Xi Sinsong is a fascinating fashion photographer. She uses the same lighting, camera and computer tools as anyone else might and yet her work is clearly special. Her photographs, while technically exceptional, aren’t about technique. What makes her story most interesting is that it’s one from which all commercial photographers can learn—not because this 23-year-old photography student produces work that’s mature and refined in a way many photographers twice her age would envy, nor that she’s simply a naturally gifted artist—clearly—but because her tremendous body of work is largely the product of diligence, drive and good, old-fashioned hard work.
Born in China, Sinsong was immersed in the visual arts from a young age. She never quite knew whether she’d be a painter or a sculptor—elements of both are evident in her photography—but she knew she was destined for a career in the visual arts. Trained in traditional calligraphy and painting, it was actually her lack of formal photography education that drew her to the medium in the first place. In photography, she was a blank slate.
"I like to define myself as a visual artist more than just a photographer," Sinsong says. "Photography, as any other thing, it’s just a medium, a carrier for your ideas. The reason why I chose photography instead of painting is because as a kid I didn’t really go through a lot of formal training. Photography was more open to me. I feel like I had more room to grow and to achieve more in that area, so I went that way. But at the same time, I still kept my interest in all these other things.
I like stuff that’s minimal, she says. I was just talking with an instructor the other day and he told me that my photography was very silent and still.
"I like stuff that’s minimal," she says. "I was just talking with an instructor the other day, and he told me that my photography was very silent and still. Tracing back where that comes from, I guess it has a lot to do with where my aesthetic comes from, where I grew up. I think a lot of the formal aspects of it come from my background, being raised in China and being taught traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. It’s a lot about space, negative and positive space, and the subtlety of things."
Sinsong left China to come to New York and study at the School of Visual Arts, where she’s currently completing her senior year. Her portfolio isn’t full of student projects, though. Instead, these are assignments she produces with a team of young collaborators—models, makeup artists and stylists—who are equally interested in crafting a unique vision of fashion. They have a head start on their careers, of course, because these photographs have already appeared in worldwide fashion publications, including most notably the Vietnamese edition of Elle.
"I was just talking to someone who’s been working in the fashion industry for a long time," she says, "about what goes into forming an image. She told me it was maybe 40 percent the photographer, plus the model, the styling, the set design. Having people who are willing to take the risk with you, it makes it even easier to take the step and do something new."
Sinsong’s work frequently consists of subdued monochromatic tones, sculptural poses and minimalist compositions. But, occasionally, splashes of color—inspired by abstract painters like Piet Mondrian—and even dynamic, color-based concepts expand her reach. Bright color actually defines the series "Evanescent," made for the fashion magazine, Vulture. Sinsong took on the project specifically to challenge herself to expand her comfort zone.
"It’s also an idea of trying to bring new stuff to what we have," Sinsong says, "and trying to make something fresh and different in the fashion photography world. It’s a struggle; it’s a cutthroat industry. First and foremost, before I go into a shoot, I always think about the atmosphere or a certain character I want to create. And then I go about thinking how I want the lighting to go or how I want the composition to go. Those technical things, you can always learn them, but I think the essential idea, the concept, is key.
"Shooting itself is a very small fraction of the actual process," she says. "It’s the concept formation and retouching that take the most time. As for the concept, it not only comes from a so-called spark of inspiration, it often comes from reflection of older work and what to do next, which is a hard topic to approach. After the central theme has been decided, research will need to be done in order to see if it has been done similarly before. If yes, we’ll need to figure out how to stay away from making an imitation. Afterward, I usually pull a few reference images together, send out to the team whom I think will be interested in—and good at—executing it, and after a few rounds of discussion, mood boards need to be made. These usually include a short writeup of the concept of the shoot, then broken down into inspirations for the mood, hair, makeup, wardrobe, lighting and reference images."
Although her photographs always start with her vision, the end result is entirely a function of a creative collaboration. Sinsong is eager to laud her team’s significant influence on the outcome of each and every shoot. With "Evanescent," it was a collaborative effort to craft sets and makeup that carried the theme of the bright colors. With her series "Wahine," named for the Hawaiian word for woman, Sinsong’s team created a series of photographs that share very little visually with the "Evanescent" work. With whatever project they tackle, though, her team doesn’t rely on big budgets and indulgent productions. Instead, they build each series simply out of ideas, youthful exuberance and the passion for making great work.
