Shen Wei, USA, the vanguard of American portraiture

September 17th, 2007

Partfaliaz interview Shen Wei

Chinese photographer Shen Wei, living in New York City, is a representative of modern American portraiture. His photos has received much attention these last months with great exhibitions, awards and also different publications. His work on portraiture raises the question about human nature, about emotions, feelings, instincts and identity.


In 2006, JM Colberg (author of influent weblog “Conscientious” about fine-art photography) selected you as a dedication being one of the 3 photographers of the year. Tell us about your history, when did you begin with photography, and where ? When did you arrive in the US ?
I was very surprised and honored to be named photographer of the year on “Conscientious”. Mr. Colberg sure played an important role in discovering young emerging photographers. He truly helped me exposing my work to a much broader audience.
I was born and raised in Shanghai, China. I started photography not until I moved to United States in 2000. Before that I have never even touched an SLR camera, it was consider very luxury in China when I was younger.

Did you go to any Art School ?
My first formal art education was at Shanghai Light Industry College where I studied Decorative Art and Design, I work mostly as a advertising designer after received my design degree, but I always want to create my own work. When I go to Minneapolis College of Art and Design, I felt in love with photography immediately, so I decided to pursue a serious photography career and received my BFA at MCAD and later a Master of Fine Art degree in photography from School of Visual Arts in New York City.


What is your opinion about digital photography ? Are you interested with technics ? Also, are you interested with graphic design ?
I have mixed feeling about digital photography. I guess depending on how much is digital manipulated in a photograph. I use Photoshop to color correct my images and that’s about it, I don’t change anything on my images. I am not a big fan of heavily computer manipulated photography, like some of those images are completely or mostly composed digitally. But I am a fan of computer art.

Your sensible work is mostly about people, emotion, identity. When living in China do you remember being curious about that, about people, maybe about psychology ? Did you already have any idea about the artistic work you are doing right now ?
I am always curious about psychology, even when I am little. I remember I read a lot of Chinese psychological novels when I was a teenage. “The Dream of Red Chamber” was my favorite, too bad I haven’t found a good translated version yet. I am a very emotional person, and I am definitely curious about everything, especially people.
Ten Year ago, I would never imagine I would be a photographer. I always thought I would be a businessman.


I believe your work is absolutly “universal”. Do you “drive” your sitters or are there just natural things happening ?
I love the word “universal”. That’s what I am trying to do with my projects. I want to make images that anyone can be related to. I like to make my image visually clear and simple yet complicated in depth. I often avoid direct my models, I just be patient and communicate with my sitters, so they can open up to me naturally.

How came the idea of “almost naked” ?
I had no name for this project for long time. I thought this project does not have a very specific theme. Later when I had a great amount of work, I think it was much clear for me what I was try to show from those portraits. So, here is “Almost Naked”, which can be expressed both physically and emotionally.

Did you already work for magazines ? Would you do commissioned portrait “almost naked” for famous people if asked for a magazine ?
No, I haven’t seriously work for any magazine, but did a few small job for small magazines while I was in College. I would do commissioned portrait if asked, absolutely.

What inspires you in your every day life ?
Random people.

What are you working on these days ?
I am still working on Almost Naked, I want to continue photographing it until I feel it is enough. But I think it is close. Beside Almost Naked, I also take landscapes on and off, I would like to do a edit in the future that intertwines the landscapes with portraits to show a more complete vision of Almost Naked. I have been photographing a documentary project titled Concubines of New York, it is a project about Chinese Opera performers in New York. Although it has received a few recognitions and awards, I still see it as a experimental project for me and spend most of my energy focus on on Almost Naked. I have ideas all the time when I see interesting subjects, I take photos whatever I feel I like to, so there are many work I have do not belong to any specific projects. I always want to do a project about China.

What trend do you see emerging around you in the fine-art photography ?
Well, where should I start?
I think there is trend in every genre of photography. One of the trend I paid quite a lot attention on is the architectural landscape photography of China, have you noticed they are everywhere? I absolutely loved it, finally someone is photographing China.

Shen Wei’s site
Shen Wei’s blog

Shen’s favorites

I am huge fan of violin, Itzhak Perlman, Jascha Heifetz, Maxim Vengerov, Nigel Kennedy are some of my favorite violinist. I like violin so much, I actually started taking lessons.
I like all kinds of movie, especially Chinese contemporary films and European independent films, occasionally I will rent a Bollywood musical or American Comedy.

© All images by courtesy of ShenWei