“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.