Chen Man

Chen Man is a trail blazing Chinese fashion photographer whose work has spearheaded the country's movement toward visual revolution. She entered the industry at a time of overwhelming mediocrity and by producing fantastical, glamorous images she helped to capture the energy of a generation. Chen Man was born and raised in Beijing where she attended university at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Before graduating in 2005 she was already deeply entrenched in the budding world of progressive fashion photography. China at the time was incredibly conservative; uninterested in pushing boundaries and wary of upsetting the status quo, editorials were safe, the landscape was dull. Chen came in as a bright ray of creativity. Her work marked the beginning of visual freedom, and brought about a time of creative expression never before seen in her censor-happy homeland. Starting in 2003 she began working with Vision Magazine, China's first attempt at a progressive style rag which drew great inspiration from Wallpaper, the world's top and most forward design magazine. The avant-garde covers were radical and worked to capture the cultural rumblings of that very moment with a veracity and artful candor that spoke to the desires of the Chinese people. Karen Smith, one of the world's leading experts on modern Chinese art, describes the covers as a "visual confluence of every nuance of glamour, surface, virtual energy and freedom of the imagination that was seeping into the bedrock of the emergent youth culture of the period." She understood what was going on in her society and discussed it in a glossy, breathtakingly gorgeous way. She displayed her masterful knowledge of the female form and the expression of glamor, commenting “I’m obsessed with women’s bodies and have a visual desire for beauty,” said Chen. She addressed the present while simultaneously clearing a path for the future. She rejected the homogenous environment and set the framework for a new visual language that is slowly becoming the standard in Chinese society. She started a revolution -- and didn't even have her degree yet. [caption id="attachment_8065" align="aligncenter" width="1024" caption="Exploration of the female form"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8059" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="Vision Magazine cover March 2004"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8060" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="Vision Magazine cover April 2004"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8062" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="Vision Magazine cover May 2004"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8063" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="Vision Magazine cover August 2004"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8064" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="Vision Magazine cover September 2004"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8073" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="Chen Man"][/caption] The covers that Chen shot for Vision gave the Chinese people a first look at something new. A new attitude, a new style. The images spoke to her key demographic -- urban dwelling, celebrity obsessed 20-somethings living in a hyper-connected world. The scenes that she created featured aspirational looks fit onto iconic personalities, they explored elements of individuality, peered into the realm of cult status and defined Chen's own particular brand of cool. This was all something that her demographic understood, connected with and beyond that, applauded. Finally their modern culture was being discussed on a major platform and in an interesting, beautiful way. But the rest of the population was a bit more reluctant. China's strict conservatives were unsure of her work, they found the images weird and alienating. But as Chen continued to build her body of work, regularly contributing to Chinese Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Esquire and the like, the themes that she chose to discuss and the juxtapositions that she created forged a strong connection to the ideologies of her critics. [caption id="attachment_8066" align="aligncenter" width="1024" caption="Two separate works: one commenting on tradition (left) the other commenting on glamor"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8083" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="youth & authority"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8084" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="beauty shots"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8085" align="aligncenter" width="750" caption="old world"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8086" align="aligncenter" width="363" caption="beauty shots"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8087" align="aligncenter" width="468" caption="Collaboration with Absolut Vodka: Absolut 72变 bottle"][/caption] Chen describes herself as a connector. She aims to bridge cultures -- both East and West, and traditional and modern. Her aesthetic is global -- high gloss, rigorous post-production and the overriding goal of perfected beauty -- but the essence of her work is traditional Chinese sensibilities. Thus her images are relatable to all, but they make the most sense when viewed through the context of Chinese locality. This also connects to her exploration of the relationship between traditional culture and China's rapid development. Her work emphasizes the significance of tradition -- she often makes old world references to Chinese culture, for example in one of her newest series Four Seasons she represents each season as a mythical creature, the style of which is strikingly similar to cave drawings found in Dunhuang. Also, the photograph of Chen below (two side by side images of Chen, one is traditional Chinese garb and the other in the clothes of today) juxtaposes the old and new. Part of a series of self-portraits, Chen aimed to explore the role that China's traditions play in her modern life. These types of