Zhang Jingna: Fashion In Full Bloom

Zhang Jingna’s story is so peculiar, if it weren’t true, you’d swear it were fiction. Born in Beijing and raised in Singapore, by age 14, Zhang was a national record holder in competitive shooting, a sport in which she would compete throughout her teens. As an art student at 18, she picked up her first camera just for fun. Two years later, in 2008, she left school and the air rifle behind to practice photography full time. Almost immediately, she began shooting editorials and advertisements for high-profile clients around the world, and two years ago, she relocated to the epicenter of fashion photography, New York City. But, now, barely eight years into a red-hot career, she’s seriously considering leaving fashion photography behind.

"When I started taking pictures," she says, "photography was a hobby. Then, it was a form of escape when I was having troubles at home and with the air rifle. In the end, photography was a means to freedom. I was still in fashion school when I shot my first editorials and commercial work. The job enquiries were just starting to come in, and the people I worked with were introducing me to one another, to meet with stylists and editors. I realized it was the right time in the market with a possible spot for a newcomer, so I decided to take a chance and left school to go for it. In my first year going pro, I did about 90 shoots, mostly editorials for small magazines. The sheer volume probably put my name out there.

"Half a year after I went pro," Zhang says, "I landed a major 12-page beauty editorial for Harper’s Bazaar Singapore. Shooting for such a high-end, premium magazine and becoming a regular contributor definitely put my name in front of the right people. Social media wasn’t that big back then, and future clients were definitely reading photo credits in magazines. Around the same time, I landed a campaign for Mercedes-Benz Taiwan with Ogilvy. They found my work online because at that time I was one of the very popular artists on the website DeviantArt. If you searched photography, a handful of top images would be mine. It brought a lot of traffic and exposure to my work. With those two milestones, I cemented a position in shooting luxury lifestyle work commercially and high-fashion beauty work editorially."

It’s the fashion and beauty work for which Zhang is best known. Her aesthetic is romantic and painterly, featuring doll-like models who have been perfectly coiffed and meticulously styled, yet photographed without the slick veneer of some high-profile fashion work.

Zhang’s attention to detail in retouching doesn’t push to the far side of reality. She says, "I can appreciate the perfect skin-and-pores retouching with dodge and burn, but if it’s done on my own work, I find it impossible to stomach. So, mostly, I just use the Healing Brush and Clone tool. If you want a person to look human, I think you have to work on it as a human in this more analog way, instead of digitizing it at every chance."

"It’s the melancholy and beauty of the model," Zhang says of her style, "and, more technically, my lighting. In some ways, I’m always creating the same character in variations for my work. She’s graceful with a quiet, steady strength, also a little sad, and, most important, heartbreakingly beautiful. In terms of lighting, I generally avoid the glossy fashion looks and instead go for flatter, more subtle lighting that makes images more illustrative and painterly. The preference for these probably comes from my love for Japanese comics and classical art.

"I started to listen to Japanese visual rock when I was around 12," Zhang notes. "It inspired my interest in photographic images, costumes, hair and makeup. Before that, photography was a medium I never gave much consideration or attention to. Advertisements on the streets or in the papers were just things that were there. Visual rock was the first time I realized photography could be artistic and beautiful. I loved it so much, I became interested in wanting to create something similar."

Zhang’s personal work maintains the refined, over-the-top aesthetic shared by both haute couture and Japanese visual kei. It’s exemplified by the images in her "Motherland Chronicles" series. These photographs have a heightened sense of fantasy, as well as a sculptural stillness and a painterly, portrait-like quality.

Zhang Jingna’s Gear
Canon EOS-1DS Mark III
Canon EF 50mm ƒ/1.8
Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L
Canon EF 16-35mm ƒ/2.8L
Canon EF 85mm ƒ/1.8L
Profoto D1 Air 500
Elinchrom 53-inch Octa
Profoto Beauty Dish Silver
Profoto Deep XL Umbrellas in
White, Silver and Translucent
Profoto Strip Softboxes
Savage Universal seamless papers, muslin backdrops and collapsible backdrops

"’Motherland Chronicles’ is a fantasy art book project that I’m working on with concept artist and illustrator Tobias Kwan," Zhang says. "It began when I had just moved to New York. Everything was very new, and I was restless about the lack of personal work I’d been doing in the last few years since my career took off. So we started the project as a challenge to each other, to see who could keep up the longest in producing a new piece of work on a weekly basis. We placed a bet on it for incentive—the winner would receive a trip to Russia, thus the name ‘Motherland Chronicles.’ But within a few weeks, we began to find regular themes and styles in what we were doing, and over the course of the next year, we explored new characters, environments and techniques, and, personally, it was the first time I found so many opportunities to make tributes to my favorite artists. We’ve wrapped up the pieces required for the book now, and we’re looking to launch a Kickstarter this year to produce the book ourselves."

