How Photographer “Puzzleman” Leung Builds Narratives Through His Lens

    A mysterious fashion photographer talks to Jing Daily about how he went from dropping out of school to shooting for the biggest magazines in the industry.
    The Taiwan-based fashion photographer, Puzzleman Leung, opened up to Jing Daily about his elusive online persona and his humble beginnings and aspirations. Illustration: Chenxi Li/Jing Daily.
    Yaling JiangAuthor
      Published   in Fashion

    Fashion photographer Puzzleman Leung is the next creative to be highlighted as part of the Jing Daily community of individuals who have helped to build China’s booming luxury industry. This section profiles industry leaders who are contributing to the national and global fashion communities, from consumers and behind-the-scenes employees to business executives and influencers.

    Taiwan-based fashion photographer Puzzleman Leung is a fittingly puzzling and elusive persona. The images on his social media pages emphasize this: a crab claw reaching out from a blazer sleeve on his Facebook page, a McDonald’s bus ad as his WhatsApp icon, and a dough-like face staring innocently as his avatar on Instagram.

    Yet he was brutally honest when talking about his humble beginnings. He moved to Taiwan because he couldn’t get into any colleges in his native Macau and then dropped out of graduate school, as he felt he couldn’t deliver what his teachers wanted. To him, high praise is when a reader “would spend one or two more seconds” on his photo in a magazine, as it meant he captured their attention with his lens.

    Today, the 33-year-old mainly shoots celebrity covers and fashion editorials for Taiwan’s Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, and the streetwear magazine MilkX Taiwan, as well as for local designer brands. His photography style combines outside-the-box setups with surreal and whimsical aesthetics. Examples include having a model wear a transparent Louis Vuitton bag on his head and pairing a Dior Saddle bag with a hand-drawn horse on a blackboard.

    The 33-year-old mainly shoots celebrity covers and fashion editorials for magazines such as Taiwan's Elle and Vogue editions. Photo: Courtesy of Leung
    The 33-year-old mainly shoots celebrity covers and fashion editorials for magazines such as Taiwan's Elle and Vogue editions. Photo: Courtesy of Leung

    In a call with Jing Daily, he spoke about how he was heavily influenced by the late French artist and fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, the thinking process behind some of his recent shoots, and what he aspires to achieve in a highly-competitive industry.

    Jing Daily: What brought you to photography?#

    Leung: I never thought of becoming a photographer when I was young [because] I couldn’t understand why professionals would spend so much money on gear. But when digital cameras became popular, the entry barrier lowered, and that’s when I started taking photos of my high school classmates.

    My first paid gig happened when I got to college [the National Taiwan University of Arts]. A friend’s friend, who was a music student, hired me to do a studio shoot for a poster. He liked the outcome, and that made me want to go further on this path.

    How did you find your style? Did anyone in particular influence you?#

    I’m not following a particular style guide. The most important thing for me is to be interesting.

    My favorite photographer is Guy Bourdin [a famed 20th-century photographer for French Vogue]. I felt resistant to his aesthetic at first because it looked so dark, but after a while, I found it intriguing. His stuff will never look outdated [to me].

    Sometimes, I look at his photos and get inspired when I don’t know what to shoot. They may look like a horror movie to someone just starting to take photos, but I realized later that each photo carries such a strong narrative, like a movie still. They didn’t have post-production tools in his era, but his photos were still so surreal. He impacted me most by teaching me to have an idea for every photo that I take. This is very important.

    How do you present your ideas in each of your photos, and can you give us an example?#

    We were in Kuala Lumpur for one shoot featuring a Louis Vuitton bag that’s not easy to shoot because it’s so soft and transparent. When you put stuff in it, it shows [through]. The climate was also hot and humid, and within the team, we had a lot of conversations about how to demonstrate [the bag] naturally. Eventually, we just went ahead with the idea to put it over the model’s head.

    Leung's photoshoot featuring a Louis Vuitton bag from Spring Summer 2020 for MilkX Taiwan. Photo: Courtesy of Leung
    Leung's photoshoot featuring a Louis Vuitton bag from Spring Summer 2020 for MilkX Taiwan. Photo: Courtesy of Leung

    Regarding the Dior Saddle Bag, I’ve been shooting different variations of it for a year. I thought it was hard because you can’t just put it on a surface. The bag’s irregular shape means you would need something to support it, and I’ve shot it with models and didn’t see great chemistry. The theme of our shooting day was a school classroom, which has a blackboard, so I thought: Why don’t I just draw a horse and put the bag on it as a saddle?

    Leung's photoshoot featuring a Dior Saddle bag for MilkX Taiwan November 2019 issue. Photo: Courtesy of Leung
    Leung's photoshoot featuring a Dior Saddle bag for MilkX Taiwan November 2019 issue. Photo: Courtesy of Leung

    What are your takeaways from dealing with magazines and brands?#

    I think photographers and editors should have equal standing in both creation and execution. Editors cannot let photographers do everything or vice versa. The best results usually come from a collision of ideas that form a consensus. Then, during the shoot, we brief the models on our consensus and let them do their part.

    Other than TanTan Studio, a designer brand from Taiwan, I don’t normally work with other brands. But I quite enjoyed working with them because they give me a lot of creative freedom.

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    How do you evaluate the success of a photographer?#

    If people look at your photos and feel something, that means you are successful. For example, if your photos mainly appear in magazines, I would call [someone] a success if a reader spends one or two more seconds [looking]. That means you’ve caught their attention. Because nowadays, people just flip mindlessly through magazines.

    What do you think about feedback from readers or clients?#

    When I work with designers, they give me feedback and the conversations my photos have brought about on their social media. But it’s rare for me to get direct feedback, and I also don’t really care.

    You’ve done a lot of high-fashion editorials featuring luxury goods. Have you thought about working directly with them?#

    Yes, but since Taiwan is a rather small market, I haven’t had the chance. Perhaps I will move to Paris or London one day. I read a lot of magazines from these two cities.

    How does the business model of being a photographer work for you these days? Do you see any new trends in the industry in the Greater China market?#

    I’ve always been a freelancer, but I recently realized that I enjoy teamwork more. In a team, I can focus on photography. We don’t have agencies for photographers in Taiwan, so once a project is confirmed, photographers have to prepare everything, from props to finding a venue, which is a lot of extra work. I recently started working with some professionals that do pre-production for me, and I enjoyed the work style. In my opinion, this is where commercial photography is headed.

    I think the industry in the Greater China market is being Westernized, meaning that everyone gets a specific role. There will be a set designer, a stylist, and a makeup artist instead of just a magazine staff covering all tasks. I’ve seen this more over the past year, and I think I’ll see more of it in Taiwan and Hong Kong in the future.

    The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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