references can be found all throughout her work, and have been noticed and appreciated by the older generations. The emotional quality of her work also deeply connects her to Chinese local sensibilities. In an interview with New York Magazine she is asked to describe her personal style. With the help of a translator she says, "tired and lazy." She goes on to explain that the culture of her hometown of Beijing is very laid back, she says, "What they truly treasure is something more intrinsic: emotions." There is a visceral quality to much of her work that is surely appreciated by her people. In this way, Chen has developed a new form of expression, that of the visual sort, that is firmly rooted in tradition. She uses a contemporary language to explore and express traditional ideas and imagery. And this probably plays a large part in why she is China's most in-demand photographer. [caption id="attachment_8058" align="aligncenter" width="560" caption="Self-Portrait"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8074" align="aligncenter" width="750" caption="Beauty shots"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8075" align="aligncenter" width="744" caption="old vs. new"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8077" align="aligncenter" width="744" caption="grease & glamor"][/caption] As mentioned earlier, those Vision covers made a huge impact on the Chinese people. They were impressed not only by her talent, but also by the fact that she was merely 28 years old. Chen's career has been a whirlwind of acclaim and opportunity. She quickly gained attention in China, but after graduation her notoriety went worldwide. She has worked with fashion powerhouses like Gucci, Chanel, Celine, Marni and Sisley while also venturing out of fashion to do campaigns for Mercedes Benz, L'Oreal, Lancôme, Absolut Vodka and MAC Cosmetics. Her obvious skill with color caused MAC to come knocking on her door, which resulted in a collaboration that is in stores now. The images she produces are always highly saturated, giving them an upbeat and powerful effect. She achieves this through an in-depth post-production routine -- one that is so involved that many say she is more like a painter than a photographer. She does all of her post-production herself, and even invented her own 3-D rendering technique using the program 3-D Max. She reworks the textures, forms and visual elements of her photographs, and using her natural love of glamor, she creates "fantastical illusions" of perfected beauty. She is known for her skill with models -- she easily manages to get the best out of them, giving her a canvas ripe for manipulation. She always aims to take complete control of the image in her effort to create that superlative perfection. Yes, she is a commercial photographer, but it is difficult to compare her images to that of your run of the mill clothing advertisement. She expertly toes the line between commercial photography and true art, challenging our expectations of media. She actually even took a bit of flack for her technique of heavy digital manipulation as some claimed that she was not a "real" photographer. She then took to experimenting with more natural light and less retouching -- she even explained once that when it comes down to it she always prefers the untouched, all natural images but she has clients to please, knowing that art and commerce are like oil and water. [caption id="attachment_8071" align="aligncenter" width="575" caption="Collaboration with MAC Cosmetics"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8072" align="aligncenter" width="575" caption="Chen Man MAC products"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8068" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Heavy digital manipulation. Shot at Niagra Falls."][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8069" align="aligncenter" width="589" caption="Elle China cover June 2010"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8070" align="aligncenter" width="524" caption="PhotoShop perfection"][/caption] Chen's work is particularly interesting in the grand scheme of things also because it is so aesthetically striking and technically perfect, yet at the same time she is going out of her way to discuss important cultural themes. Fashion photographers aren't the first you turn to for social commentary, so it is fascinating to see Chen's explorations of environmental protection, the relationship between man and nature, individuality and the importance of human connection. One of her most recent projects was for i-D Magazine and she created a series of cover featuring Chinese tribeswomen. Her goal here was to show the spectrum of Chinese beauty and she used avant-garde design to display the diversity. Chen is wholly concerned with involving her people in her art. With China leading the world with technological advancements, Chen's generation is comprised of wholly disconnected beings leading their lives in cyberspace. They know more about Lindsay Lohan than they do their next door neighbor. She is disturbed by this isolation. Karen Smith explains that Chen fears the "danger of losing connection and a sense of place" within the world. So while Chen creates these images that are so beautiful it is actually difficult to look away, she is also working to remind us "that we all have a responsibility to live to the best of our ability." Her work really is beautiful inside and out. [caption id="attachment_8078" align="aligncenter" width="525" caption="i-D Magazine Pre-Spring 2012 cover"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8079" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="i-D Magazine Pre-Spring 2012 cover"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8080" align="aligncenter" width="525" caption="i-D Magazine Pre-Spring 2012 cover"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8081" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="i-D Magazine Pre-Spring 2012 cover"][/caption] [caption id="attachment_8082" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="i-D Magazine Pre-Spring 2012 cover"][/caption]