 'Man' does sometimes create the misperception that I am a man. Even in China, actually, for people who've only heard my name and seen my work but never met me in person, they also tend to think that I'm a man.

What do your friends and family think about your reputation?
My friends and family don't really think much about my work. They just feel like I'm having a tough life. But the truth is: there's no easy profession. Everyone is having a tough working life when China is developing in such an intense pace.

So how much time each day do you normally devote to work?
I work for around 12 hours a day and am always in the middle of handling certain things. Then again, there are also days when I have a lighter work load: sometimes I'd shoot for an hour – and it's done. I'm currently trying to reduce my workload so that I have more time for my Chinese painting. I'm taking some time out for my family and my painting.

When we talked in 2010 you mentioned that you're in the third phase of your career. When will we see your next big artistic experiment?
I've already started my artistic experiment for my next phase. But it'll probably still be a while before I can show them to the public. I'm in the preparation stage at the moment.

For updates on Chen Man's latest projects, visit chenmaner.com.

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