Zhang’s images, the personal and the commercial, are highly stylized and very conceptual. In each case, the concept is her own and serves as the foundation upon which everything else—whether a single image or an entire campaign—is constructed.

"It’s actually similar and at the same time different in each situation," Zhang says. "I generally come up with the concept of my shoots beginning with a single catalyst, something that inspires me in that moment. It’s a bit like watching a flower blooming from bud to full bloom: The idea begins as a little bulb, but it slowly grows, reveals and shapes itself as I think of additional components to complete the imagery. For example, with ‘Motherland Chronicles,’ I could be wanting to shoot underwater for an image. That would be the catalyst. From there, I’ll think about the type of imagery I want to create, the character I want to craft. With those general ideas in mind, I go in search of the clothing that works, the model that’s suitable, references for the hair and makeup for my team to understand my dire
ction and the lighting possibilities, as well as any other additional props. With fashion assignments, on the other hand, it often works the same way in that I look for a catalyst, but because now what we’re doing is selling products to an audience, I must craft my concept to fit within certain restrictions and expectations—I must sell the trend of the season’s clothing for the shoot. And, while I want to showcase my style, it has to come with commercial accessibility to achieve its ultimate goal of reaching the consumer. Advertising sometimes means more creative freedom, since you don’t have to work with current trends of fashion as you do for editorials.

Zhang is at home both in the studio and on location: "On location, you give more to chance and spontaneity, and visually it’s easier to build depth. But in the studio, I can take my time and have full control over lighting, it doesn’t change, and I can perfect a setup from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m."

"I separate my mind-set for personal and commissioned work," she adds. "If it’s personal, I treat it as my playground and do whatever I want. If it’s commercial or editorial, I do my best to achieve whatever the client requires in the best way possible. This way, everyone is happy, I don’t get stifled creatively, and I get to showcase my skills in a commercial setting while getting paid to do something I’m good at and proud to share.

"Ultimately, it’s fairly simple," Zhang says. "Beyond artistic expression and client requests, I just want to create something beautiful. That applies to all my work—fashion or otherwise. As a child, through beauty in art, my world was a little less dark. There would be this awe-inspiring feeling in my heart that I couldn’t help but feel elated when I looked at beautiful art. It made me feel less alone and life more worth living. I want to do that for people, too."

Zhang was able to concentrate on creating beautiful personal work after arriving in New York partly because her representation, with whom she had an exclusive contract, was unable to get her booked. In characteristic form, Zhang made the best of a bad situation and focused her creative energy on self-assignments. It marked the beginning of the realization that her long-term focus may not be fashion.

"When I first moved to New York," she says, "my then-agent couldn’t find me any jobs—we weren’t the right fit—and because it was an exclusive contract, they wouldn’t let me find work on my own. So I started doing more personal work. During that time, I still had enquiries from back in Asia, but I started to realize how important ‘Motherland Chronicles’ was and I wanted to focus on it, so I didn’t want to travel, and I said no to most jobs and just lived on my savings. It stayed like that for a while, but after I left the agency…it’s like the universe knows. I started to suddenly receive a lot more enquiries in the U.S., and by then, I had decided to do a book and was propelled to explore fine-art work further. Now, I’m working very selectively fashion-wise, and I’m focusing mostly on producing the ‘Motherland Chronicles’ art book.

"I think I’ve always been quite fortunate in being able to be selective about the work I say yes to," she continues, "but I didn’t realize that it was partially because fashion wasn’t what I always wanted to do. So I always found it very easy to say no to jobs, and now I think maybe it’s because of the lack of attachment to it. I grew up on Japanese comics, anime, classical art and such, and they remain such a huge influence on my work because it’s what I love. Fashion was something that sort of just happened, and I kept doing it because I liked the idea of pursuing excellence in everything I do. That’s very, very Chinese.

"I always placed myself on the outskirts of fashion," Zhang says, "like an outsider looking in who was sometimes invited to participate in the circus. It was interesting. It wasn’t until New York that I realized just how jarringly I didn’t live and breathe fashion like the people in fashion do. When I was near the end of ‘Motherland Chronicles,’ I decided I wanted to make a transition to fine art and, surprisingly, it has made my fashion work more fun and interesting to do. Especially when I bring it up to clients, they generally become very keen to let me lead the direction as I would in my personal work. So we’ll have to see where this goes."

To see more of Zhang Jingna’s work, including behind-the-scenes breakdowns of how she makes some of her more elaborate images, visit her website at zhangjingna.com. Look for her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram through @zemotion.

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