There is much to appreciate about Chris Chen, so I’m happy to introduce him to you now if you do not know him already. Not only did he save me with excellent conversation at a particularly awkward opening (successfully distracting me), he also skillfully and artfully documents and catalogues the night life (and sometimes day) in my most beloved capital city.
If you live in DC and go out at night, you have probably encountered Chris with a camera in hand or at eye. If you don’t live in DC, you will have a full taste of the beautiful city if you spend some time with his art.
Chris ChenYou provide very little information about yourself online other than the thousands of photographs which document your life in DC. Tell us a little about yourself. Have you always lived in DC? What’s your day job? Where does your love of art come from?
I’m deliberately sparse on the biographical stuff because: (a) I honestly don’t think it’s very interesting; & (b) I’m a big proponent of the “let the work speak for itself” school. That said, I grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland, part of the belt of (mostly) upper-middle class suburbs that surrounds DC. I have lived in DC proper since the early ’90s, i.e., most of my adult life. The day job is being a lawyer for the federal government.
I’ve always loved art of all kinds, but I’m actually a relative latecomer to photography, not taking it up in any serious way until my 30s & I’m completely self-trained/educated. Growing up, writing was my main creative outlet because I had some natural ability. The visual arts, like music, were things I could appreciate & enjoy, but could never really see myself doing for real because they are hard & I am lazy. Fast forward a couple decades, I found myself inundated with (mostly bad) text all day at work & wanting to get away from that in my free time. Since I still can’t draw, photography presented a logical path for visual expression &, like many people, I initially got into it as a hobby, taking vacation snaps, etc. The fact that photography can be both documentary & creative was definitely an attraction.
It’s a cliche, but I look for moments that exist in our 3D reality that can be interesting or compelling when transformed into 2D images. In other words, it must be something that’s worth a second look by me (via the camera) and by others as a graphic (via print or screen). Usually, that’s an unusual-looking person doing something unusual, but that can be extended to an unusual-looking object or objects. For a personal snap or whatever, there’s a lower bar because I can assume the viewer has some background knowledge of what’s depicted. For something I’m going to present as art, it has to have a wider resonance.
Who are your street photographer icons?
There are so many, but the usual suspects: Frank, Cartier-Bresson, Webb, Kertesz, Leiter, Winogrand, et al. Even more if you go beyond street to include documentary, like Eggleston, Evans, Arbus, Parks, Capa, etc.
What’s your favorite toy right now?
I collect & usually shoot with old & old-fashioned cameras, especially rangefinders like Leicas, because I think they’re more fun. However, right now I’m messing around with a Sony Alpha 7, which is a new camera that embraces current technology. That means it only has an electronic viewfinder & screen, no optical viewfinder or prism. Definitely a new experience for me, kind of like taking photos within an HD TV world.
You must see the city differently than most of us. What do you hope people will see or feel about the city (particularly DC, of course) when they look at your work?
I’m not so sure I see the city differently from most. DC is home, though, so maybe I just see it differently from those who are merely passing through. I hope people see that DC is like every other big city, that it’s not just a stage set for politics (which it certainly is, of course), but also a real place where regular people go about their business.
I’ve certainly discovered that there’s a wider variety of art being made & a broader market for that art than I had imagined existing before. Specific to my own work, Project Dispatch has helped me develop ideas about the scalability of different photos.
That’s a tough choice, but I’ll go with Dasha Tolstikova, Becca Kallem, & (major (b)logrolling alert!) Rachel England.