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January 13, 2012

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'My pictures are strange, mixed'

SOME of the most spectacular, lavish and phantasmagoric fashion photography from China these days is the work of visionary 31-year-old Chen Man, who has broken barriers and freely admits to using Photoshop to launch her work onto another plane.

As befitting a celebrity who collaborates with celebrities and luxury fashion houses, these days she wears dark glasses, even indoors meeting media, rather like celebrity director Wong Kar-wai.

Chen became famous for shooting high-fashion models in Tian'anmen Square, on the Great Wall, in gray cobbled hutongs (alleys) in Beijing, standing next to the Chinese National Flag with the Shanghai Oriental Pearl TV Tower emerging from a white mist background.

Her most famous photo features a model in front of Tian'anmen on the cover of Vogue in October 2009. It was considered a milestone for "fashion made in China."

Today, Chen is at the top, collaborating with a cluster of stars including Fan Bingbing, Li Bingbing, Zhou Xun, Maggie Cheung and Gong Li. She is believed to first use the iconic backdrop as a fashion setting, and she is said to be the first fashion photographer to use Photoshop and similar editing tools.

"Lots of people asked me what is fashion. In my eyes, fashion is forgetting the troubles in life, a unique invention of mankind for self-entertainment," she says.

Beyond fashion

Her current show going far beyond fashion is underway at the Museum of Contemporary Art through February 7. The work address Buddhism, environmental destruction and protection, war, global warming and other issues, sometimes with glamorous women against a background of sulphurous pollution, sometimes ordinary people who live day in and day out with befouled environments.

The show is divided into the "six dusts" of Buddhism, referring to the five senses and the sixth being external things that cloud the spirit's bright nature.

"I am interested in Chinese tradition and history, and prefer to use my angle for a new interpretation," Chen said. "I am seeking a status for 'a deeper me' or 'a beyond me'."

At the exhibition a large coffee-table book of her famous works is available. "Man" features works that are other worldly in their beauty, fantastic and reminiscent of Maxfield Parrish, some very down to earth in a butcher's shop, with butcher and pretty model. The book features portraits of famous models and actresses, some in exotic settings, some in bizarre theatrical makeup, some naked and literally covered in mud.

Chen was born in 1980 in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region where her parents went during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). She returned to Beijing, living in a hutong near Qianmen Dashila.

"I am a typical Beijing girl, humorous and out-going," she said. "When I was a child, I was bad at math and Chinese. Now I understand why, because I see this world in visual images, not words and figures."

She graduated from the Central Academy of Drama and the Central Academy of Fine Art where she studied painting, design, architecture and stage design.

Then she picked up a camera and experimented early with editing software.

"Technology is a driving force," she said, adding that when she was a student she did extra work to earn money to buy Photoshop and other programs to add color and variety to her photos. "The results shocked others and I was immediately spotted among my peers."

She uses more than special effects.

"My mind is filled with inspirations," she said. "Every evening, a new idea bumps into my mind, and I visualize it; many become pictures." She also has strong memories of old Beijing.

These feelings lead to the powerful images of chic models in Chinese settings, showing new modern faces of China to the world and creating a sensation.

"In my camera there is no difference between man or woman, or whether someone is rich or poor, old or young. They are all the same to me," Chen says. "A person has many facets and I am interested in digging out the unfamiliar facets of a person. Perhaps that's why some big movie stars and celebrities like the way I shoot."

She captured actress Gong Li taking off a heavy military uniform greatcoat, and actress Fan Bingbing wrapped in a towel and shaving a false beard, her chin covered with shaving foam.

Gong Li represents classical Oriental beauty while the greatcoat is a symbol of the past, Chen said. "The moment Gong took off the coat to reveal a Western high-fashion gown, many hidden meanings were expressed."

Of future fashion trends, she says, "Mix-and-match and neutral are key words. Michael Jackson is a perfect fashion icon, and example of neutral. He is neither feminine nor masculine, neither 'yin or yang', neither black or white. He died at 50, exactly in the middle."

Of her own works, she says, "It is mix-and-match, my pictures are strange, mixed and fashionable. I am on the way to being an alternative photographer. I want to reflect the inner side of human beings, because in my eyes, their inner side is still in the 'Neolithic Age,' as science and technology hurtle ahead."

Chen shoots for Vogue, Elle, Bazaar and other magazines. Her works have been collected by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. She has staged international solo exhibitions.

Starting in 2008, Chen began to study Buddhism and Taoism.

"My guide was my ayi at home who believed in Buddhism because she suffered a calamity," she says. "Previously I was overly desirous of material things ... Now I am absorbing the wisdom of ancient Chinese culture."

This year she will stage an exhibition in Italy and she has much work to do.

"But I am a very, very lazy person and I never go to the gym," she says. "My relaxation is reading and meditating."


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