Interview: Fashion Photographer, Chiun-Kai Shih; A Pep Talk from Photography’s Phantom Chunkalizer

Introduction: This month, I’m happy to have New York’s Chiun-Kai Shih as our featured artist.  When pressed to describe himself, the photographer, art director, editor, and TV personality doesn’t use any of those words, just one: “Chunky”.  His nickname and identity is consistent with a fun-loving, dedicated commercial artist.  He has a recognizably intense approach to color and is, by all accounts, a rising star in the world of fashion photography.  He has recently become familiar to a new audience via the popular Apple iPhone app, Hipstamatic.  (The app’s “Hipstapak” bag of tricks called “Soho” now includes the Chunky Lens).  He was on the rise before apps, though, as a regular contributor to publications throughout the Conde Nast empire, including GQ and Vogue editions world-wide.

He’s at that crazy place in a career when everything is spinning up to greatness, with gear reps and publications, PR agents and celebrities all rushing for a slice of the Chunky Pie.  I was fortunate to catch him between whirlwind encounters for an unexpectedly candid phone interview.  Read on for tales from the front lines of Fashion and a pep talk from Photography’s Phantom Chunkalizer…

Q) New York, NY, never sleeps, that what I hear…

It’s true!  I feel like haven’t really slept for days, or years!  This city has kept me alive and been my inspiration for years.

Q) Is it the center of photography?

Yes.  I think New York is definitely always going to be a center for art, photography, and entertainment.  All the best of the best, travel from all over the world to be part of the city, to be part of New York.

Q) How is it different from the West Coast of the US?

I think New York City is much more fast paced and I think the people here are not wasting a minute of it.  They don’t have a lot of time to walk around and breathe.  In the city, it’s almost like you don’t stop working until your body gives up.

When I work on the West Coast, it’s a different energy.  I’ll be honest with you,  people don’t start waking up to even take phone calls until 10:30 in the morning.  In New York City, we start at 7 a.m. with calls.  I go to the West Coast, I sit around and wait for people to catch up with me!  I don’t like that energy at all; it pulls me back.  Not to insult anyone there or the energy, but it’s like ‘you need to enjoy life’.  I think, when you love what you do so much, it’s not about loving life, but about living your life to the fullest.  I don’t want to wast a minute.  So I think there’s a different mentality from New York and people on the West Coast.

Chiun-Kai was born in Taiwan and spend his early years traveling between there and New York, where his family owned restaurants.  He developed skills with people and an intense work ethic.  At age 10, his mom bought him a point and shoot film camera.  He developed his eye while corresponding with his grandparents in Asia.  He first engaged with fashion while shopping with his mom at stores like Macy’s where he spent enough time to be a familiar fixture, even helping employees arrange store windows and dressing models.

Q) It definitely seems like there are parallels between a window design and a photo set, right?  Like a lot of what we’re doing is the same?

Absolutely, you’re so right!  On a set, when we’re working with real super models or celebrities, the designers will come to me and ask, ‘what would look best on them?’  You have to go outside the window and look in from the street.  For that, I look at it from a distance and ask, ‘do I need to tuck in this shirt a little more or pin this in a little farther?’   ‘Can we position a little better, or do these pants look good with this top?’  So I learned fashion from some of the best window design stylists.

Chiun-Kai describes the evolution of his own career, as building from the simple translation of his unfamiliar surroundings as a new arrival in San Francisco to a more practiced art.  A few years after his first point and shoot, his mom gave him a Minolta SLR.  He eventually picked up a Hasselblad 503CX and fell deeper in love with photography, graduating high school and earning a full scholarship to study at the New York School of Visual Arts.  There, he found a mentor in Bob Richardson (Terry Richardson’s dad) who introduced him to people at Conde Nast, where he’s worked for years, Shooting his first GQ spread right after college.

I don’t have a resume, I don’t have a Web site, I don’t have any promotional books.  I’m just booked through reputation

says Chiun-Kai, who essentially grew into the roll of high-profile fashion photographer with a mixture of visual talent and infectious energy.  Having recently gone free-lance, he’s looking forward to a number of upcoming projects, including numerous cover shoots, two books, and a name-sake visual effect in the popular Hipstamatic iPhone app.

Perhaps inspired by Oscar-nominated writer/director/producer boyfriend, Ross Katz, Chiun-Kai also plans to devote study time to film this year.  He hopes to challenge himself to think of his images as moving images.

