As Mainland China’s hottest photographer, Chen Man is often thinking about the next big thing. Next season’s fashion. Next month’s magazine covers. Next year’s breakout film star, who will primp and preen in front of her lens for portraits that will stare out from newsstands around the world.
But today she’s thinking about the past—the very distant past, around the year AD450, when the legendary Hua Mulan is said to have shaved her hair, swapped her cheongsam for chain mail and taken her elderly father’s place in the Chinese army.
“At the moment, I’m shooting the poster for Disney’s Mulan movie. The film will be coming out in March 2020,” Chen reveals. She can’t say too much about the project, but she has just returned to her studio in Beijing from New Zealand’s picturesque South Island, where a crew of more than 600 has spent the past few months shooting key scenes for the film.
Among them were Hong Kong film star Donnie Yen and lead actress Liu Yifei, who was chosen out of nearly 1,000 hopefuls to play the mythical female warrior. “I’m really excited to be part of this project—it’s great to be involved in sharing this classic Chinese folk tale with new audiences around the world,” Chen adds. She may be singing Disney’s praises, but sharing Chinese culture with the world is, in a nutshell, exactly what Chen has been doing for nearly 20 years.
Making her mark
Chen burst onto the scene in Beijing in the early 2000s, when China’s economy was booming and Western luxury brands were wooing the newly wealthy with glossy adverts on billboards and in magazines.
Most of these photos were shot by Western photographers and starred white models, who were often pictured posing against quintessentially European backdrops. China, and Chinese people, were rarely featured. Chen saw an opportunity, but first she had to catch the industry’s attention.
Her big break came in the form of Vision magazine, a pioneering art and design publication in Shanghai that commissioned Chen to shoot cover stories while she was still a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Chen shook things up by regularly using Chinese models and dramatically editing her images using Photoshop, transforming straightforward portraits of models in shimmering make-up into cinematic scenes.
In one cover shot, the star’s hair has been replaced by swirls of computer-generated green ink that could have come straight from a traditional Chinese painting. In another, the model wears an astronaut’s helmet over a frilly Elizabethan collar and appears to be floating in the clouds as a rocket soars past her into space.
Inspired by past, present and future
It wasn’t long before other publications came calling. Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle all began clamouring to work with Chen, who pared back her quirky style and began focusing instead on using her photographs to showcase the best of Chinese culture—both ancient and modern. In Chen’s photographs, models perch on the edge of the Great Wall clad in skin-tight silver leggings and wear traditional headdresses with shiny red puffer jackets.
“Old-time and modern China both inspire me—their unique elements and tone and style are just not found anywhere else,” Chen explains. Her images were hailed for capturing a unique moment in Chinese history, when the country was starting to embrace its past while opening its door to the West and trying to make its mark as a 21st-century superpower.
Although most of Chen’s photos were first published in fashion magazines, many have since been hung on the walls of the world’s top galleries and museums.
Getting in front of the camera
Brands and editors lap up these China-inspired photographs of models and stars, which Chen continues to shoot today. But what she couldn’t have foreseen at the beginning of her career is the extent to which she’d appear in front of the camera.
In 2015, Chen starred on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar China, a moment that marked her transition from behind-the-scenes photographer to big-name celebrity.
Since then, she’s gone on to launch a make-up line with MAC, designed everything from diamond jewellery for Qeelin to a pair of Beats headphones, appeared in campaigns for Canon, walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival and been listed by Business of Fashion as one of the 500 most important people working in the global fashion industry.
See also: Art Insider: Leng Lin
This September, she was one of only a handful of VIPs invited to the unveiling of the latest iPhone at Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters. Then, only a few weeks later, she was spotted socialising with the tech giant’s CEO, Tim Cook, while he was visiting Shanghai.
Like actresses Fan Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi, Chen has become an unofficial ambassador for China and its creative industries, a friendly face of the Middle Kingdom in the West.
Creation and conservation
This public profile also comes with a certain amount of influence—something Chen is determined to use for good. She recently donated a print of one of her photographs to The Nature Conservancy, an organisation that has helped protect more than 48 million hectares of vulnerable habitat around the world since it was founded in 1950.
The conservancy is planning to auction Chen’s work at a fundraising gala it is hosting in Hong Kong next March, just before the annual edition of Art Basel.
“I’ve always been deeply interested in the environment and love to support initiatives related to environmental conservation,” Chen says. “What the Nature Conservancy stands for is very inspiring to me. Their initiatives are all very creative and they’re trying to find new ways to tackle environmental problems, which I appreciate. They are really deeply committed to their campaigns—it’s very different to some other charities that just have a few celebrities say a few words in front of the camera but don’t do much meaningful work.”
Although Chen is generally at ease in the spotlight, there are some aspects of her life that she keeps relatively private. The 38-year-old rarely discusses her marriage to US-born Raphael Ming Cooper, one of the founders of Beijing-based brand Society Skateboards, who she met at a Nike party in the Chinese capital in the late 2000s.
When they met, Cooper was a fixture on Beijing’s underground scene, famous for rapping, skating and hosting hip-hop battles in warehouses, while Chen was spending her days photographing A-list stars in couture.
Cooper now leads a quieter life in Los Angeles, where he lives with the couple’s two children.
“I spend about a third of my time in Los Angeles,” Chen says, acknowledging that the city’s history as the home of cinema is starting to influence her work. “I watch and like a lot of movies. My favourite is Inception. A lot of movies give me inspiration—The Matrix, Star Wars, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.”
Home is where the (he)art is
But, for Chen, everything comes back to China in the end. “I’m a native Beijinger and grew up in a Beijing hutong just next to Tiananmen Square. Beijing gives me a lot of ideas,” she explains. Her studio remains in the capital and it’s there that her more than 30-strong team work around the clock to bring her visions to life.
Next on Chen’s plate is the job of shortlisting the photos of the Mulan cast she’s brought back from New Zealand, followed by some preliminary editing.
With Disney rumoured to have invested more than US$290 million in the film, and with some of China’s biggest stars playing lead roles, the project clearly comes with a certain amount of pressure. “I just hope my work has been able to help facilitate the cultural exchange between China and the West,” Chen says quietly. But she doesn’t need to worry—whatever happens with the Mulan project, it already has.
Photography: Trunk Xu | Styling: Rosana Lai | Hair and make-up: Li Jian
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