In 2016, Feng Li mainly walked the streets of Chengdu, China. At the time, he was still alternating between his official job at the propaganda office in his province and his personal projects as an artist, namely a series called White Night, in which, for the past fifteen years or so, he has been photographing his chance encounters with his fellow man, whom he has the gift of capturing with his flash in attitudes that are, to say the least, surreal. Four years later, he left his official job, dabbled in fashion photography while still doing his street photography, and traveled to Paris on several different occasions, including a four-month residency that ends this month.
We meet at the Place de la République, which is fairly quiet this January morning. It's been known to be more crowded and agitated in recent months, what with the demonstrations that still punctuate life in the capital. But these backlashes have not interfered with the meanderings of Feng Li, who is completing a residency at the Cité des Arts (a place that has hosted artists from all disciplines and from all over the world since 1965). A photographer who loves to walk, who expertly navigates places crawling with people, and who is as agile as a monkey, Feng Li is not exactly unfamiliar with demonstrations. In fact, he's attended a plethora of them since he began visiting Paris on a regular basis, including the evenings of jubilation after the World Cup victory and the 2019 Bastille Day parade. Not that Feng Li is a political activist or a supporter of France's team, mind you; let's just say that large gatherings are great opportunities for him to rub shoulders with the world.
"What I do isn't photo journalism," Feng Li often claims. "The locations, the cities and the events that play out there matter very little for me, I am in my own world."
You can insist all you want, asking the photographer to draw a portrait, a subjective one even, of his Parisian experience, but the historical or social dimension of the city doesn't seem to interest him. It may seem paradoxical, given how the images he's produced in the capital were taken as closely as possible to people, as close as possible to the bodies and faces, freezing expressions and postures full of narrative potential.
"From the standpoint of my approach, Paris is like Chengdu or Berlin or anywhere else. The only thing I need is to get into a rhythm and meet people. The real challenge of this Parisian stay was to go beyond the snapshots taken in the street. On the one hand because I'm currently working on several different publishing projects and that problems of photo rights could arise, and on the other hand because I felt the need to go deeper, to play more with my subjects."
Beyond postcards and fashion?
To achieve depth while keeping the distance that gives his photos their quirky side: this is the approach the photographer has had to implement during these few months in Paris. No easy feat when you don't speak French and only a very broken English.
"My first weeks at the Cité des Arts, I was a little depressed, and not very satisfied with my images. Yet there I was, staying in the heart of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, in a legendary neighborhood—perhaps too much so, even. I had to get out of postcard-perfect Paris!"
Fortunately, Feng Li is extremely sociable. Using just a few words, he can meet all kinds of people, with a predilection for colorful individuals, be they elegant elderly ladies in fur coats, questionable fashionistas, or young dancers in fluorescent clothes. Is this a consequence of his relative lack of interest in history and setting? Quite possibly. In fact, clothing plays a doubly important role in the way in which Feng Li views people; it is a direct reflection of their personality, in addition to being a central formal material in the composition of his images.
Indeed, White Night is full of picturesque clothing details. In the eponymous book published in 2017, between the landscapes and the unusual life scenes of contemporary China, we see how beautifully textures, colors, shine, opacity and volume are rendered with minimal means (a small Sony and a basic flash, nothing else). This talent has not gone unnoticed in the fashion press, for which he's done a number of commercial jobs in recent months. And it's easy to imagine how much potential there is there for collaborations with the most avant-garde fashion magazines (System, 032C, The Face), given how the current artistic trends embrace the new themes of post modernity: hybridity, melting pot, syncretism. For a photographer who claims allegiance to no school, no movement, no figure, it comes as a godsend.
But doesn't fashion photography already imply a loss of spontaneity ?
Feng Li answers this question with his usual confidence and phlegm. "Up until now, the fashion world has not constrained me; on the contrary, it has allowed me to experiment with many new things. I didn't have to adapt my style or change anything. Let's just say that I shoot girls with great clothes, but that they have to play by my rules. Sometimes it works and sometimes everyday people turn out funnier than the models. In any case, I don't feel obligated to put them in hierarchical order."
Feng Li therefore seems at ease anywhere (as long as the "where" is a city) and with anyone, be it beautiful people or people on the street, and it is with a great fluidity that his career is developing beyond China.
By Léo de Boisgisson
White Not – A Feng Li solo show
Through February 29 at Galerie F16
5 rue d’Aboukir