You need to have an interest to want to cross over, because the two worlds are very different, though similar… It’s something I’m curious about”  “You know what?  I’ll try anything once!

Q) Looking at your example images here, it looks like you enjoy pushing the limits of what your camera can capture.  I’m curious how you describe your lighting.  For example, you do a lot of backlighting.  Do you have a signature lighting style?

I wouldn’t say I have a signature lighting.  I think I have a strong sense of energy.  When people look at my photographs, I think people can totally feel it.  You’re right, there’s a testing of the maximums, popping things out with over-exposure while keeping the right exposure [on the subject].  I like to consider what things can be in control and what things can be out of control.  And in real light, during the day, we really have no control.  Right now, it’s about 4:00 here and light is running.  We can’t stop the sunlight in one spot.  Lighting is something with life, something, as a photographer, you can sculpt.  I sculpt lighting, and sculpt the way you feel the energy.

In my photography, I use lighting to assist the situation, to make the situation come more alive.  I hope there is a strong personality, that I’m not afraid to push the limits.

Q) I gotta ask you about color, because you are crazy with your color.

O really?!  You need to download the Chunky Lens for your iPhone.  My energy is all about color.  It’s color is all over the place, color like watercolor.  When water runs with a color, another color is formed.  I like to have a very warm, intense, dramatic mood in my images.  I think it creates a more interesting view of life.  If someone just lived their life properly, simply, and without challenges or adventures, life would not be worth being looked at.  To define my photography color, I look at it as an experience.  Color is a therapy.  A color has a way to describe how one feels about themselves and their situation, the color they wear, the color they surround themselves with.  When people look at my images, I want them to know me.

Q) When you approach a spread, you seem to come up with a palate, maybe, for instance, a strong golden tone.  Before a shoot, is that something you plan out or sketch?  Is that something that happens on set?

You have to make that split decision on set.  You have to know what that final product will look like before you shoot.

That’s something I think I was gifted with, pre-visualization.  With the right professors, the right school and training, the right imagination (and since I demand a lot from myself) you learn what to expect.  I push myself to foresee what the final product will be like.  When I’m setting up a shoot, I can visualize what the final product and quality will look like.  I can set a kind of tone before shooting, that’s why the lights will be set in a certain direction on set, ready.  You don’t guess around on set, we have not time for doing that.

Q) It’s a high paced setting for you usually?

Yeah!  Imaging, you have a celebrity there, fashion and clothes, and every second that counts by is a dollar.  My crystalized final product happens in a couple seconds.  It’s a really high-demand job, a pressure-filled environment in the world of entertainment and fashion.  It sounds so exciting, and it is exciting, Matt, but it’s very nerve wracking.  At the same time, it’s worth every nerve it takes out of you.  Because the final product always looks like something is intense.

Q) So there is a lot energy in your work.  What role does sex play?  It seems like, with your subjects, there’s an energy there that’s a little bit erotic, you know?  Is that something you put in intentionally?

You just said it!  “erotic”!  It’s that word.  Everyone in the world says that, so you’re not the first.  I’m glad you said that.

Q) I don’t mean to belittle your work, it’s like you hit a balance between upper society and some primal tension.  Like you’ll put an antler in a shot?

Right.  When you look at the images, you choose the word erotic (I don’t find that word offensive, by the way)

Q) oh good!

When you look at my images, what’s the taste in your mind, what are you thinking?

Q) I’d say there’s a sweet stillness to them.  When you work with a subject and a color, the subject is isolated, but looks inviting.  You treat your subject with a real reverence, but with an intimacy too, a balance.  It’s not someone standing there like in old fashion, the clothes are on them, but there’s no expression.  Your subjects are definitely expressing something to your viewer.  What you do, I think, is to create an atmosphere around them, that is simple color and light, a clean interaction.  It’s not portraiture, I think, it’s something a little more.

Well good!  So to answer your question in that, I do believe sensuality is a big factor in what I’m selling.  Sex, sensuality, and also eroticism.  I think that, however you describe it (some people use the word “romantic” instead of “erotic”) there’s a very humane connection between you and the images.   Because the story doesn’t end there, you want to see more.  I feel proud that I can give you one picture and you can image the rest of the story, what happened there.

