Interview: Chen Man

Best known for her color-saturated portraits and quirky humor, Chen Man is one of China's most sought-after fashion photographers. She chats with us about her evolving creative vision

Interview: Chen Man

With her laid-back demeanour – she sports minimal makeup, an understated navy-blue dress and a black shawl for our interview at the Island Shangri-La hotel in Admiralty and complains about the overpowering Hong Kong air-conditioning – Chen Man might be mistaken for any other tourist. Yet in the eyes of many A-list celebrities in China, she is a star, the fashion photographer touted for her ability “to capture what the naked eye fails to see”.

Hailing from Beijing, Chen’s interest in art took off at the age of two, when she would scribble on the scraps of paper she found lying around the house. As a teenager she found inspiration in Chinese ink paintings and calligraphy. It was not until age 19, when she enrolled in the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts, that she started to experiment with what would become her signature photographic style: over-the-top digital post-production and an unabashed blend of Western and Eastern cultural motifs.

She attributes her success in part to the re-adoption of the Open Door policy in 1978: “Ours was a generation of dreamers. The economy was becoming more stable, so we could afford to pursue what we wanted to do in life,” she opines.

While honing her skills at the academy, Chen gained notoriety for a series of covers she shot for Vision magazine in Shanghai. Since then, she has contributed to Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Marie Claire and most recently Madame Figaro in Paris. As an artist, her works have been exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai and the Today Art Museum in Beijing.

Earlier this year, she collaborated with Terry Barber, director of makeup artistry at Mac, on perhaps her most ambitious venture to date: a quartet of covers for i-D magazine’s ‘The Whatever the Weather’ issue. The images were an electrifying mash-up of lush pastel hues and otherworldly styling, with visual cues culled from Chen’s previous training in traditional Chinese painting.

Yet, there was a time when art pundits hounded her hyper-real aesthetic as “overtly photo-shopped” and “uninteresting”. In response to that, she shot a series of portraits, mostly of celebrities and fashion models, using natural lighting and minimal photo-editing.

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Celebrity portrait of Fan Bingbing

"Sometimes an artist's job is to stir up controversy, I'd rather my work be criticized than neglected."

East & West

Still only 32, Chen is in the third phase of her career and is decidedly more defiant about her earlier works. “Men are by nature partial to the sentiments of their age. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but at the end of the day history is the judge,” she says, cheekily adding: “After all, nobody knew how to appreciate Picasso’s paintings until after his death. Sometimes an artist’s job is to stir up controversy. I’d rather my work be criticised than neglected.”

Her art straddles many realms, notably that of the East and West. Her much-quoted working motto is “Chinese culture as software, Western techniques as hardware”. The Four Seasons series best epitomises this sentiment; influenced by Chinese Taoist culture, each season is represented as a hyper-sexualised mythical creature. For those who missed its debut at the Today Art Museum in 2010, the four images are currently on display at the China Rouge cigar lounge in Macau.

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A Dior fashion spread shot in Beijing

Known for her high-profile collaborations with the likes of Mac, Adidas and Coach, Chen’s art often treads the uneasy line between art and commerce. While her brash blend of high and low cultures can be interpreted as a critique of Chinese consumer culture, like so many artists of her generation Chen considers herself a bridge between the two worlds: “They [art and commerce] aren’t necessarily opposites. My clients give me a lot of creative freedom.”

Unsurprisingly, she is also one of China’s highest paid photographers. Besides operating a swanky 1,100-square-metre photography studio in Beijing, she lives comfortably with her husband, Raphael Ming Cooper, co-founder of Society Skateboards, and their two young children.

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Chen Man's collaboration with makeup brand MAC


Fashion & Beauty

While Chen touts the burgeoning fashion scene in China, she laments the lack of fashion stylists there. “If I were to pinpoint one difference between Western and Chinese fashion editorials, it would be the level of professionalism,” she notes. “In the West, they’ve got an art director, a set manager and a stylist. In China, the photographer has to oversee everything, from the set to makeup and styling”. Renowned makeup artist Tony Li is one of her long-time collaborators and mentors: “He was the one who brought me into the fashion world.” 

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Self-styled portrait of Chen Man

"There are two kinds of beauty: natural beauty found in the trees, sky and mountains, and man-made beauty, found in your clothes, your iPhone and the teapot we’re drinking from. My job is to synthesise the two."

She has a large celebrity following, including Maggie Cheung, Faye Wong, Fan Bingbing, Li Bingbing and Zhou Xun. Fan, who now demands that Chen helms all her magazine shoots, has dubbed her the “star of all stars”. What does she think of the accolade? “Oh, I don’t know about that . . . I just do what I’m good at,” she mumbles, slightly embarrassed. She adds: “It’s easy to photograph celebrities and models because they’re beautiful by nature.”

Yet for Chen, a successful shot is less about finding the right angle than “capturing what is not immediately apparent to the naked eye”. In a way, her camera is a visual documentation of an actress' or model’s rise to fame.

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Celebrity portrait of Zhou Xun

She is also credited with spearheading an aesthetic revolution in China. “I want to challenge the way people think of beauty,” she says ambitiously. “There are two kinds of beauty: natural beauty found in the trees, sky and mountains, and man-made beauty, found in your clothes, your iPhone and the teapot we’re drinking from – essentially the kind of beauty that involves craftsmanship. My job is to synthesise the two.”

Her self-styled portraits are as provocative as her fashion spreads. She makes up for her lack of height in style and kitschy humour. In one, she set up her trusty camera and an oversized bathrobe against three fried breadsticks and a jade necklace. In another, she sports a cheongsam, holds a fan with her name splashed on it, her hair done up in two buns – a reference perhaps, to her hauntingly beautiful Mickey Mouse series. So, how exactly would she describe her style? “Oh it’s impossible to define – it’s constantly evolving.”

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"Spring" from Chen Man's "Four Seasons" art photography series

Chen Man

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