Interview with Chen Zhang

Though the submission deadline for ONWARD ‘11 has passed, we have been working on some interviews with participants. As the 200th photographer to submit her photographs, Chen Zhang agreed to do an interview about what motivates her work. Onward Coordinator, Jacob Pastrovich caught up with Chen via e-mail to discuss the elements of her photographs that have a particular Chinese influence, as well as her process. Please visit her website to see more from her series Surface Read, as well as the rest of her work.

Jacob Pastrovich: First, can you tell us a bit about your background and experience in photography?

Chen Zhang: I remember when I was twelve years old, I went to a park with my friend and we shot a lot of photos. After my friend’s father developed the film, he said to me, “Why are the photos you shot of my daughter so ugly? You cut off part of her head or cut part of her leg!”  He told me I wasn’t a good photographer.  I felt really disappointed at that time, then I decided to become good photographer.

My father is a painter and camera fan, so he brought me many places around China to travel. He likes to shoot landscapes, I like to shoot people. My undergraduate degree is in Art Education, but I shot a lot of photos in college. I created different stories for my friends, kind of like staged photos.  At the time I didn’t take any professional photo class, so I just used my cheap digital camera. I came to the US in 2007 and went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston to get my MFA degree. It was my first time taking photography history class and to get to use a medium format film or large format camera.  It has totally opened my mind whether in technique or creatively.

JP: A lot of your photographs use obvious artifice or additive elements that seem to acknowledge kitsch, yet, somehow, don’t quite step into the realm itself. What are your intentions with these techniques?

CZ: The photo sticker patterns (the Japanese called them Purikura) are one kind of photo people in China like to shoot, especially young girls. The print club machines can make people look more white and people can pick an unusual background or choose a frame, sometimes you can add stars, bubbles, flowers. I used Purikura to express my way of re-reading the aesthetic history of the Chinese. So it’s like I decorate myself (I am the main character in the work), decorate my opinion of history, and re-read to experience the complex process of emotional introspection.

JP: You also seem to explore issues dealing with personal or social identity and family. Why did you decide to take on these notions?

CZ: Now in China, you can find lots of art studios that shoot these kinds of photos (except the pattern frame), and they call them “art photos.”  All of my friends did them, then they framed their photos and put them in the living room for every guest that comes to their home to appreciate.  I think it’s a really interesting question to ask why Chinese like this kind of “art photo”?  Photography as a medium not only provides clues to the aesthetic history of the Chinese, it also evidence of a peculiarly Chinese way of thinking: to erase the bad things in reality, to spotlight good things in the photo.  In other words, the glamorous moments of life.

Photography is like a grand ceremony, and gradually becomes a model; this model demands that people “decorate” themselves. I find it very interesting that in the photos everyone is the same, regardless of economic status. In the photo studio, people inevitably wear the same clothes and the same expression. Individual identity, status, and professional attributes are “concealed” so the “photos” we see have already been “decorated.”

I called this series “Surface Read.” In this work, I am the main character and shuffle between different ages – both my own personal age and China’s historical ages – going through the layers of “decoration” and imitation to experience a new way of thinking. Actually “decoration” and the desire to be similar are really interesting to me, because they are both on the surface. This character of superficiality brings more subjective or emotional introspection about history, rather than objectively facing the essence of history.

JP: It’s really odd that the techniques you employ in “Surface Read” actually allow you to say more about a relationship or personal emotion than an “objective” photograph would. It’s almost as if by adding a silly component, you bring out something serious. Are there any other elements you consciously use to your advantage to do something similar?

CZ: Yes, Chinese image aesthetics encapsulate the features of decoration and similarity of images. The emphasis on outward appearance, or superficiality, makes us reflect more on history and culture rather than indiscriminately applying the observation methods directly to the essence of the matter. It is inappropriate to analyze Chinese image aesthetic with logical thinking. I went back to China last year and found out the young generation really like to use Photoshop software to change their eyes and turn their faces pale, make their bodies look really hot, so I am using a similar technique to create hundreds of “art photos” of myself.

JP: What are you currently working on?

CZ: I am still doing the “art photos” of myself right now. At the same time, I am really interested in the concept of the photo studio. I’m connected with several photo studios in China, so I can shoot my whole process when people are shooting “art photos.”

JP: Thanks Chen!

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