The Chinese photographer Chen Man (陳漫, born 1980 in Beijing) is considered the Mario Testino of China. She has worked for Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Esquire, as well as for M · A · C Cosmetics, and has captured some of the most famous faces in the world, from Victoria Beckham to Rihanna. Crossing the boundaries between photography, illustration and drawing, trained by the traditional school at one of China’s most exclusive art academies, her work is as omnipresent as it is characteristic.
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, graduating in 2005. Prior to her graduation she had already begun to lay the foundations of her career with the launch of a series of covers she produced for the Shanghai-based fashion magazine Vision, China’s first attempt at a progessive style magazine. Between 2003 and 2007, she created a sequence of cover images that were unique within the history of Chinese magazine covers, artistic, manipulated, fantastical, almost over the top, the images captured the socio-cultural fascinations of the moment: 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 is perhaps best known in the West as a portrait photographer. When Harper’s Bazaar China featured a Rihanna cover story in March 2015, Chen Man shot the photo. Half a year later, in August 2015, Chen appeared on the cover of the very same magazine, becoming the first photographer ever to do so.
Chen Man is already one of the 500 most famous photographers in the world today. She is well known beyond the borders of China. With the use of technology and Photoshop, she designs luxurious, color-intensive and bombastic fashion fantasies. What makes Chen’s work exciting is that she challenges China’s traditional cultural barriers. She deliberately blurs the aesthetic conventions of East and West.
Her digital images go hand in hand with the rapid technological and cultural modernization in China, which not only creates new forms of consumption and prosperity, but also changes ideas and values to beauty. Western culture inspires and influences the people between Beijing and Hong Kong. Despite globalization and economic innovation, China is rediscovering its ancient cultural heritage. This is also the case with Chen Man, because she deliberately dedicates herself to topics such as Buddhism, traditional botany or calligraphy.
Within these subjects she finds her own photographic language and is celebrated by many sides for it.
One of her most important visual identification marks is the montage. “Some people think this is fake art,” she says, “but Photoshop is just a tool for my works of art.” For her generation the computer is closely connected with reality, one can even manipulate it with it. Through her digital manipulations she creates an almost ethereal world inhabited by fantasy characters. Her contemporary beauties often appear as mythical beings. Chen’s passion for beauty and glamour is very obvious. With each of her pictures she wants to enhance the uniqueness of the photographed subject.
The young woman, a controlled beauty with a porcelain complexion, says: “I am a typical Chinese woman of my time.” This also means: “All my friends are single children”. What is this generation, the Chinese generation Y: Born 35 years ago in Beijing, who grew up in the Hutongs, the dusty gray village houses in the middle of the city, without TV and telephone. Growing up seemingly in a time lapse of an economic explosion, education and training abroad, then the career.
Chen Man also likes to communicate in pictures: “The eye photographes life.” She sees her work as a kind of “energy exchange between the material and the spiritual world. The combination of photography and philosophy.” Perhaps that is why her photos often look like not from this world. The models, childlike women, nymphs, like extraterrestrial, androgynous beings from and in a virtual world.
“Since I have been recognized in my industry, I can do what I like.” And so she plays with traditions and innovations, elements, wood, water and earth, also with roles. The photographer now sees herself as an ambassador of a young China – also as a diplomat. “The more important something is, the more invisible it is.”
Chen Man has become a star in China’s fashion world. With her abilities behind the camera and her technical magic on the computer, she has achieved the highest perfection and her own distinctive style. With an extremely trained eye she gets the most out of her models. Chen Man is married to the American Raphael Ming Cooper, co-founder of the company Society Skateboards, and has two children. She regularly exhibits her work around the world. She has contributed to exhibitions in Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, London and Hong Kong, as well as her native Beijing.
“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.”
All images by Chen Man