Q) There’s a real respect there.  It isn’t always the case in our profession.  You’re not taking advantage of people.  It feels collaborative, you know?  The presence of the photographer is there.

I hope you feel the subject is working hard for me at the same time.  Also, everyone on my set is a hand-picked professional that is there to collaborate on an image that, when crystalized, will become inspiration for others.  From hair and make up artists, to stylists, to my assistants, and to lighting directions, everything was carefully thought out.  because we’ll present you with images that will make you dream, dream about something else that you might create for yourself.  It could be a story, not everyone is a photographer looking at my work, it could be a script, it could be a piece of fashion design for a new collection, and it could be a dance or music.  Hopefully, people are looking at my images and feeling something.

I don’t know how it might feel, but just know that Chunky [as Chiun-Kai calls himself] is putting all his efforts into these pictures and trying to elaborate himself to the world and by voicing himself through the images.  Just like I’m speaking to you know, I’m giving you my voice.  Without speaking, the images have such a power and identity themselves, you almost feel like, how did it happen?

I have models cry on set just by the way I speak to them.  And that’s not the first time.

Q) You spend a lot of time talking to subjects?

I don’t talk to my subjects much… I’ll tell you the secret phrase is ‘dancing with your words’.  When I speak to them, they laugh and laugh and laugh.  That’s something about my subject matter.  No matter how tense a set is, when I speak to them, they start laughing.  I don’t know why.

Q) (Laughing)  That’s a gift!  Is there something you can say that always gets a good shot?

Yeah!  I don’t know.  I would say, like the way you’re speaking to me know, I, number one, don’t like to go into words people don’t understand.  I communicate at a level where, if you know what I’m saying, you’ll get me.  I use the simplest, most direct words.  People think I’m very straight forward and things I want are usually very simple.  I feel like any model on my set, even shooting for GQ, Vogue, or any big job, still has the mentality of a five year old, playing with me.  So it’s almost like we’re playing Barbie, dressing up.

Q) It’s not an accident.  You’ve lived out a strong passion.  And, that you can combine that with a playful attitude, a bright and optimistic aesthetic, that’s an impressive mixture.  It’s fun to learn about your personality.

You know what my virtue is?  Put yourself out to the world.  You know what?  Even in the beginning when people don’t notice you, someone is going to come and claim you because you’re good at what you do.

And I’d make sure people understand that you have to be good to start with.  And what is good to you?  Your standard should be overly-above what you can achieve.  It should be higher than what you think you can possibly do or you’ll never know what is a better and higher standard.  You always have to outdo yourself.  You have to be your own biggest fan.  If you don’t believe you can do something that no one else can do, you are discounting yourself.  And I think every photographer in this world has to know that their vision is unique and precious.

What an experience, Matt, to be one compared to everyone else in the world.  I never thought, in my little bedroom, that I’d wake up one day and Chiun-Kai Shihi’s work – Chunky’s work – would be compared to everyone in the world and everyone, Leica, Broncolor, Ilford, GQ, Vogue, everyone would want to work with him.  I never thought of that.  I never never thought that super models and celebrities from Cindy Crawford to Alicia Keys would be calling, saying, ‘would you be able to shoot me?’  Never in my live, I just said I want to go to the dark room, I want to get this assignment done, and I want to have fun.

You always have to outdo yourself.  You have to be your own biggest fan.  If you don’t believe you can do something that no one else can do, you are discounting yourself.  And I think every photographer in this world has to know that their vision is unique and precious.

Q) and BAM, here you are!

That’s what I’m saying to you, Matt.  And that’s all true.  You can hear in my voice that I really have no hangups or any bitter situation in my life.  I feel everything has happened for a reason to get me where I am.  People are attracted to my energy and people believe that I have something that other people don’t have.

Q) We’re in a market, as photographers, where self-promotion is such a reality, where you have to have a certain ego and a certain confidence just to approach potential clients and to meet their needs.  It’s striking that you can do that in a way that feels very honest and open and confident.  It’s cool to hear.  It’s cool to hear you have fun with it, even though it’s such a serious business.

Right!  Matt, listen to me, when I approach clients and all these people, can I tell you something?  I never tell them I’m a photographer, I never tell them what I do, I never try to show them my spread.  I never really have to do that.  You know what I do when I walk up there?  I say ‘Hi, my name is Chiun-Kai and they call me Chunky’

Q) (Laughing)

And then they start laughing, they say, ‘Chunky?’ I say, ‘yeah, you might laugh now, but you might learn to like it later.’

