Shen Yi

Roland Barthes once mentioned in his work La Chambre claire, “Portrait photography is like a wrestling field.  Four kinds of images are interweaving, conflicting, and deforming.  Behind the lens, I am the person whom I think I am, whom I hope other people would think that I am, whom the photographer thinks I am, and one who is used by the photographer to present his artistic talent.”  This is a comment on portrait photography from the viewpoint of a person being photographed.  When Almond Chu was asked about his viewpoint on such remarks, he contemplated for a while and said, “In fact these four situations keep happening when I shoot because of the contradictions of human nature.  As a photographer, my photography belongs to the last two situations.”

Amongst a multitude of portrait photographers, Almond Chu likes Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn the most.  Deep within his subconscious mind, he also agrees to the two famous sayings of Richard Avedon, “We all perform.  Therefore, I believe in performance …  A portrait is not a likeness.  The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph, it is no longer a fact but an opinion.  There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate.  None of them is the truth.”

Shen = Shen Yi  Chu = Almond Chu

Shen:  How do you choose the scenes of your photographs?  I noticed that some of your photographs were taken in the working environment that the artists were familiar with; or employed some objects that they were familiar with as props.  But some photographs you took were purely taken in a studio.

Chu:  Sometimes I visit the portrait targets before the actual shooting just to know more about his/her works and characters.  Then I will design and conceive the process.   If I find his workshop a suitable scene, I will take photographs in his workshop because he will feel easier there.  But for some people who have prominent personalities, I will take photographs in a studio without backdrop and props because I want to present their personalities and countenances.

Shen:  The composition of your works is very simple and pure.  Is it out of your aesthetic mysophobia?

Chu:  Years ago a Taiwanese photographer Juan Yi-Chung also mentioned that my portrait works carried a certain extent of aesthetic mysophobia.  In fact I like minimalism.  Good works start from the very basic.

Shen:  Which celebrities impressed you most?  Can you share some fun with us here?

Chu:  A lot of people impressed me deeply.  For example, Wong Kar-wai never took off his sunglasses.  I tried hard to persuade him, but I finally gave in.  Sunglasses are his logo.  He won’t change, not for me, not for anyone else. Shooting for Tan Dun was a bit complicated.  He completely forgot our appointment.  I waited for him and when he finally showed up, it was ten minutes before rehearsal.  I was forced to complete my job within these ten minutes.  At the beginning he didn’t like my idea.  So I changed my idea, but he was still dissatisfied.  Then I asked my assistant to take a Polaroid first for his reference.  Fortunately, after he saw the picture, he agreed to my idea.  As a result, I only took five minutes to get my job done.  Within those ten minutes I was under great stress.  But the portrait of Tan Dun turned out to be one of my best works.

Shen:  Did he tell you why he didn’t like your idea at the very beginning? He was very satisfied with the completed works, wasn’t he?

Chu:  At the beginning I asked him to stand in front of a Taiko drum, with a round shape as the composition of the photograph.  He simply didn’t like this idea.  Because of time limit, I didn’t argue with him.  Finally, when he saw the developed prints, he was very satisfied.

Shen:  Those celebrities you took are mostly well-known people that the media has all along paid close attention to.  For these faces widely known to the public, how do you challenge their existing impressions to the public and re-interpret them?

Chu:  I try to maintain my own thinking on them, and leave alone their public images; otherwise my works will have no artistic value but ordinary and commercial portraits.  For instance, when I took Jackie Chan, I didn’t treat him as a superstar, but “a person who knew kungfu.”  I didn’t take his motions and his stylistic facial expression.  In his photo collection, he didn’t look like the Jackie Chan we used to know, but to see him from a new perspective.

Shen:  As to those backstage faces not known to the public, if they are afraid of being photographed and repel camera shooting, how do you convince them to take pictures?

Chu:  Indeed some people don’t know what to do in front of camera.  They are a bit nervous.  But this situation can also be an element of my photographs.

Shen:  How do you interpret the meaning of expression in portrait photography?

