photographer leslie zhang is rejecting european ideals in fashion photography
The Shanghai-based photographer has created something unlike anything else being made in fashion right now.
Leslie Zhang: From rising stars to industry heavyweights, i-D meets the photographers offering unique perspectives on the world around them.
“In a way it’s so simple... I just shoot things that I find beautiful,” Leslie Zhang tells me from Tokyo, where he’s taking a quick holiday. “These could be recreations of my childhood memories growing up in China. Or just a really beautiful face.”
Born in Yangzhou and raised in Nanjing, two prosperous cities in eastern China, Leslie’s artistic sensibilities were shaped from a young age by both places' traditional gardens, lakes and miscellany of different architectural references. “These are two cities that have seen enormous cultural and economic changes in the last century, so aesthetically there are different waves of influences... from the country’s socialist movement, to Western and Japanese contemporary cultures.”
Now based in Shanghai, 26-year-old Leslie hasn’t been working as a full-time photographer for as long as you might expect (considering his extensive portfolio of work). More interested in painting growing up, it was at university that he became inspired by the work of Japanese icons like Shoji Ueda and Yoshihiko Ueda and decided to apply his painting skills to the composition of photography instead. “Japanese photography has truly laid a foundation for me, and I think that’s very important as I am trying to create a language of fashion photography that is not just centred around European or American ideals,” he says. “The works by these Japanese masters always feel closer to home for me.”
With a little help from friends -- “all of whom are very capable technicians” -- Leslie taught himself everything he knows about photography. “It isn’t that different from other forms of art. I do believe there is a universal beauty and a great picture usually embodies that.” Across each and every one of his photographs, Leslie’s fine arts background can be felt -- from the rich palette of colours, to the delicate yet empowering positioning of its subjects. “The most important thing in my work is simply for it to be visually beautiful, but this could be many different senses. It also has to have meaning -- it needs to intrigue you and make you think.”
He sticks to film for everything -- “I only use analog film cameras. They are not hugely expensive, however I do spend a lot on film processing and scanning” -- and, when it comes to commercial work, never compromises. “I really try my best to insist on my vision when I work with clients, but I believe the good clients are coming to me because they have seen and understood what I make,” he adds. “I rarely refuse job offers, but if I really find it difficult to adhere to what I see as beautiful then I would bow out.”
At moments poetic, other times more absurd, there’s vast precision and detail to all of Leslie’s work. “I think anyone, before exercising their ideas, should become technically very sound. Applied art is part of the essence of photography,” he adds. “Once you master the means to create what you see in your head, you can then truly focus on those profound ideas that make you an insanely good photographer.”
Photography Leslie Zhang