Q) There you go!  Well, if you don’t mind me asking, what are some ways you’ve promoted yourself? What have been some things that have worked for you in the area of promotion?

Promotion!  I’ll tell you the truth, I’ve never done any promo cards like the kind I receive in the office (like a million-zillion of them).  All these beautiful promo cards?!  I’ve never had that.  I’ve never had a book or a ‘look book’, never put money into any of those promotions ever.

The only thing that works for me.  I go out to these parties and party my ass off and people say, ‘who the heck is that?’

Q) (Laughing) nice!

And people come up to me and say “who are you?” “You’re so fun!”  I say “I’m Chunky” and that’s where it starts.

I have never believed in, I swear on my mother’s grave, never believed in any of these promotions and have never done them.  And you know what, Matt, you know why I don’t  need them?  My pictures are in the magazines every freaking month!

Q) Right, you’re out there

World Wide.  Just Google my name for a sec.  Google Images me for a sec and you’ll see what kind of celebrities and people I work with, and I don’t even have a Web site.  Google is my best Web site, I will not lie to you.  People say ‘Do you have a Web site?’ I say, ‘Google’.  ‘Google site? Gmail?’ they say, ‘no, just Google me and Google Image me’, and that’s it.  And, you know what?  I book the job every time.

Q) Nice, I like that confidence.

The truth is, I will develop a Web site developed for all my fans and future clients.  People want to see me grow out of this little child-like mentality.

Q) Yeah, I think it’s a badge of honor to Not have a Web site, you know?  Some of the industry’s best don’t.  It’s a sign of supreme confidence; to say you don’t even need that.

Right, but you know? for the past 12 or 13 years, I have not needed a Web site.  Maybe 2011’s new energy will give me a Web site.  One of my goals is to have a Web site by the year’s end, though it’s not at the top of my list.  It’s a goal, but I’m already booked solid and can barely breathe!

Q) I think what a Website does for you is give you a chance to define where you’re going, your direction as an artist.  If you do re-define your direction…

You could be right in your point of view.  But, for me, I think a Website is only going to pigeon-hole me and have people say ‘that’s Chiun-Kai’s style, that’s his look, and that’s it’.  For me, right now, I’m almost like a Phantom of the Opera.  I’m singing, I’m having fun, and I like to go in and out.  I’m having fun with them.

Q) Nice!  You might have given us the title for the story there!  (Laughing)

(Laughing)  I don’t know…

Q) ‘Photography’s Phantom!’

Like I told you, I love karaoke, I go in and out, and people don’t know where I am or what I do, but my work surfaces all over the place, all over the world.  I could be on TV, on a magazine page, in a blog, I could be anywhere!

Q) Well, let me take it back to lighting a little bit.  I’m fascinated with your high-key lighting, I like it a lot.  Is there a favorite modifier you rely on?

Right.  Yeah, you can ask me any question, you mean what kind of stuff do I use?

Q) What’s your modifier of choice?  Is it a certain type of umbrella, box, or scrim?

Ahh. OK.  Right now, I’ll tell you that my favorite favorite kind of lighting set is Broncolor.  I love to use Broncolor.  It’s one brand I find really useful.  I really enjoy using the Octa Bank and I really enjoy using the beauty dish.

Q) The big Broncolor Para or the Elinchrom Octa Bank?

Yeah, the big Broncolor umbrella, the biggest one they have.  And I like to use umbrellas.  I use them when I want to make it look completely natural.  You don’t see it in my photographs, which are very extreme.  The highlights and the contrast between colors is very dramatic, right?  Basically, I like hard against soft and soft against even stronger, something where the exposure can not hold any more, to find out how much we’re going to loose that detail.

I like to test the lighting because, at the end of the day, I like to sculpt light.  I want to sculpt it!  Light is the fastest thing to catch.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to catch it, but I’ll do my best to light it, sculpt it, right?

[Editor’s note, the Broncolor Para reflector is currently available in 3 sizes (essentially: big, bigger, and huge) and with both a silver and white interior finish.  We look forward to bringing you an in-depth review in the future.  Broncolor has also recently introduced a new line of compact packs and heads, the Senso and Litos lines, of which Chiun-Kai, and early tester, spoke very highly.]