"The first year of college, I dedicated a lot of time to testing shoots with models, trying to get a portfolio started so that I can contact more people to work with," she says. "I worked with different makeup artists and hairstylists, trying to see who shared similar ideals and vision, and I keep the people I like working with around. Also, after I started being published, I started to get contacted by people, as well. Say a makeup artist likes my work; they email me and say they’d like to work with me. If I like their portfolio, I’ll write back and set up a shoot.
First and foremost, before I go into a shoot, I always think about the atmosphere or a certain character I want to create.
"I would say we’re still on a shoestring budget," she continues, "first of all because most of the magazines don’t really pay anything. Sometimes they have a budget for your production, but they don’t really have any money to pay the crew. So everybody really comes together on working toward a portfolio idea. Everybody, no matter how experienced they are, they still come into the shoot with the same expectation: to create something really beautiful for their book."
Adds Sinsong, "It really can be that simple because what is there to hold you back? Unless it’s a really financially demanding project, if it’s something that you can easily change around with whatever is around you, it’s quite easy to experiment. All you have to do is pick out some colors for that shoot, or whatever."
Trading big budgets for creative freedom has always been a staple of the editorial photographer’s process, but for Sinsong, these shoots aren’t simply about luring paying clients. Sure, she’s laying the groundwork for a successful fashion photography career, but she’s also simply fulfilling her artistic vision—making art for art’s sake. Without the latter, the former would be less likely because her work simply wouldn’t be as interesting.
"Getting the paying clients isn’t the ultimate," she says. "It’s part of the goal because I do want to work as a photographer. But doing those editorial works isn’t just to make money. It’s an artistic expression and an exercise. It’s what makes a lot of things worthwhile in life."
As refined as her portfolio may be, Sinsong still doesn’t think of herself as having arrived, nor does she consider herself just a student. She’s somewhere in between, and as such, she’s free to pursue the type of work she wants to with the hope that it will be picked up and eventually deliver her to a career making visual art in the fashion industry.
"I wouldn’t call myself a successful photographer," Sinsong says. "Nothing is really steady at the moment. I’m trying to work a lot and make photographs, but compared to a lot of people who have a lot more steady careers, I’m in the very beginning of it. I’m still trying to build a base on the amount of publications I can get. If I’m not shooting for a client, even if it’s without a formal agreement from a magazine, I’ll try to submit it somewhere to get it published. It started off with a lot of really small online magazines. They’re pretty young, as well. It’s a co-relationship. As my team and my work mature, we’ve started contacting bigger magazines. Some of them respond and some of them don’t."
Adds Sinsong, "I’ve had my first steps into a career. I feel like even when we get out of school, we’re still learning, always learning about things. I went into school with the idea that I wanted to make a career as a photographer. I think from day one I went in with this goal and now I’m in it. I would say I’m in it, but there’s still a long way to go."
Xi Sinsong On Postproduction And Beauty Retouching
|Xi Sinsong acknowledges that digital retouching plays a significant part in her photographic process, but she doesn’t want her photographs to look like it.
"If it looks overly retouched, then it’s just bad retouching," she says. "I try to do as much in-camera as I can because without a basic good foundation, you can’t really lift people up that much."
When the shooting is complete, she begins with a round of color and exposure corrections to the raw image files. Then she chooses images that form a cohesive story—a process that could take a few hours or several days.
"If it’s an assignment," she says, "I’ll usually pick a few selects per look and send them over to the editor, together with a PDF of my top picks, plus one retouched image, to show how the final image could look. Once the final images have been selected, then it’s the slow and time-consuming retouching."
Sinsong treats skin simply as a textural surface in need of refinement.
"If the model has fairly good skin," she says, "and the makeup and lighting are right, it usually won’t need as much retouching as one might imagine.
For beauty images, I like to use soft, natural lights to create a luminous look. Contrasty light sources and dark shadows can emphasize any flaws on skin, especially compared to what you see in person.
"That said," she continues, "retouching really varies depending on the image. There are many steps involved, but if one is familiar with the structure of human anatomy, especially the face, and familiar with directions of lights and shadows they will cast on good skin and symmetrical features, what’s left to be done is basically aim the raw image toward the ideal—for example, removing shadows on the sides of the nose and mouth, as they tend to make people appear older. I also remove excessive shine on highlighted spots, especially if the model has a darker complexion. Adding or emphasizing shadows in strategic areas, such as below the cheekbones, helps a great deal, too. Another aspect that I find really important is to even out the skin tone, as some complexions have different hues in different areas, which I find rather distracting."
You can see more of Xi Sinsong’s work at www.sinsong.com.
William Sawalich is a professional photographer, and he teaches studio photography at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A frequent DPP contributor, you can see more of his work at www.sawalich.com.