Chu:  Most of the portraits I took don’t give too much expressions.  A majority of my portrait photographs are composed of spatial composition and the body language of the models, giving viewers a feeling that they are “frozen” in the pictures.  This is my unique style to interpret the meaning of their existence.

Shen:  Can we just say that “expressionlessness” is also a kind of “expression”?  Having no feeling of anger, grief, joy and happiness is also a kind of attitude?

Chu:  Yeah, sort of.

Shen:  Let’s go back to the earlier question and talk about how you take photographs of Ai Weiwei.  As you know, in Mainland China he is a special but sensitive figure in the contemporary art.  Which part of Ai Weiwei do you want to present from the photograph that “hardly has expression”?

Chu:  When I was taking photographs of Ai Weiwei, it was running out of time, and the scene had a lot of limitations.  The worst was that he was in low mood that day, and I could sense a little bit of anger in him.  I turned all these things to be elements of my photographs.  I concentrated on taking close-ups of his face.  I thought that through his “facial expression,” people could feel his domineering manner, which was exactly him “at that moment.”  In addition, if the viewers know his special background, they must have realized certain things from the photographs.

Shen:  Apart from portraits of celebrities, you seem to be obsessed with human figures.  The Chinese and Western people have different insights towards human figures.  The sinologist Wolfgang Kubin said that your photographs have genuine contrast of black and white, man and woman, life and death, yin and yang.  Behind all these finds an Oriental philosophy, Daoism.  However, in the meantime, you say that your attitude towards human figures is very “Western.”  How do you interpret aesthetics of photography?

Chu:  In the early years I took many photographs of male human figures.  Some people even thought that I’m a gay.  Later on, I mostly took photographs of female human figures.  Perhaps it’s the reason why Wolfgang Kubin felt the Daoist philosophy, yin, yang, and so on from my works.  Actually I make no in-depth studies of Oriental or Western philosophy.   Style and aesthetics are just naturally produced from my creative works.

Shen:  What are the distinguishing features in male and female figures that attract you?

Chu:  To me, male and female figures are the same.  What I see are the skin texture, blood, flesh and the raw materials that can mold innumerous changes.

Shen:  One thing interesting is that you once took photographs of Wolfgang Kubin.  In front of such a portrait model who knew you so well, how did you start the job?

Chu:  Wolfgang Kubin is very cooperating.  Since I am well-acquainted with him, I was extraordinarily “harsh” on him.  I made a lot of requests from him.  During the shooting, I seemed to stand in front of a mirror.

Shen:  Stand in front of a mirror?

Chu:  It’s very strange!  Sometimes I saw myself when taking photographs of a person.  I seemed to have involved in the identity of the model; or the model seemed to have involved in the “role” I gave him.  This “role” perhaps was me.  I can’t figure this out!

Shen:  When you took photographs of Wong Kar-wai, he was still wearing sunglasses.  Didn’t you ask him to take them off?

Chu:  It was difficult to take photographs of Wong Kar-wai.  Not only that he insisted on wearing his sunglasses, that day he also kept walking here and there in my studio.  I just couldn’t focus him or make composition for my photographs.  The entire photographic process was like a hide-and-seek game.

Shen:  It was heard that for the work of Bei Dao, the poet wasn’t quite satisfied with it, was he?

Chu:  Bei Dao is a very amiable person.  But I feel that there is a kind of arrogance in him.  I thought I discovered and captured another side of him.  He didn’t like the photographs I took because he thought he was not handsome enough in the photographs.

Shen:  Regarding portrait photography, Richard Avedon had two famous sayings, “We all perform.  Therefore, I believe in performance.”  “A portrait is not a likeness.  The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion.  There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate.  None of them is the truth.”  What do you think?

Chu:  Yeah, to look for truth from photos (including press photos) is completely a personal wishful thinking.  I also agree to maintain a viewpoint towards the portrait models.  I attempt to deduce such viewpoint in my works too.  It corresponds to our earlier discussion about Roland Barthes’ theory in La Chambre claire.