Q) I like the big umbrellas too, I’m more familiar with the big Elinchrom, but I like the way they put out directional light that’s still pretty.  Awesome.  Definitely different that a soft box.

I don’t think the brand of the lights has a lot to do with it.  I think it’s important how our eyes capture what light looks like.  Don’t you agree?  Right now, I’m not trying to say I want to promote anyone specific.  I don’t care what camera I use.  I care about the subject matter and the theme of what I’m shooting.

…When asked about potential sponsorships, Chiun-Kai has some exciting news, though we’ll have to save it for a future article…

Listen, Matt, I never dreamed that one day little Chunky would wake up and everyone would make his life easy because he wants to make pictures!

I think there’s this vibe that the gear really matters, but what really counts is the personality of the photographer, the creative vision, and their ability to get out there and make work, you know?  That’s more what’s interesting.  You’ve talked to me for an hour, you know I’m selling a brand of myself.  It’s not a brand that runs me.

Q) With no Website none the less!

Yeah, I have nothing, nothing!  I mean, Matt, Google me, there is no Chiun-Kai Shih Website, not ever, but there is news of him all over the place.  I don’t know what all the hype’s about, I just know one thing: that I’m doing my thing.  (Laughs)

Q) So you come home from a shoot, you’ve got your images.  You’ve got 1200 DNG files or whatever.  What do you do?   How does that play out?

It’s so funny you ask me that question.  My assistant is always amazed when I do that.  My assistant always goes, ‘are you going to edit these?  when are you going to edit them?’  I’ll say ‘pull them out again and let me look through everything.’  I don’t like to edit a shoot the moment I get home.  I usually do a photo shoot, Matt, finish the shoot, and then I’ll let the images sit there for a day or two, and I don’t know the shoot.  I’m shooting other things, I’m busy with other shoots, I’m just not going to worry about something I did two days ago.  Then the magazine calls and says ‘Chunky, there’s a deadline, you’ve gotta pick out those photos!’  “You’ve got to pick those photos so we can run them!’

And I’ll be like ‘Oh, get on my nerves!’ So I’ll go in and, you know what, I’ll pick the whole story out in less than 20 minutes.

Q) So you know what you want?

No, because I have a story forgotten.  I’m editing the work, not the way I shot it.  I’m editing the work as if I was looking at someone else’s portfolio.

It’s a good skill to not be attached to what could have been or what was almost…

Yeah, and it’s not about what I like.  It’s about what is best for the magazine and what will sell best.  Some images I like, but you don’t see the watch.  Some images I like, but you don’t see the face!  Some images I like, but you don’t see the shoes!

Q) Right.

So I’m not going to be personal here, because I’m dealing with a business, people.  And I’m dealing with a company that’s paying me rent.  So clients are always right.

Q) Absolutely.  I hear that… (Laughing)

So I hope you learn something when I’m telling you this today, that I’m a really true professional that works every day with the best companies and the best magazines in the world and know people are looking at me to say ‘Oh, what makes you so special’.

I’m not special like anybody else, I’m just me!  and if that’s the way I work, that’s the way I work.

Q) Do you do most of your own post processing?

Processing of my film, retouching, all that stuff?

Q) Yeah, exactly

Matt, you’re going to flip out, OK?  I have no skill, whatsoever, in Photoshop.  I don’t even own it on my laptop, or Lightroom.  You wouldn’t believe it.

I have a full retouching team working for me.  I walk in there.  They know I’m going to come in.  I sing songs.  I’ll pick a song and look at the pictures (I have them printed out) and I will go: ‘this picture has to be more… hmmmmm… A little bit more yummy with this blue!  (continuing in a ninja whisper) Let me try this! and let’s try that!’  I’ll make them laugh, the retouching people love me, my whole retouching crew.

And I’ll go in there and turn out some creative magic and say, ‘OK now!  Show me the final print!’  And they’ll show me and I’ll say ‘yuck that looks disgusting, let’s try to make it yummier.’  So we’ll try, and we’ll have fun.

Q) You sound like a director on a Hollywood set more than a photographer!

Well, the word is, I’m a creative director.  And that’s my job.  So I’m not just a photographer, I’m a Creative Director (spoken with formal accent).

