Known to intimi as Andy, Mr. Houlai is a Shanghai-born, -raised and –based fashion snapper of few words. In his honour, this post shall be equally concise and thus all about those five W’s and one H. The wringer remains… How can any picture be perfect?
A quick look at the history of photography, shows us that the earliest fashion pictures date back to the 1850s and 60s, putting the on-fleek Parisian fashion houses of the era on file.
Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Peter Lindbergh, Annie Leibovitz, Ellen von Unwerth, Chen Man (陈漫), David Bailey, Kai Z Feng (冯志凯), Russell James, Mario Testino and Yin Chao (尹超) are merely a spattering of modern names who have rocked the fashion industry through their images and imaginations. Photography itself saw the light in 1839, yet the importance and integrity of fashion photography have often been subjected to heated debate due to the art form’s commercial drive. A quick look at the history of photography, shows us that the earliest fashion pictures date back to the 1850s and 60s, putting the on-fleek Parisian fashion houses of the era on file.
The influence of fashion photography on our daily lives is, however mulishly some may want to oppose this, inarguable. Magazines (both hardcopy and digital), advertising, billboards, books; this particular type of art embraces a story with attitude – from frivolous to feisty, syrupy to serious and Lolita to porno chic. The composition of subject, styling and location convey a visual fantasy that in its ultimate state of perfection sweeps the onlooker off their feet and plunges them right into another dimension. One they never could have imagined. Moreover, the realm where fashion meets the camera has recorded some of history’s most creative and socially revealing visible testimonies. They show off the tempers, habits, ambitions and tastes of different generations. They leave us with a reflection of people’s self-images across the entire scale, from liberated sexuality to social equality.
Chinese photographer Quentin Shih often showcases a tangibly critical look at themes referring to China’s politics or military – with a penchant for those referencing the Cultural Revolution.
With China’s fashionable development of the past decade, the nation’s photographers too have flooded onto the international magazine cover scene; injecting an immense sense of raw, real and no holds barred uniqueness. Take Quentin Shih (时晓凡) and his tangibly critical look at themes referring to China’s politics or military – with a penchant for those referencing the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (文化大革命, 1966-1976). His images court controversy; with every click, he pushes someone’s button. One must-add example here is his 2010 “Shanghai Dreamers” photo series for Dior’s new Shanghai flagship store. All Sina Weibo social media hell broke loose. The following quote from BLOUARTINFO gives us a clear idea:
“In the series, Shih chose to pose Western models decked out in Dior couture among serried ranks of Chinese clones dressed in the mode of conformist eras in Chinese modern history. The visual impact is strong, but the visual message makes many queasy. For those who bristle at the photos, they suggest that the Chinese are a featureless mass, while Dior (and the West) represents individuality. Adding insult to injury, Shih singles out for parody the 1970s — an era when China was still in the thick of the Cultural Revolution, which brought misery, imprisonment, and even death, to countless citizens.”
Shih’s just one of many Chinese up-and comers ruffling some shutterbug studio feathers. Here, hot off the press, Temper sits down with Mr. Houlai for a laid-back Q&A. More importantly, let’s have Houlai’s revolutionary — how ironic — work speak for itself. In fact, with the bold colors and sharp angles, one might even say it orates!
“As far as photography in China goes… The art is there; it’s developing, though it still comes up short in terms of ‘innovation’,” Mr. Houlai.
Temper: Who and What?
Houlai: “Houlai is my photographic nom de guerre, whereas in real life I simply go by the tried and proved English name of Andy. A Shanghai native, I spend my days snapping away all the city has to offer in terms of fashion, streetstyle and lifestyle. In the future, I would love to work more with fashion publications both in China and hopefully [crosses fingers] abroad, but for now… it’s all about educating myself, carefully looking around, observing my surroundings and perfecting the craft.”[Oh la! Take a look at some of Houlai’s work below.]
Temper: When and Where?
Houlai: “I uncovered a deep-rooted love for photography, and all it entails, when I was in high school. And I ran with it. Personally, I prefer pictures that represent ‘the moment’. Moreover, in my opinion, a photographer can only develop himself in that very moment! As far as photography in China goes… The art is there; it’s developing, though it still comes up short in terms of ‘innovation’. As far as fashion photography is concerned, then…. I think it’s still early days. The art still lacks refreshing ideas and inspiration… You know, that one original thought that appears before your very eyes like a sudden bolt of lightning… We must continue to learn our craft, gather the most expertise one can possibly gain: Watch more movies, learn more about folklore, let it all calmly sink in and in turn get inspired. After doing so, I can definitely see China’s photography scene taking its art to the next level!”[Oh lala! Mr. Houlai. And then some.]
Temper: Why and How?
Houlai: “Photographers such as Yin Chao [尹超], Sun Jun [孙俊] and Zhang Yue [张悦] obviously have an important influence on China’s photography scene, on a global level even, but I don’t think one should underestimate those budding phtographers who are making a true effort to create new art as well. The likes of me, for example [laughs]. My personal underlying motivation for choosing this particular, and not alwas easygoing, profession is that I believe a good image can give the viewer a sense of joy. Hence my delight in this whole picture-taking job. How one goes about this job, depends on the person. Inspiration-wise, I find myself contemplating new ideas through what I see online or in books. Other times, creativity suddenly strikes from a painting I saw or a movie I watched. It just depends! Though there is one a common thread through most of my photo stories: People. I’m a people watcher. The people are my Muses.”[Et voila! The future as seen through the Houlai lens.]
A photographer writes the story and sets up the scene in his mind, then clicks the shutter to capture that one figment of the imagination – both his and the onlooker’s. Picture perfect or not; it is always about “vision”. No argument there.
For more visuals, and if you can log in, please visit Houlai’s Sina Weibo blog right here!