“Through Photography, We Can Tell A Story”
Perhaps best known for his controversial 2010 Dior “Shanghai Dreamers” campaign, Tianjin-born, New York and Beijing-based artist Quentin Shih (时晓凡) is one of the most highly regarded and sought-after Chinese fashion photographers. The self-taught artist, who cut his teeth shooting his hometown’s underground music and art scenes, started his career off in Beijing, then New York, as a fine art photographer, turning increasingly to commercial and fashion work since 2007. Since then, Shih has shot campaigns for brands such as Adidas, Microsoft, Sony and Siemens, as well as spreads for major publications such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire. Most recently, Shih shot the “Lolita”-inspired lookbook for designer Liu Lu’s brand, Luvon, referenced in February by Hong Huang in her column for WWD, ChinaFile.
Recently, Jing Daily engaged in a Q&A with Quentin Shih, discussing his recent work, new film project, and personal inspirations. (Interview translated from the original Chinese.)
Jing Daily (JD): What was the moment that made you decide to become a photographer?
Quentin Shih (QS): It was like it is for a lot of people. At the time, it was just a hobby, a way to pass down-time when I was bored at college. But gradually, I became increasingly obsessed with the whole process of it, recording images on photo paper.
JD: What would you say is the main focus of your work?
QS: I shoot a lot of portraits, encounters between people, the way people interact with their environment. I’ve taken lots of inspiration from history, and also really like surreal, highly colorful imagery.
JD: Do you feel that commercial photography has the potential to limit an artist’s creativity and style?
QS: It’s hard to say. Commercial photography requires teamwork, and if you stick only to your personal style it’s pretty selfish. One of the most pleasurable things about commercial photography isn’t just the creative side, though, it’s collaborating with a team. Essentially, you can satisfy your own interests and artistic whims while having a sense of achievement and making your client happy.
JD: How would you characterize your style as a photographer?
QS: Through photography, we can tell a story. We can paint with light. I like my photography to be dramatic, but to also have a narrative, and to be real.
JD: In your series “Stranger in a Glass Box” the scenes are packed with meticulously designed sets. What inspired this?
QS: That [series] was inspired by lots of things I’d been reading, other art forms and my own personal experiences. One thing my experience with commercial photography has helped me do is bring any sort of scene that pops into my head to life.
JD: Many artists, yourself included, often reveal the dark side of life in their work. What do you think brings this out?
QS: I don’t really think my work has much of a dark component in it. Art isn’t the news, its function isn’t really to expose. I’m much more fixated on my personal environment and feelings than society itself.
JD: What brought you to New York? As a Chinese photographer, what do you think the biggest differences are between New York and Beijing?
QS: In 2009 I received a one-year scholarship for the School of Visual Arts’ “Photo Global” program, so this was really what initially took me to New York. New York and Beijing are the same in that they’re both bursting with energy, but comparatively New York culture is more diverse, more inclusive, and of course New York’s weather is better.
JD: From your Weibo, can see you now are working on a film project that is, in Chinese, called “Farewell Journey” (再见的旅程). What’s the driving concept behind the project?
QS: I’m actually working on several film projects right now. Some are shorts, others are features. The one I’m working on now is a feature, and the English title is “Night of the Soaring Seabird.” The story itself is set in a city called Xichang in the west of China. It alternates between several stories all taking place over the course of one night, different characters who are all going to leave the city on the following morning. That’s why it’s called “Farewell Journey” in Chinese.
JD: What advice do you have for young Chinese photographers interested in Western art and fashion?
QS: Practice. Gradually find your own unique perspective and inspiration.