Q) Exactly, behind the curtain

Well yeah, I’m a creative director for the magazine, I was a creative editor before, but I stepped down to be an editor.  I always know the final product and how to sell it, that’s why I’m so good at what I do, because at the end, I’m not trying to sell product, I’m trying to sell myself to you.

Q) When you’re shooting, do you like to have the camera tethered, do you like to have people see what’s coming through?  Or do you like to keep it close?

I don’t care!  I really don’t care.  I think that, on location, it’s very hard to tether, so we don’t shoot that way, we shoot chips.  Clients are always looking at my work, assistants are always peeking over my back.  I always let my assistants and everyone around me learn whatever they can.  I mean, they have learned, and tried, and shot the same way we have, but there work looks different than mine.

I have these assistants, now one of my assistants is Norman Jean Roy’s first assistant.  And someone is with Steven Klein.

I have a full retouching team working for me.  I walk in there.  They know I’m going to come in.  I sing songs.  I’ll pick a song and look at the pictures (I have them printed out) and I will go: ‘this picture has to be more… hmmmmm… A little bit more yummy with this blue!

Q) So you’ve done well training up your guys?

Well, I like them to go!  I like them to be successful.  I like them to brach out to the world!  I’m not selfish like that.  I think that’s what makes me so successful and has Hipstamatic promoting me.

Because, you know what they said?  There’s a lot of photographers from the agency who called their PR and said ‘You know, we have way better photographers than Chiun-Kai, Chiun-Kai isn’t even a real photographer, he doesn’t have a Web site.  (It’s one reason I talk to you about the Web site.  It’s become such a huge issue for a lot of people that I don’t have a Website!)  What makes me a professional or gives me the right to be selected for Hipstamatic’s App of the Year, Chunky Lens?

Well, the CEO met with me, fell in love with me.  The people at Hipstamatic had never seen my work.  I didn’t even have a portfolio with me when we met.  He met me at Levi’s Live Project, when I was shooting for Leica.  Remember the live exhibition?  I shot the live exhibition, he was there, he watched it, and he said to me ‘who are you and where are you from?’  ‘We need to have a drink.’

Q) Nice, and there you go.

And that was it.  That was it, that was it, that was it!  Those are the three questions: Who are you, Where are you from, We need to have a drink.  I said, ‘you know what, you look adorable, but I have a boyfriend.’  ‘I will not be able to drink with you.’

Q) Ooooh!

I’m married.  And he said, ‘oh, those are the worst kind.’  And then he laughed and said ‘you’re funny too, I like that.’  So we had a drink and we made it happen.  Chunky Lens happened.  So guess how he answered all the top reps about why Chiun-Kai has a Hipstamatic lens named after him.  He said, well we have Bruce Weber and Steven Meisel, we have Michael Thomson, we have everybody.  Lucas, the CEO of Hipstamatic, said, ‘would they ever call themselves Chunky?”

Q) I doubt it, (laughing)

Would any of these photographers ever call themselves Chunky, Skinny, Fatty, or Poochy?  Would they ever?  All these agents said, ‘why would you want a lens called “chunky”?  ‘Because’ he said, ‘that’s his real name’.  That’s what I’m fascinated about, that he’s been called Chunky all his life and he’s not chunky!  And you know what’s so chunky about him?  He’s chunky with his personality and chunky with his color, he’s chunky in every way, but if you’ve been chunk-alized, you would know what “chunky” means.

Chunky is not a negative word.  Chunky is a positive enforcement in the world of fashion photography

Q) That must have been high praise coming from him, huh?

Well, he’s only 26 years old!  (laughing)  I’m older than him!

Q) Oooh, that must feel funny?

Right?  I know.  Isn’t that funny?

Q) That’s the modern business world, huh?

No doubt, Matt.  What do you think of this whole situation after interviewing me like this?  Am I just a photographer?  I’m not!  I’m having fun!

Q) Yeah, I’m really impressed with that, you seem passionate about your work and like you’re having fun too.  It’s an inspiring balance

You could be doing that too.  I just gave a lecture at MIT the other day.  I was at MIT and had all these students.  I probably drove for like three hours and had the best time because every student wants to know everything about me and I give them everything about me that they want to know.

Q) If there was one story you could tell as a documentary photographer, if you could go make a documentary film, what would it be?

If I could make a documentary film of something.. I would like to make a documentary film about the New York public school system.  I think that it’s the worst ever.  I went with an eighth grader at East Harlem to give a talk on Career Day and I had to ask: ‘how has our country’s education become this bad?’

I mean, I don’t understand.  I think that art has changed the world and art can inspire people.  Art is the future.  Not just money and finance.  I think I want to make a documentary about the meaningful things in life, with art.  That’s something that I would love to do.

Q) You think art education isn’t happening like it should?

I think that art is being taken for granted in many schools and systems, and in life in general.  I think that people don’t appreciate what art is.  Because then people worry about living and money and situations in front of them.  but somebody who is going to become great will overcome the means in front of them, the financial.

Q) We did a big piece on the Leica S2 this morning (Introduction: The Leica S2, here) just curious if it’s a camera you enjoy using, if it’s good for your business and your artistic vision.  Readers might be interested to know that  all the images you gave us for this article were shot on a Leica S2, right?

Yes they were, and it’s excellent.  The S2 is a fun camera to play with, Matt!  As a company, I enjoy working with Leica.  The people are so nice to work with and the S2 system is easy to work with on set.  I really like the fast auto focus.  It feels like a 35 mm in your hands, very chic design.

The S2 camera works for fashion and beauty photography, I think.  The images are very sharp and have great colors in a  natural light setting.  In the end, I do believe it’s all about the subject matter.  I think with the right subject and exposures, the camera can really express its potential to the max.

So far I think I’ve demonstrated that for Leica.  I’ve used the S2 for GQ, VOGUE, Ocean Drive, Client Magazine and the Levis Workshop’s Live Portrait Project for HMI.  My images are promoted all over the world, on  the web with the S2 system, it’s nice and I like the images that come out of the camera, nice quality and I think everyone should try it at least once.  Definitely, the S2 is a reliable friend on any photo shoot that’s fun and exciting (like all of mine!)


Q) One last question, what can we expect from Chunky this year, in 2011?  What do you have in store for the people?  (Laughing)

(Laughing) Well listen, expect a lot more surprise and a lot of laughter.  And that’s it.  You never know.  Chunky has so much going on right now.  I’m actually imaging them, but they’re all coming true, and there’s a lot of projects in the works right now, of course everything won’t be satisfied 100%, but what I’m trying to say, Matt, is that I’m just happy that it happened.  I don’t care about how big and how good it is, I just want to see it happen.  When I open my eyes every day, I’m just glad I’m alive, and that I can create art.

Q) You make me happy to be a photographer.  It’s inspiring.  You have me wanted to go out and shoot.

Really?!  That’s great!  If you have any questions, or need any advice, or anything, just e-mail me and I’ll answer you the best that I can.  That’s why that college and these institutions like for me to go for lectures and every time I do lectures, the house is, like, packed.  Because I’m not afraid of expressing anything and everything to the world of what I know.  Because, listen Matt, the more you can give, the more you can receive, because there’s more space for you to receive.

Q) I hear that.

Right?!  So knowledge-wise and lighting-wise, it’s all irrelevant for me.  That’s not a secret.  Not a secret.  Definitely not.  I think a secret is one’s own personality, his own magic (that nobody can take away from me).  The Chunkalize, Matt.

Q) (Laughing)

Right?!  Talking to me, I’m just a human being by himself.  I’m not really endorsed or backup up by any brand.  I don’t feel I’m more powerful than you because I have Leica, or Broncolor, I don’t care about all these brands.  I care about what I’m looking at.

Q) It sounds like it’s your personality at the heart of it, which is cool.

Well, anything you look at, you have to make it the best and most beautiful you can, it’s your job.  The camera can’t do that for you.  It’s you.  Any camera can make anything look beautiful.  It depends on how do you do it.  That’s why I said the Leica, as a good companion, a good friend, and reliable friend.  I enjoy the company of Leica, I think they deliver really great results, and it’s fun, but I’m not trying to say that everyone in the world should own one or anything.  That’s not the kind of sales pitch I would ever say, because, I’m not a business partner nor do I believe that.

Image Slideshow
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Interview by Matt Beardsley, March 1, 2011, published at Photo Arts Monthly, March 15, 2011 – all photography by Chiun-Kai Shih



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  1. […] send to potential clients.  Others rely on trademarks.  For example, famed fashion photographer,Chiun-Kai Shih, relies on his nickname, “Chunky,” as a way to stand out from the […]